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The Micro's Future in Schools

Marshal Anderson takes a look at the shape of things to come

Micro User, April ‘88

WE hear and read a lot about the speed of change in the computer industry and are presented with possibilities that make our collective heads spin. As teachers - and guardians of scarce resources - we must take a long, hard look at the futures available. Some of these prospects promise to alter completely the way we look at education, and it would be prudent to get right what we are doing now before we hurtle off into some Brave New World.

Some of the options bring to mind the old joke: If you want to get there you shouldn't have started from here. But where is here? We must accept that micro-based education is not universal in primary schools today. Many machines still spend much of their time in cupboards, while others are used aimlessly, out of the notion that we ought to do something with them. So, the first task in developing computer education must be getting these scarce resources used - a job that is expensive, time consuming and requires more than a little commitment from those who hold the purse strings. And, if this offends you because you work in a county that provides excellent support, you only point to another problem - national inconsistencies.

Not that we necessarily need a centralised curriculum, but that central funding for INSET would greatly improve the use of current resources before we start planning for more. Neither does it mean that we don't need some sort of cutting edge examining new developments - but that it should be better organised and not left to individual schools.

Given the desperate need for rationalisation, what technical developments might we expect to see entering junior schools in the next few years? Under a constant inundation of new micros we may be forgiven for thinking that soon they will be infinitely capacious, unimaginably fast and, most importantly, ridiculously cheap. On the first two points we might be right to a degree - the Archimedes goes a long way to achieving this. The price, however, is not low by junior school standards - even with education discounts.

There are big problems with this sort of development - the main one being the sheer cost of replacing existing machines: Even £500 would stretch the most ardent PTA to its fundraising limit. To make any changes cost effective they would have to be national, not local. This is the only way to bring the software houses to us - for come they must.

Software costs

And following from that: In upgrading their system no school will want to write off all its existing software. Apart from the cost, again it would require a substantial rethinking of its approach to micro-based education as the teachers come to terms with the new programs. The upshot is that any company developing a new micro must make it fairly compatible with its predecessors. Thankfully Acorn has achieved this very well and the vicious circle has not set in - few people will buy a machine while there is little software available and software houses won't release software until the user base is big enough to return a profit.

But we might ask whether there is any need to upgrade hardware at all? While it is true that any micro is almost instantly out of date in view of continuing developments, the software will always lag behind. It is self-evident that the BBC B, though still the same piece of hardware as six years ago, is a totally different animal in terms of software. Compare the early MEP packages with those available now, or word processors like Beeline with Folio. And what about the peripherals? First there are the necessities - disc drives, monitors and printers. The drives seem to have hit their lowest price level and, being largely mechanical devices, are unlikely to go much lower.

Other developments in this area are of interest -especially hard discs. But while they have many advantages they are still expensive and must be included in a network to make economic sense. Currently the break point that makes a network cheaper is reckoned to be 25 stations for the Master. But what about the cost of converting the system - new chips and redundant drives? Monitors are likely to go the other way, because with the introduction of higher resolution graphics more sophisticated ones are needed. Printers, on the other hand, are failing in price though they may not fall much further.

The big breakthrough here is the vague industry-standard based on the Epson machines and, once more, software writers seem to be able to squeeze more and more out of them - as in Typesetter! We might also hope to see the cost of laser printers drop to an affordable level. But even if they do, do we really need them?

Looking beyond the core of the system we find ourselves on shaky ground. For input, the keyboard will be with us for a long time to come - if only because it is cheap and efficient. Other methods have been tried but few have caught on. A good example of this is the Microwriter, an expensive device that required a whole new set of skills before the child could even think of communicating with the machine. To a lesser extent is the underachievement of the Concept keyboard, not because it is a bad idea, but because there aren't enough about to encourage software publishers to exploit them. The same goes for the lightpen, touch-sensitive screens and mouse. All require specialist hardware and software which tend to be incompatible with each other and still only marginally improve what a keyboard can do.

In terms of output we're on safer ground when anticipating developments. Cheap colour printers are here, and when they can compete in speed and quality the switchover will be natural. Speech output is already with us, and it is interesting that the cheapest and most flexible system is a software development and not hardware-based. As ram space gets larger this seems the most likely alternative to the screen.

The most exciting up-and-coming peripheral is IV - interactive video. We were all very impressed with the Domesday Project but even with this development, with such obvious potential, there are grounds for caution. Certainly the cost of the machines will come down even down to where primary schools might be able to buy one. The problem comes in the production of software. Unlike most software produced by freelancers operating through publishers, IV requires a massive investment of time and money. You cannot just try out a good idea, run up a few copies and see how they go down in your local school. Initial funding must be from a basis of uncertain commercial returns.

A recent development has been in communications, and has had central support in the form of the DTI modern hand-out. In what way do junior schools expect to use this equipment? In many counties a modem is all that's been issued, and the high running costs in terms of phone bills and service charges left to the school. While access to large databases such as Neris - the school's database set up by the Open University - is an advantage, just how useful is the ability for a school to communicate from one end of 'the country to the other - when more personal messages can be sent cheaper by the Post Office and BT?

To teach computer literacy we don't need powerful state-of-the-art technology - we need reliable, well supported machines that are easy to use and abundant. We cannot hope to give children a micro-supported and micro-based education when there is only one machine to every 120 pupils - Kenneth Baker's own figure.

So, let's crystal gaze at what we might reasonably ask for and hope to get. Ten years hence we might see a computer not far removed from the Master 128, with software that exploits its full capacity at a price we can afford. There will be agreement on what is good software, and schools will be able to buy it in confidence. The operation of these machines and their software will be so straightforward that teachers will be able to load-and-go without reading manuals and constant reference to one member of staff. The most important factor will be enough machines for children to use as and when they need - at least two machines per classroom, probably networked to a hard disc and sharing several printers. There will be a modem connecting all the machines to local or national databases with no user charge. And we might also see some specialised equipment more thinly spread.

With such a set-up in all schools we could then expect to see the micro affect the education of all primary school children. Until then let us build carefully on what we've got for the good of all rather than producing a few high -tech centres of excellence. As Sir Frances Bacon: said, “Money is like muck, not good except it be spread".