Digital Opportunities to spread outside science

The 'digital opportunities' scheme for schools will in time break out of targeting maths and science and embrace other subject areas, say teachers and educationalists present at the official launch of the scheme last week.

The “digital opportunities” scheme for schools will in time break out of targeting maths and science and embrace other subject areas, say teachers and educationalists present at the official launch of the scheme last week.

The digital opportunities initiative (see Government commits $10m to schools) gives notebook computers — with a Celeron 700 processor 64MB of memory and 10GB of disk — to a selection of school students and teachers, together with maths- and science-directed software and free internet connections.

In an early stage of the scheme, 200 laptops have been distributed to teachers and year 12 and 13 students from four schools in the Hutt Valley, near Wellington.

Digital Opportunities is the result of a collaboration between government and businesses, including hardware supplier Compaq, reseller Renaissance and Microsoft, which supply and manage the software, and Telstra-Saturn, which provides the internet link for the Hutt trial.

Maths and science is the way the scheme has been targeted by government, which perceives gaps in those areas of education, says David Copeland of the Online Learning Centre (Te Kete Ipurangi). "But computers are a way of living,” Copeland says. As the students manage personal files of learning material and their own work, he says, it will teach them general information management skills, which they will naturally apply to other areas of the syllabus.

Within six months, students will be using the computers in all syllabus areas, said another education specialist. “But don’t quote me,” he added, looking over his shoulder at visiting Education Minister Trevor Mallard.

Initiation of the project has been delayed by about two months, while it was subjected to a stringent government audit.

Some of the students Computerworld spoke to at the launch were focusing already on learning outside school subjects. “I can learn more about the operating system,” said student Grant Peterson. This would further his aim to become a computer technician like his father, he said.

Deb Struthers of the Online Learning Centre suggests the offer of laptops will act as an incentive for students to carry on to year 12 and 13.

The laptops have been set up as far as possible to "self-heal" against students delving into their workings, says Conrad Stewart of Renaissance. Each time the machines are attached to the school network, original settings will be restored from the server. There is also some capacity for repair from the laptop’s own hard disk, for when students use the machines at home. A dial-up Telatra-Saturn/Paradise link is provided free for this purpose, but the schools have a 512Kbit/s cable link.

The laptops use educational software RM Smarttalk, sourced from UK company Research Machines.

The scheme is an experiment. Results will be judged by exam performance, by interviews with the students and by other sociological measurements of the extent of use and the “level of engagement” of students with the computers. This looks to be high initially, says Graeme Plummer of the Canterbury Development Corporation, involved with the Ministry of Education on the project. “Though this may be a honeymoon effect,” he says.

When asked for a show of hands, about a third of students indicated they had already had some experience with computers outside the school.

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