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A whole new world in your bag

The Government's latest Laptops for Teachers Scheme is now under way. George Cole explains how these portable partners can boost your confidence in ICT

Lesley Gore has been an enthusiastic user of laptop computers ever since her school got its first laptop back in 1998: "It's been brilliant! Having a machine saves time and lets you do so much more. It's a whole new world."

Lesley is deputy head of Corfe Castle School in Dorset, which has 74 students and three full-time staff. The school was so impressed with the benefits of using laptops that it bought two more so that all its full-time teachers had their own computers to use in school and at home.

As the Department for Education and Skills announces details of its latest Laptops for Teachers scheme (see opposite), many schools and even teachers are buying their own. Helen Walker, head of practice at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), knows why:

"Having your own laptop increases confidence and competence in using ICT."

When it comes to choosing a laptop, it's easy to get bogged down with jargon and technical specifications, but a more important consideration is what do you want to do with your laptop and what machine will enable you to do it?

There are many good reasons for having a laptop, not least the ability to use the same computer at home and at school. This means teachers can prepare a lesson at home on their laptop and then, back in the classroom, connect the laptop to a display device such as a data projector or interactive whiteboard and present their lesson.

If the idea of using your laptop on the move is appealing (for example, on a train), then portability is important - some laptops can be heavy. You also need to ensure that your laptop is comfortable to use, so try typing on the laptop's keyboard before you buy and also check the screen size and sharpness.

Laptops are also ideal for staying in contact with others via email and teacher forums: "You can't have effective access to others if you have to share a computer with 10 other people," says Helen Walker. Lesley Gore adds: "We use our laptops to keep in touch with each other outside school hours. Sometimes we talk about work, but other times we may simply be cheering someone up who's had a bad day."

If you're planning to use email or explore the web on your laptop, then opt for a machine that comes with a built-in modem. Otherwise, you'll have to use an external plug-in modem card, which is less convenient.

Nearly all laptops come with pre-loaded software, but don't let the quantity of software sway your purchasing decision. What's more useful is the quality. A good office package with generic software such as a word processor and database is necessary and extras such as virus protection software and a "firewall" (which protects your computer from hackers when you're online) are worth having, too.

Laptops invariably get connected to other devices, such as scanners, printers and digital cameras. The most common connection for these is now USB, but some teachers may need serial or parallel connectors for activities like datalogging. Look out for wireless connection systems such as Bluetooth, a short-range connection system designed to replace connecting cables. A Bluetooth-enabled laptop for example, could send a text file to a Bluetooth-compatible printer for printing, with no wires between them. Another system, Wifi, offers a high-speed wireless connection over a long distance, for example, allowing you to surf the internet while sitting in the living room or garden. However, wireless systems command a fair price premium and, anyway, you may be able to upgrade to them at a later date.

Laptops can get lost or stolen, so it's important that any sensitive or personal data is protected, either via a password system or by encrypting (scrambling) the data. And, of course, laptops should routinely be locked away when not in use around school. It's also vital that any important data is regularly backed up. Laptops can also get dropped and you can lose data this way, too. If your laptop comes with a built-in CD writer, it's very easy to back up data on to blank CDs.

A report written by PriceWater-HouseCoopers for the DFES found that for laptops to make a significant difference they need to be linked to a school's management and curriculum systems, but this raises issues such as security, says Ray Fleming, secondary schools business manager of RM, which supplies IT software services and systems to the UK education market. "If you can imagine lots of teachers connecting their laptops to the school's network to transfer files, this could be a problem. For instance, how do you ensure there are no viruses?"

RM, like other companies, enables teachers to connect their laptops to a school server without having to modify their machines. If required, RM's Community Connect 3 allows schools to control how laptops are used on and off the school network. It provides a laptop used at home with the same security features as the school network and automatically updates files. Schools can also decide whether they want staff to be able to access unfiltered sites out of school.

Laptops are superb tools for planning, researching, presenting, communicating and sharing, but they shouldn't only be about work. Having your own laptop means you can use it for personal interests, too. Many laptops are multimedia devices that can be used for listening to CDs, watching DVDs, viewing streamed video from the internet and listening to internet radio and other online audio services. Lesley Gore says: "I've even used my laptop for Christmas shopping online, booking travel tickets and tracking down my family tree on history sites."

USEFUL CONTACTS

The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency offers advice on laptops including a summary evaluation report of the Multimedia

Portables for Teachers pilot:

www.becta.org.ukschoolsportablesevaluationindex.html

Full report: www.becta.org.ukschoolsportablesfinalindex.html

Becta's information sheet on portables:

www.becta.org.uktechnologyinfosheetshtmlportcomp.html

Introductory page on research reports:

www.becta.org.ukresearchreportsportableict.html

Laptop Challenge has advice on resources and many useful links:

www.laptopchallenge.org.uk

Computing Which? offers buyers' guides, tips and links:

www.which.netcomputingwhich

Computer Buyer magazine offers lots of advice and product information:

www.comp-buyer.co.uk

Computer Shopper contains many products plus advice:

www.computershopper.co.uk

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