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Tuesday, 8 February, 2000, 15:47 GMT
Laptop learning: The classroom of the future

To their fans, laptops are the last word in versatile computing.

Pretty much anything a desktop can do, they can match... and they are portable.

This seductive combination of processing power and portability has propelled the laptop into the unlikely role of political pawn.

Last week, Bill Gates announced his vision that, within five years, every schoolchild in the UK would carry their own laptop into the classroom like they do textbooks and Biros today.

The UK Government's education minister, Michael Wills, applauded the initiative.

Bill Gates: One day all classrooms will look like this
Sceptical schoolteachers sniffed but it was not the first time laptops have been touted as a panacea for society's shortcomings.

Five years ago, the US politician and then Republican renaissance man, Newt Gingrich, set out his aim to equip the poor and needy with notebook computers. The idea seemed to die with Gingrich's short-lived political fortunes.

But given the premium price tag on laptops - they tend to sell for about double that of a desktop computer - is this school money wisely spent?

And, let's be honest, who would trust a 1,500 box of tricks to survive the rough and tumble of the playground, day in, day out?

A handful of UK schools have run a pilot programme of issuing pupils with their own personal laptop computers.

Home-school link

Research suggests the portability aspect is crucial in extending the "learning partnership" between home and school, says Don Passey of Lancaster University. This week his team publishes a report into the progress of the 28 pilot schools.

Pupils' uses for laptops
Spreadsheet - calculations and problem solving
Internet - eg. the National Grid for Learning
PowerPoint for presentations
CD Roms - limited use as replacement for text books
"Learning is not something that takes place at a particular time or in a particular place," says Mr Passey. The fact that a pupil can set up their computer in any classroom, or any room at home, gives them flexibility to work where they want.

Ownership is also important. At Cornwallis School in Maidstone, laptops are given to students on long-term loan. Children carry them home in the evening and keep them during holidays.

"Their ownership of the content goes up and so pupils take a greater responsibility for what they're doing," says Mr Passey.

"There's every indication that children are more engaged and more committed and show greater pride in their work." To an extent that's because laptops are more versatile than pen and paper.

He gives the example of a German class that was set a project to describe and analyse a soap opera. One pupil turned in a project which included soundbites of commentary about each of the characters.

Delicate laptops have a tough time in schools
The atmosphere in the classroom has also changed.

"Many schools have noted improved behaviour, and also a more co-operative and collegiate ethos in class groups," noted the new report.

But anyone who has ever picked up a laptop computer - average weight with battery 2.5kg - will know "portability" is in the eye of the beholder.

Older children in particular, already weighed down by text books, kit bags and perhaps a musical instruments, have struggled with the extra load, says Mr Passey.

But machines are getting lighter and the latest batch bought by Cornwallis for its Year Eight pupils are a relatively manageable 1.7kg.


Amazingly theft is not a problem. The Lancaster report says there were no incidences of theft from pupils in any of the 28 schools, although some children have felt intimidated by their peers.

The robust but discontinued Apple eMate: Was touted as the ideal school laptop
The potential for security problems however can be seen in the US, where some schools stipulate that no laptop may leave a school unaccompanied by an adult. The result there has been organised escort patrols.

Wear and tear is a big problem. Most laptops are full of little flaps and delicate connections which can easily break and suppliers have found that the computers suffer more at the hands of adults than children.

Other headaches include batteries running out of power and software failures.

Older children can rely on site technicians to help out with the latter, but in primary schools the task of retrieving an essay lost in the ether usually falls to a keen, but unqualified, member of staff.

The most common complaint among teachers however, is that pupils are using their machines for playtime as well.

"The thing that seems to have caused the most problem is loading games on. Sometimes this will cause machines to crash because of memory problems or the software is too old and incompatible."

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See also:
02 Feb 00 |  Education
Gates wants laptop for every pupil
22 Oct 99 |  Education
Free laptops for new headteachers
22 Oct 99 |  Education
Warning over schools' use of computers

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