400 Children and IT

Marshal Anderson inspects the problems and prospects for the future of micros

Micro User April ‘90

PROBABLY the last time anyone had the nerve - it must have been a politician - to suggest the ratio of micros to children in primary schools it was about 1:120. Taking that to be a fact, a deeper and more worrying truth emerges: Most of us are aware that there are IT-mad schools and maybe they have their ratio down to 1:60 or even one per class.

So it follows that there are at least a few -and probably many - schools with ratios of around 1:400. Unfortunately those tend to be the ones where the IT equipment is left securely in a cupboard. That's perhaps not so surprising when you think about it. Just how does a teacher cope with having one micro between 12 classes, and what can be done that is worthwhile and meaningful for the children in their charge?

If you can answer that question you are going to provide some useful guidelines for schools only averagely blessed in the silicon department. So, to that end, here's some thoughts for teachers. Just for the moment, leave the machine in the cupboard and let's talk strategically. You need to define your attitude to the use of the machine in school, leaving aside the National Curriculum for the time being. Ask these questions:

  • Do you want ALL children to have an equal opportunity to use the machine - is it IT for all, or nothing at all?
  • Do you want to narrow down the use of the machine to an identifiable target group?
  • If you want to narrow down will you do so by age or ability or need or some other criteria?
  • If you narrow down by age will you go for the top or the bottom of the school?
  • If you narrow by ability will you go for the brightest or least able?
  • If you narrow by need will you go for remediation or extension?

Having decided all that, you must then ask yourself whether you want to use the machine to support the present curriculum or to introduce a new IT element into it.

There is no correct answer to these questions, whoever in your school has to take the decision is going to come in for a storm of protest from interested parties. The egalitarian will be attacked by the special needs teacher all the way down the line and any school that puts its IT effort into, say, helping those new entrants with reading problems will have to fend off demands from parents who perceive their children to be bright and neglected. Don't let it worry you, from the school's point of view you must do what is best for the children, that will be different everywhere but you will have two stock arguments to hurl into the fray. First, if the machine's been sitting in the cupboard all this time and no one has used it then that's their problem, if they don't like what you're doing let them come up with a better idea. Second, if any parent wants to know why their little Johnny/Johanna isn't getting time to study the nuclear physics they are so obviously capable of on the micro you can direct them to their local MP or councillor to come up with the readies. It is of them they should inquire just why the government/LEA hasn't provided the funding for IT in schools so obviously needed if we're going to lead the world in toaster manufacture by the turn of the millennium. Let's deal with the main options one at a time, though ideas will cross over from one to another.

The egalitarian school has to consider overall availability. In terms of time spent on the micro there is a raw figure of 2.5 hours per school year if you have 1:400. But things will not work out that badly. There are ways to use the micro that can involve large groups of children at once, though these will be supporting the present curriculum rather than introducing new skills that are IT-based.

Newsroom simulations like Shropshire's Extra, Sherston's Teletype or the Derbyshire series including Hijack - only available easily in Derbyshire unfortunately - will all give a class a day's news processing. Making up a newspaper can be done quite easily by hand with one of these packages providing the raw news is available. The children will still be using a wide range of language skills, both spoken and written, with the further advantage that all these programs allow you to create your own news story to fit in with what ever topic you are covering at the time. Get a few old typewriters in and you'll really have something going.

Hitch your machine up to a school-sized television and you have a visual aid for the whole class. It's uses may seem a little narrow at first but try Story Starts (Sherston), Granny's Garden (4mation) or The Princess and the Ring (Cambridgeshire Software House). These are all short adventures with a high pictorial content that can be used to start creative work of all sorts. Don't worry if you don't get to the end of the adventures, you'll find that some of the class will drift off quite quickly, but it will put the machine in the classroom and it becomes familiar - less special and more part of the furniture.

Some simulations lend themselves to short bursts of activity on the micro with loads of tasks to be done away from it. Cars - Maths in Motion (C.S.H.) is a goody here - the class can spend weeks designing their cars, plenty of maths, art, craft and so on. They can use occasional micro time to test run the settings they have worked out and, at the end, with your big screen again, you can race the cars against each other as a class activity.

Content-Free Software
At the more extreme ends of the software spectrum you have drill and practice verses content-free packages. Many drill and practice packages are available - HS Software specialises in this sort of thing while C.S.H., ESM and Sherston have a fair amount in their catalogues. Using this kind of program to back up basic number and literacy skills has a lot to commend it in a 1:400 school where the main aim is to see that each child has some access over the year. It tends to be easy to use and any teacher or parent will see its value. Most of the programs are short, so you could get a whole class through in a few days with something like Maths in Space from C.S.H. or Tens and Units from Sherston. They would all have had a go and all rehearsed a skill.

This is good entry level stuff, but don't dwell on it: As soon as everyone feels comfortable with the equipment look to move on, because drill and practice is not exploiting the machine to anything like its potential.

Content-free software is much harder to use with 1:400. But still, a package like Folio (ESM) will allow children to enter the poems they have written and see them printed out in a wonderful cursive script. At the same time they will have explored, in however limited a way, some of the potential of a word processor. Another way to use a word processing package is to have a whole class story. The children use the machine in twos and the first pair start any story and get half an hour, say, to write as much as they can. Then the next pair come along, read what has been written and pick up the story from there.

At the end of each day the story so far might be printed out and read to the class, and the next day continued. A whole class would get through this activity in two days and most word processors are so straightforward that they would need the minimum pre-knowledge. Pendown (Logotron) is a good all-round word processor for the junior school and is ideal for this.

If you're not using micros yet, start now, on your own terms, before someone makes you do it on theirs.

If you have a project running in which you are going to collect a large amount of data -a traffic survey or dragging the school pond - each child or group can add their data to a class database. Once all data is gathered in, the big screen can be used to discuss things like the average shoe sizes, colour of cars, number of crisp packets dredged. Look out for Grass (Newman College) and Data Press (Sherston) for database work.

The organisation of these activities within a school is very important. First and foremost are the physical factors - you must be able to move the machine around easily from class to class and to a place of safety at night. You need a trolley - not one of those melamine and tubing jobs but something of industrial strength, welded together, with big wheels. The trolley needs to be big enough to take the whole system with room for monitor and printer - whether you've got one yet or not - on the top and a lower shelf for the keyboard. The addition of wooden lips and gallons of Blu-Tack will prevent things failing oft during transit. Make sure that all the power leads plug into one plug-board, preferably attached to the trolley, so that there is only one mains plug to go in the wall. All other equipment should stay plugged together at all times. You may find that this set-up abhors stairs; if so you will have to timetable it to ascend/descend once a month, especially if disassembly is required.

When it comes to the day-to-day timetabling of the machine the bigger the block of time the better. It is very difficult for children - and teachers - to maintain interest in something over a long period, the original purpose is lost and the micro-based task becomes an end in itself rather than part of something going on everywhere. When a class has use of the machine it should make use of it, and you have to be a little ruthless here: No matter how important you think a particular lesson is, those that need to use the micro should do it, otherwise you will end up with a lot of dead time and again the task will drag beyond its useful length. Timetable well in advance and try to use dead time like school trips or the Christmas production by handing the machine on to a class that can use it.

Implicit in this set-up is some form of integrated day because, while you can run a formal class with the machine at the back and the screen out of sight of the rest of the class, they need the freedom to discuss and have access to the teacher. You may alternatively site the machine in a shared area just beyond the confines of the class.

If you're going to use the equipment for remediation or low-ability pupils, you are definitely going to be looking at curriculum support. Again you will be using drill and practice some of the time, but only because they form a small part of the vast range of devices a remedial teacher uses to rehearse specific skills.

Assuming we are now talking about a much lower number of children, we can seriously consider word processing as an activity. Again, Folio can be used to build confidence in low ability children and any word processor will help children spot their own spelling mistakes. Packages like Easytype (Sherston) provide an on-screen dictionary from which children can choose words they need and add them directly to the text. If you have a little extra money available a Concept Keyboard will enhance your use of Folio or Prompt Writer (MESU) by allowing you to set up words or whole phrases at one touch. At this level it might also be worth looking at some of the more basic adventure games. Apart from those mentioned, Sherston offers several infant level adventures that could be used higher up the age range for remedial help. ESM and C.S.H. provide others.

You will still need to look for software that can be used in short bursts - packages that your special needs children can finish in one session, assuming that is the basis on which they are withdrawn from the mainstream. It is possible to use software like these short adventures in the classroom if you do not use withdrawal for special needs, but this can cause problems if others interfere.

There is a wealth of material for extension groups. Here you can leave dull practice behind and look for something more challenging. Adventure games are very useful, Giant Killer (Topologica) and L (Association of Maths Teachers) both provide a wealth of micro-led maths investigations for bright upper juniors. It is important to make sure that adventures of this type have a save feature so that they do not have to be restarted each session. In all cases, adventure games work best with groups of two, preferably of comparable ability.

For the language, more complex use of word processing may be used, desktop publishing packages like Typesetter (Sherston) and Front Page Extra (Newman College) could let a group produce a school magazine or newspaper. A step beyond that would be the exploration of Logo, in whatever version your LEA supports, though this may involve a higher investment in teacher time.

Now you have some ideas on which to base the use of very limited resources in your school. Beyond this article the first place to go for help is your local advisory service, and any decision reached needs to be with the agreement of at least a majority of staff. The important thing is to get whatever equipment you have out into the school and get everyone using micros to some extent. The reason for this is quite straightforward - the National Curriculum.

Already science attainment target 12, as early as level 3, states the children should be able to retrieve and select text, number, sound or graphics stored on a micro. This seems to demand the use of databases of some sort, possibly at the top of the infant school. While the actual IT attainment target in the design and technology document has had some of its teeth removed by being applied to the brightest children at each key stage, presumably because of the resourcing implications, any school wishing to implement this AT will need access to machines and teachers who are willing and able to use them.

It's an additional burden a lot of us could do without, but the message has to be: If you're not using micros yet, start now, on your own terms, before someone makes you do it on theirs.