Computers at school: Programmed for the future

Using computers is child's play - if you have the right software. Alex McRae looks at the programs
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The Independent Online

Art class at primary school used to mean finger-painting, macaroni collages, coloured crayons and perhaps a few children getting glue in their hair.

But at Stanah Primary School in Lancashire, the class are following in the groovy footsteps of Andy Warhol, thanks to new computer software. "The children created pop art portraits of themselves by tracing over a digital picture on the computer," says James McBride, the school's cheery ICT co-ordinator. "It certainly added something extra. At the end of the class, they couldn't believe that it was already playtime."

Navigating computer software can be hair-raising stuff, so the idea of a classroom of tiny five-year-olds assiduously pecking away on their keyboards as they put together multimedia presentations might seem far-fetched. Many adults find that computer applications make their heads spin - so aren't they too complicated for young children to grasp?

Not necessarily, says Max Wainewright, whose educational computer software company, 2Simple, makes the computer software that McBride loves so much, and which has just won the Exporter of the Year award at the annual Education Show. He says the key to helping children and teachers get to grips with computers is to make the software as simple as possible. That sometimes means leaving exciting-looking buttons out, instead of adding them in.

"When we were designing 2Publish, a publishing program aimed at five- and six-year-olds, we found that if we gave children lots of choice, they'd spend the whole lesson seeing what different fonts and colours looked like. If we limited the options, they would focus on the content of the lesson, rather than just playing with the computer program."

Both Wainewright and his business partner Nigel Cainin started out as teachers themselves, and Wainewright says his background as an advisory teacher in a primary school helped enormously in figuring out what worked. "It's grown in the classroom. We'd see what happened if we took buttons out, and we found that simplification was the best way to keep children interested."

Keeping things straightforward was popular with teachers, too. The company provides videos to show how its software works, and teachers don't need to be specialists to use it. Glen Eve, an ICT co-ordinator at William Bellamy Infant School in Dagenham, Essex, is a fan. "Some teachers are not happy about using computers - they're not sure how to use programs such as PowerPoint, for example. It makes a real difference if a program is simple and does what it says."

Even for computer whizzes such as McBride, it's a boon to have software that does what it says on the tin. "As a teacher, my time is precious. If a program is simple, I don't have to tell children what button to press, and I don't have to spend time teaching computer skills instead of teaching a subject," he says.

So what sort of things can the software actually do? "Say the class is writing stories. Using a program like 2Create a Story lets them create an interactive multimedia story on screen," Wainewright says. "They can draw pictures and add text, then press a couple of buttons and add sound and animation. And at the end, they can print it all up into a book to take home."

Eve describes another piece of software, the Infant Video Toolkit, which she uses when teaching children in reception class. "It's like a mini-publisher program. Children can make cards and draw pictures and shapes, and they can save their work at the end of each class so they can build on it the following week. They love watching how all their work comes together, and we can show it to the class on a monitor or print it out."

2Simple also make software for music, art and maths classes, and it is expanding abroad.

What's interesting about this computer software is that, in spite of people's fascination with computers as the tools of the future, children are learning about the subject rather than spending classroom time trying to decipher how to use the program. But at the same time, says Wainewright, "the children are learning transferable skills." And by the end of a few classes, Eve adds, "some of them are better than the adults!"

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