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Computers: a class act; Game On : Internet chat.

WHEN I was at school, a debate raged about whether children should be allowed to use calculators in maths lessons. These days, computers are a part of daily life in most schools, and they're about to take a further step into the educational world.

The pocket computer, which a few years ago was the plaything of the rich yuppie, is now cheap enough to be used by a child. And kids are slowly starting to use them in schools.

This has been caused partly by the prices of these gadgets plummeting - you can now buy a basic model for less than pounds 100 - and partly by a surge of software designed for kids.

One American group, Hi-CE Software (www. hi-ce. org), has pioneered the production of high-quality free software for schoolchildren with Palm computers.

Their products include WriteHere, a fullfeatured word processing program, including spell checker - kids can compose essays on the Palm and then 'beam' them to the teacher.

Another Hi-CE program is Picomap, an ingenious way of helping people to think visually. Picomap lets users create bubbles of ideas on the screen, then make labelled links from one bubble to another.

There's also Sketchy, a drawing program, FlingIt, which grabs web pages from a Macintosh computer and 'flings' them into an attached Palm, and the remarkable Go 'n' Tell.

This last program is impressive for the way it has been designed from the start to be useful to kids. Any child with a Palm and a Kodak Palmpix camera, which plugs into it, can turn a school outing into a website dead quick.

A classroom with equipment like this could create some wonderful web projects alongside more traditional ones. After their trip to the zoo, for example, children could draw pictures on paper to decorate their classroom - but with a Palm and this clever software, they could also create a record of their day out for parents to look at that evening, from their home computers.

There are potential pitfalls, of course. Pocket computers can also be used to play games and beam silly notes. But the risks of classroom disruption, even of theft, can be minimised - there are several software applications that will lock a Palm computer at regular intervals.

And those risks are offset by the benefits.

Children with pocket computers may be inspired to do more things with them, such as learn a foreign language, read electronic copies of classic novels, create music, or even write their own software - and, yes, there is free software for all these things.

Just as calculators were allowed in schools to help children learn more about maths, so computers (normal and pocket-sized) have a useful contribution to make.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Sep 2, 2001
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