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Last Updated: Friday, 18 June, 2004, 17:23 GMT 18:23 UK
How computing is changing the classroom
More computers in the classroom will help learning, says technology analyst Bill Thompson, but only if we do not notice them too much.

Children using computers
Children are introduced to computers at an early age
My son will be moving from primary to secondary school in September, and we have recently spent some time at his new school so that he can get used to it.

It is an intimidating prospect for him, as it is for most 11-year-olds, though simply finding his way around the dozens of classrooms is probably the major challenge at this stage.

I do not have to worry about remembering where everything is, so our visits have been a great opportunity to look at the school's facilities and, in particular, how they use computers in the classroom.

And since my daughter, now in year eight, has had two years of experience at another school, it is also a good chance to compare and contrast, as school essays like to put it.

Both schools are large comprehensives serving reasonably affluent populations, and both have a good track record. They both get good exam results and do well in the league tables.

And they both seem to make extensive use of computers in their teaching, though in slightly different ways.

At primary and secondary school up to key stage 3 of the National Curriculum, Information Communication Technology (ICT) is not taught as a separate subject, but instead the skills are covered by including the use of computers and the internet in other subject areas.

School intranet

One of the striking things about Max's new school is the number of computers and computer suites scattered around the place.

Bill Thompson
The point is to make the computers disappear from view, so that using one in class or for homework is as unremarkable as using a textbook or a pencil
They even have a wireless network in part of the building, though I am told parents cannot use it to read their e-mail when dropping kids off at school.

Computers are evidently used in every subject, and the teachers work on the assumption that access to a PC and appropriate software, as well as access to online research materials, will be there as much as it is needed.

Lili's school does not appear to have as much hardware, and she often complains that she cannot get to use a computer in her work.

Of course, she has her own iBook, and she may well have expectations which even the best-equipped school cannot meet because there is so much technology at home.

But it does seem that there are opportunities for using computers in class that she is not taking.

However Lili's school has made it easy for the pupils to get access to school work and materials when they are at home. They have set up a school intranet, a private area which only students and staff can access.

She uses it a lot, and it has become an electronic workspace for homework assignments, drafts of essays and even chatting to her friend.

On one occasion, when she was off school ill, she logged on to the intranet from home and took part in an English lesson by posting notes to her friends who were in class using the computers.

And the school has got her involved in some interesting work on how to make the best use of ICT. She is taking part in the eVIVA project run by Ultralab, the learning technology research centre led by Professor Stephen Heppell.

It is exploring ways that computers, the net and phones can be used to help students to set and meet their own attainment targets for ICT skills, and she is enjoyed it greatly.

'Invisible' technology

Whatever the differences, both schools seem to be taking a sensible approach to the use of computers by their students, whether at home or school.

They have realised that the point is not to get excited about the technology, or even to think too much about it - apart from the small proportion of kids who might want to be programmers or go into the industry.

Classroom in 1990
Computers in schools have come a long way since 1990
The point is to make the computers disappear from view, so that using one in class or for homework is as unremarkable as using a textbook or a pencil.

There are good reasons for treating ICT in this way. The first is that computers are fundamentally boring and uninteresting, so we should not pretend to our children that they are anything more than tools.

The second is that computers and the internet are a key part of work and leisure for more and more of us, and if schools are going to prepare children for adult life they should reflect this.

This is not a call for computer-based training or online learning or electronic delivery of lessons, whatever the advocates of teaching through computers might say. It is not even a call to abandon traditional "chalk and talk" teaching, since that can be valuable too, if properly used.

In fact, one of the most interesting things I saw in Max's new school was what I would call "ohp and talk" teaching: one of the classrooms has a projection system linked to the teacher's Tablet PC.

She can walk around the class, looking at student's work while still going through a presentation or even writing on the screen.

Good technologies are invisible, and we stop noticing that we are using them. One of the reasons I stick with my old Sony J70 phone is that the user interface is transparent. I do not actually notice I am using it, so I can get on with texting or talking.

I am pleased that both my children's schools seem to realise that making computers invisible is a worthwhile aspiration, because it allows you to deliver better teaching and encourage learning without having to pay attention to the screens and keyboards.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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