I've been writing about the Atari room in my newsletter, Digital Education. That was a room I set up and filled with Atari ST computers. These were fast, had a graphical user interface, and lots of great and low-cost or even free software, at a time when the standard computers used in schools were slow, had a text interface or a clunky GUI, and had mainly expensive software.
One of my briefs in the school was to encourage other teachers to use technology in their lessons. In the words of the headteacher at my interview, in response to my question: "What would you regard as my success criteria?":
"I want to see teachers banging on the doors of the computer room demanding to be let in."
I didn't quite manage that, but I did manage to increase the usage of the computing facilities quite significantly, and the Atari room played no small part. So here are the lessons from that period which I am pretty sure could be generally applied today:
Make sure the kit works
When I arrived at the school, I did some research and discovered why nobody was using the computer rooms: the network kept breaking down. So a class could be within 10 minutes of the end of the lesson, when everything would go off, with the result that all their work was lost. (Of course they knew they should save their work every so often, but how many people actually do that when they're really 'into it'?
I paid for someone to come in from the local authority to do a kind of site survey, and he discovered that one of the cables in the wall was broken. Once that was fixed, everything worked just fine.
Ask for money to buy equipment
Yes, I know there is no money in the system, but that has always been the situation. As the ed tech lead in your school you just have to make a case, and keep on making it. That is especially true if you have old equipment (see next point) or equipment that keeps breaking down (see point above).
The thing is, even though I had sorted the problem of frequent network breakdowns, few people had much confidence in the system. One solution, especially in view of the next point, was to get in new, modern computers.
Get rid of useless old stuff
I'm not suggesting that everything that is old is useless (I'm getting on a bit myself, and I'm not useless!). But in the room that was to become the Atari room, there were old minicomputers that didn't work, a stand-alone 380z computer, and a network of 480z computers. I taught myself to use the 380z and the 480z, but they were hardly the face of the technological revolution. Using arcane text commands to carry out the most mundane of tasks, they were interesting from an historical perspective, but completely useless as a curriculum tool. They had to go, apart from one or two specimens to be retained as artifacts in a mini computing museum I set up in the classroom.
Think outside education
Rather than thinking about possible new computers in terms of what was on offer in educational catalogues, I looked more widely than that. The most popular computers at the time out in what we often refer to as the 'real world' were not BBCs or Nimbuses. They were Amstrads, Ataris, Amigas and Commodores. The Amstrdas were seen as business computers, especially for word processing and number crunching. The others were seen mainly as hobbyist programming and games computers.
Consult other people
I had an IT Committee consisting of representatives from other subject departments, and so I used that to help me evaluate different options against a checklist of things we were looking for. The checklist was important. For example, if there wasn't much software available, or much inexpensive software, that could be used for educational purposes, a computer system would be struck off the list.
I was given a sum of money, and told it could be spent on hardware only. So once we had decided on a computer system (the Atari ST), I hunted around and found a supplier that would throw in a load of software for free.
Make it welcoming
I kitted out the room by placing all the equipment around the walls, thereby leaving a lot of room in the middle for people to sit at tables and work away from the computers. You can see that in the photograph above.
Lower the barriers to entry
Why are teachers reluctant to use technology? Here are some reasons, and how I addressed them:
Fear that the equipment would fail
- Fixed the network problem.
- Brought in new, very reliable kit.
Not knowing what they could do with the equipment
- I produced lists of software available for each room, such as the one shown below.
Not knowing why they should use it
Teachers need a reason to use computers or other technology in their lessons, and those reasons must be based on their own subject's needs, not yours. So...
- I produced research reports outlining how computers were being used in different subjects elsewhere.
- I asked subject teachers to look at subject-specific software and tell me whether they thought it was any good or not.
- I brought to their attention any software that would save teachers time, or ease their workload.
Not knowing how to use it
- I ran induction sessions for staff.
- I produced quick-start posters and plastered them around the walls.
- I wrote manuals detailing how to use the main programs, and attached these to each computer in the school, not just the Ataris.
Not knowing when they could use it
- I created a computer room booking form for all the computer rooms, and placed them on th staffroom noticeboard.
- I also visited heads of department to give them the opportunity to make block bookings if they wanted to, so as to guarantee they would get access for an extended period of time if they need to.