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Should UK Schools use
Windows-based computers
for Educational Purposes?

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It is difficult to stay objective when discussing computers for education, simply because there is so much prejudice and marketing hype within a computer industry dominated by money and greed by huge, multi-national computer companies.

The computer industry is one of the fastest growing and cut-throat industries in the world, so it is careful to base any buying decision on functionality, value for money and user friendliness and not get taken in by smooth talking sales people and glossy advertising hype. There are a number of important things to consider when purchasing computer equipment for schools and colleges:-

  • Ease of use
  • Reliability
  • Technical support
  • Longevity without needing expensive upgrades
  • Simplicity and speed of networking
  • Compatibility with other machines
  • Quick and easy connecting to the Internet

Obviously this is not a definitive list, because teachers and advisors no doubt want computer systems to be as future proof as possible, saving limited school budgets, yet also allow pupils to new and exciting technologies leading into the New Millennium.

Unfortunately, most people seem to think that unless a computer runs Microsoft Windows it is of little or no use in the classroom. This is an opinion formed by hype and not a serious consideration of users actually want the end result of I.T. literacy to be.

Teaching 'skills', not 'market products'

The aim of I.T. in schools is to make pupils aware of new technology as painless as possible, using reliable and price-conscious equipment, yet allowing pupils to experience the latest technology and global communications. Pupils should know how to use a word processor or a spreadsheet in a GUI (Graphic User Interface) environment - NOT be given limited tuition in Microsoft Word or Excel. These are today's products and brand names, not tomorrows systems. Someone learning the 'industry standard' Word Perfect 5.1 a couple of years ago, would have to undergo a whole new learning curve to come to grips with todays 'industry standard', Word for Windows. However, someone who was taught how to 'use' a word processor and the various 'generic' features it offers; emboldening text, underlining text, cutting and pasting etc etc would be more suited to understanding the underlying technology used, rather than only being trained to click on certain 'icons' or buttons. Future word processors could be as different from Word, as Word is from Word Perfect 5.1, but unfortunately global monopolies like Microsoft are forcing people to use restrictive software without experiencing perhaps more capable alternatives by perpetuating the myth that you'll be left behind if you don't install Windows95 and it's related software.

The 'Industry Standard' myth

When pupils finally leave school and enter the business marketplace, perhaps in two to three years time, the industry will be a lot different from how it is now. No doubt computers will look and feel perhaps more similar than they are now, but there will still be a multitude of systems in use apart from hyped Microsoft products. Unix is a serious and professional system used in many more businesses than Windows. Apple have their own operating system and user interface and Acorn, the world-beating,innovative British computer company have developed Risc OS over the past ten years. Acorn first became popular when the BBC computer was launched back in 1982. Since those early years, many thousands of Acorn computers have been sold to schools across the globe, and Acorn has become a name synonymous with educational computing.

A compact history of IT in education

The BBC B was the most reliable computer available at the time, and although priced quite highly at the time it more than paid for itself over many years of reliable service. To Acorn's credit, the BBC B had a fast, compact operating system and BASIC interpreter built into ROM inside the computer. This meant that there were no boot up discs to loose or become corrupted and teachers could relax in the knowledge that when they turned the computer on, it would give it's friendly 'bleep' and be ready for use immediately.

By having the powerful BBC Basic built into the computer, users, teachers and pupils alike could learn programming and produce their own computer programs simply and without any additional expense. This created a huge resource of educational software for the BBC B, ensuring that it kept it's place as the flagship of UK educational computing - and UK education is envied the world over.

Meanwhile in the US and Japan, emerging computer technologies were beginning to appear, but these were mainly governed by business with high budgets and specific computing needs. The IBM PC appeared and began to be adopted by big business. The small company called Microsoft and headed by Bill Gates bought up a small operating system called DOS and started developing what would become Windows - and make Bill Gates into the worlds richest man, and megalomaniac. The problem with the emerging PC technology was that it was fundamentally flawed by underestimating the distance computer technology would develop over the next ten years. Most PC's came with 640k of memory. Bill Gates even said himself, in 1989 that "640k of memory was more than enough for anybody".

This seems like a huge amount of memory compared to the lowly 32k provided by Acorn in the BBC B. However, what many people failed to recognise was that the Acorn design was much more advanced and programmers had developed techniques of ensuring that all available memory was used as efficiently as possible - which is why so many powerful BBC B programs became available over the years. The IBM system had a built in obsolescence.

This 'obsolescence' is what, ultimately, ensured that Microsoft were to become the global monopoly they are today and why Acorn was relegated to relative obscurity outside education - it's primary market. The IBM design assumed that by effective marketing you could fool companies into upgrading their equipment every six months to a year in order to make sure they had the 'latest technology'. Acorn conversely, prided itself on the reliability and longevity of it's BBC systems. Some are still in active use to this day - fifteen years on! Of course, like inventing a everlasting lightbulb, their reliability didn't really help Acorn financially as people simply weren't upgrading their computers.

Leap-frogging the competition using British Innovation

However, Acorn weren't lazing around during this period. In order to ensure that they stayed at the cutting edge of technology, they were secretly developing the worlds first 32bit RISC based home computer - the Archimedes. This was launched in 1987 and stunned users around the country with it's fast processor, high resolution graphics, digital sound system and, most of all, the ability to emulate a BBC B and thus still run all the existing educational software. It was another success story for UK education.

At the time the Archimedes was launched, the PC market consisted mainly of XT's and 286 machines, which by today's standards are completely obsolete and won't even run Windows 3.11, let alone Windows95. Conversely, those early Acorn Archimedes machines; the A300's and A400's are still in use throughout hundreds of schools, still able to run the latest software and, more importantly, even able to connect to the internet.

Unfortunately, this is where the hype and misinformation come into play, as the big multinational PC companies realise that there is a vast new area to conquer; the educational market. You will start to see adverts about how you are missing out on the latest developments if you don't buy a shiny new Pentium or run Windows95. This is quite simply, rubbish and lies. All Acorn machines running Risc OS 3 and above (which includes all machines since 1987) are still capable of running video clips (courtesy of Acorn's world beating Reply technology), surfing the Internet, running the latest desktop publishing packages and accessing CD roms.

Don't Panic!

The moral of this story is simply DON'T DO ANYTHING. DON'T SPEND ANY MONEY UPGRADING COMPUTERS until you are sure of what you want to do. After all, had you believed the hype a year ago, you could have easily spend ten thousand pounds or more equipping a classroom with the latest Pentium technology using 100MHz processors - these have now been superseded about six times over and the 'standard' is now at least 166MHz or, ideally, 200MHz.

There is simply not the money available in education for schools to keep wasting money upgrading computers. BUT they don't need to. If you already have Acorn systems you will find that they are more than capable of still keeping up to date with Pentium technology, but at a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the hassle required in maintaining the huge, inefficient software and it's required upgrades.

Schools that were lucky enough to buy the Acorn Risc PC when it came about three years ago, will already know that it is more than capable of keeping up with Internet developments, even overtaking Microsoft - now that they can't properly run Java code (currently the subject of a courtcase between Sun, who defined Java, and Microsoft, which defaulted on their contract of agreement). An Acorn Risc PC can even run Windows95 using a built-in PC co-processor. However, you'll find that you can more than prepare pupils for the new millennium without even installing the PC card.

If your school is in confusion about what to do and whether your current Acorn computers can cope with current demands, then think carefully about the Microsoft and Intel hype. Don't let yourself be swayed by marketing hype and glossy adverts. Save yourself money and use fully your existing equipment.

FREE help and advice available

What many people do not realise is that big PC companies also make a vast amount of money from exploiting people's ignorance, therefore charging an extortionate amount of money for 'service contracts' and software 'helplines'. If you would like FREE help and advice, with NO obligation to buy or agree to anything, then please email me now and I am more than willing to help schools and Acorn users everywhere obtain the best from their superior equipment.

Don't buy the hype. Use the Best - Acorn

P.S. and no I don't work for Acorn. I just don't like to see people get ripped off or talked into
buying inferior systems when the one they already have is still perfectly usable.