Implementing the plan

The initial stages were very difficult with a long delay in acquiring the laptop computers. As we are an Apple school from the earliest times, with a large investment in software already, we decided to acquire Ibooks for the students. Many of our teaching staff have completed phase 1 and 2 computer courses and are very favourably disposed to the introduction of IT as a classroom tool, in different classes throughout the school. We decided to run additional night classes for the teachers of LCA specifically, but made it open to the general staff also. With hindsight, our next decision turned out to be most auspicious. To involve the students' families in the project and to encourage the students to stay on in school, we decided to run night classes, free of charge, for parents and adult siblings to introduce computing to them. The take –up rate was gratifying. Out of a potential 28 parents we had an average of 20 people each night. In response to a recent questionnaire circulated to the parents over 90% were in favour of continuing the classes this year. Word-processing and Internet usage were the most favoured options for the next session. LCA students generally have a high drop-out rate, as many of them acquire reasonably well-paid (in their opinion) summer jobs and remain on or else enter into an apprenticeship with their summer employers. This September we had a 100% return to school by the 15 students. The use of laptops, changes in teaching methods and raised self-esteem were all contributory factors. In my innocence I envisaged myself, as co-ordinator, sampling commercial software in my office during my vast free time, being 25% all there (which is a higher percentage than the staff credit me with generally), and selecting programs for the different subject areas.

The reality was vastly different. While we did test many packages and used parts of some of them, in general, commercial software did not suit our programme. The teacher allocation of five hours per week initially seemed generous but in reality was not adequate if the co-ordinator was to have time for development work. In reality most of this time went on assisting in the classroom, setting up data projectors, rescuing laptops from crashes and unjamming printers. Our Learning Support teacher had also been involved in a VEC project called Mol an óige, which was an initiative under the aegis of North Tipperary VEC, to retain students in school, particularly at senior level. As part of that project, she had visited Wales to see the work being done at Ponty Pridd College in the Rhonda Valley. This is a second chance college, set up in an unemployment blackspot where the coalmines had been shut down. It offered retraining to adults as well as second level courses. They make great use of computing as a teaching tool. Apart from CAD packages in the engineering and technical graphics areas, the only program in use is Microsoft Office. Obviously, the staff there has greater back-up support in drafting programs and worksheets than would be available to a second level school. One of the items on our dream shopping list was funding to take the entire class to visit the college, which we did in February, 2000. Apart from the social aspect and bonding effect on the group, it was a very worthwhile trip. The boys were astounded by the workshop approach of the students. The course tutors, in conjunction with a small team of programmers, led by Mark Owen, working in conjunction with the lecturers and teachers involved, devised worksheets in each area of study using only a word-processing package. These were completed by the students in their own time, coming to computer laboratories, taking down sheets from the shelves and working away at their own pace. Like us, only earlier, they had found commercial software not adequately focussed for their courses. Arising from this visit, we arranged a weekend course back in Nenagh for the entire staff on a Friday and Saturday. This was given by Mark Owen and Gareth Williams, deputy head of the college. This was most informative and showed our staff various methods of using IT as a tool. Gareth William’s tutorial on using PowerPoint was especially well received. In fact, using PowerPoint in conjunction with the data projector has been a very important part of the teaching in LCA for some teachers. It allowed teachers to adapt material already prepared for OHP and served as an introduction to using IT in the classroom. The core of the LCA course is the completion of seven tasks over the two years which require a written or typed folder showing the aims, action plan and research carried out by the student in his area, such as social education, career choice, IT as a specialism etc. These tasks are examined by external examiners who conduct an oral examination of the work prepared by the student. This interview can extend to ten minutes. In previous years this led to frustration for students and teachers alike with bottlenecks arising in the computer room as they all tried to print to print their work in the same few (last!) days. Not with this group, however. Thanks to having their own laptops they could work in their own room or at home, and by using the wireless network print out their work from their own classroom. As many of them have major literacy problems, spellchecker was a help. They learned to organise themselves by creating folders for their subject areas and saving work. They learned very early on the dangers of not saving work regularly. They became adept at inserting clip art, surfing the net (not always for “educational” material. At least, not what I would consider educational.) and using programs such as drawing, painting to enhance their presentations. The purchase of a digital video camera by the transition year group opened up new possibilities. They had already used a still digital camera for their task folders. I hope to do some work in this area with them in the final term when they have finished all their tasks and key assignments. One major drawback was the immediate response to 'surf the net' when they needed material, rather than first exhausting other sources. For example, each laptop came with a two CD-ROM encyclopaedia from World Book. While they tried them out initially and enjoyed the video clips, they had to be constantly reminded to use them or books from the library as a starting-point. Another disappointment for us was in the area of typing. Each computer had a copy of Mavis Beacon typing tutor which they were supposed to use for a short period each night to improve their keyboarding skills. There was a very poor responses to this, admittedly tedious, task. Despite this, they are all reasonably quick with the two-finger method of typing. On the plus side, however, there was a great improvement in their organisational skills and they are all totally at home with the major aspects of IT. I had hoped that we would be at the point of creating a web site earlier on in the project. However, time just seemed to disappear on us in the more mundane task of day to day class-work. Following the official launch of our SIP project by the Minister, Michael Woods, Mr. John Mallon of Apple Computers in Cork interviewed the boys at length. He was so impressed with their interest that he invited them to visit the Apple plant in Cork, which we duly did, fitting it in with a trip to the College of Commerce where the boys were given career information on PLC courses open to them in the IT and other areas. I mentioned earlier the spin-off in the social aspect and self-esteem for the boys in being the "laptop class." It did give the boys a sense of being unique in carrying a laptop to school. Unfortunately for them, they now have to share it with over sixty of the first year classes whose parents have purchased laptops for them in a venture initiated by our vice-principal and member of the LCA co-ordinating team, Tim Brophy. This was a direct result of the publicity, which the school achieved from the SIP program. These purchases are not the sole preserve of more affluent parents but are spread across the entire first year. The cost is being spread over the five-year term of school life, financed mainly by local Credit Union loans, with a guarantee that the laptops will be upgraded every three years at a reasonable rate. This scheme is in its infancy at present but will obviously benefit from the LCA experience as there is an overlap of teachers in both years. This is an area which requires a lot more research and testing if it is to be extended generally. In our own school, the jury is still out on this one.