Gadgets in the classroom: Let me consult my PDA...

Children are being prepared for the digital world at an increasingly young age, says Steve McCormack
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It wasn't long ago that a proud head teacher showing prospective parents round a primary school might stop outside a room wired up with computers and expect a sharp intake of breath from people impressed that such cutting-edge technology had arrived in a classroom near them. How things have moved on! These days it takes much more to impress. But fortunately many schools now enjoy vastly updated facilities, providing far more flexibility than a suite of bulky, immovable fixed PCs tucked away in just one classroom.

Tony Richardson, a former primary head and ICT advisor for Birmingham, who now leads the national "e-strategy" at the Government's chief educational technology agency, Becta, says things have moved on rapidly in the last three or four years.

"These days, across the country, you have a much more reliable and modern array of PCs and laptops, networked, often wirelessly, in suites," he explains.

And alongside modernisation has come a simple increase in numbers. At the turn of the millennium, there was one computer for every 12.6 primary pupils in England. A survey in January this year found twice as many, with one machine for every 6.2 pupils. Of these, around a third are laptops, usually stored in trolleys and easily transferable between classrooms.

And growing numbers of schools are also dispensing with the traditional model of locating all computers in the same place.

"People are being much more creative these days," explains Katy Potts, primary manager of ICT in Islington. "We have one school, for example, which has a cluster of three PCs in every classroom, so that the teacher can have a small group of children working, perhaps with a TA, using the internet or doing some voice recording."

This is an example of the way that schools across the country have diversified their use of computers in lessons to enhance several different areas of learning.

While primary teachers still value, and insist on, "old-fashioned" handwriting, and creative writing practice in exercise books, the ability to use word-processing software efficiently, with good electronic presentation, is equally important. Pupils are now likely to complete components of work on computers in a range of curriculum subjects.

Computers are also more flexible, incorporating several additional functions as standard. In Islington, for example, Potts enthuses about the way a voice recording function on a computer can help children with weak writing skills put together "talking postcards".

"The biggest change, though, is the way laptops and PCs are used with the internet," says Richardson. "Children are becoming much more sophisticated in the way that they search for, check and handle information – not just accepting the first Google search – in all sorts of project work they do."

The improved broadband connectivity in most schools has massively improved the speed and efficiency of such work in classrooms, and the existence in many, if not most, classrooms of an electronic whiteboard, means children's work, via a laptop, can easily be displayed to the whole class.

A separate recent innovation in recent years, and one now spreading rapidly around the primary system, is the use of computers alongside digital cameras. And where, five years ago, most schools had a stills camera for this purpose, growing numbers are now using a digital video camera as a creative tool in lessons.

A simple video camera, designed for school use, can now be bought for under £100, and Richardson says growing numbers of primary classes are using these devices for small groups of children to make films, either by filming acted-out sequences they've written themselves, or by using animations of model characters they've made, in Wallace & Gromit style.

"There's some absolutely fantastic stuff that very young children are doing," he says, "and the best teachers are using this to draw out sophisticated literacy objectives, such as storyboard writing, and an awareness of audience, purpose and structure."

"This is by no means a substitute for traditional literacy teaching, but something that deepens the experience."

So, across the board what was considered cutting edge a few years ago is now pretty standard practice. But there are pockets of schools pushing the boundaries even further, of course, and the most common way they're doing this is by using the latest models of personal digital assistants (PDAs) to take computer technology right out of the classroom.

Some schools in Wolverhampton and Bristol, have been using PDAs on field trips. These PDAs have GPS technology, with mapping capability, and voice and video capture facilities, so that pupils can put together project work based on their findings in the field.

In Islington, which has six "lead" primary schools, promoting the most effective use of computers, PDAs have already arrived in one school and are due in another soon.

ICT is the servant of the wider curriculum’

The 400 pupils at New North Community Primary School in Islington are never far away from a computer. There are two in every classroom, and a suite of 32 machines in a separate room, where every class goes once a week, for a dedicated lesson with a specialist ICT teacher.

In the main hall, there's a computer, linked to a large screen, which is used in assemblies and special events with parents. But do not get the impression that using technology is an end in itself in this newly built, forward-looking North London school.

"ICT is the servant of the wider curriculum," says Mary McStay, the head teacher, in explaining her decision, for example, to site the computer suite right next to the library. "School is not just about computers" she argues, "but about using books as well."

The pairs of computers in each room – a key element of the new school design – enable all teachers to direct pupils to work on a PC, at any time during the school week. This might be to reinforce something done in an ICT lesson, or to give tailored help to children struggling with literacy or numeracy.

"This can be particularly helpful for children with learning styles suited to an activity on the computer, or for any children with special needs," says McStay.

But pupils don't just use computers while sitting at desks. The school has a class set of PDAs available to all teachers. Earlier this month these were used by the Year 1 class (5- to 6- year-olds) for an activity called " the story of a shopping list". The children took the PDAs onto the busy streets of Islington for a shopping exercise, and, in so doing engaged in literacy, geography and numeracy work – all carried out on a hand-held computer.

"We find that our model of ICT really works, and it supports learning right across the curriculum," adds McStay.