Imperata

Reviewed by Dr Bob Fox
University College Worcester

The Technological Imperative leads us to do some strange things. Even when financial circumstances allow a rapid increase in the number of computers available in the primary school, our ways of deploying and using them are not always determined by considerations of good primary pedagogy - rather, our conception of what computers are for is coloured by what computers are capable of, and by models of computer use in the business world, or, closer to home, in the secondary sector. Thus we have seen a headlong rush into networked computer rooms and suites in primary schools, and my view is that headteachers, governors and Ofsted have accepted the hardware manufacturers' rhetoric too readily, without giving sufficient thought to how computers might best be used to enhance primary pupils' learning across the curriculum. Teachers tell me how having a whole roomful of smart new PCs is better than having a single old Beeb in the corner of the classroom - well, yes, it is, but there are several variables at work here. My view will probably not be popular with headteachers who have just invested heavily in their computer rooms, but my guess is that in ten years' time (or however long it takes us to crack the ultra-cheap laptop, the wireless network and the affordable large flat-screen display) there will be very few computer rooms per se in primary schools.

Twenty years ago, when schools television programmes could only be watched at the designated time, and when primary schools had only one television, located perhaps in a specially designated 'television room', the school day could be fraught with logistical problems, particularly in larger schools: as soon as 3Y and 3Z have finished watching their programme, they must be ushered out as quickly as possible in order to let 4X and 4Y into the room so that they can be settled before their programme starts, and they'll have to miss five minutes of their break because the programme overruns, and there will be no opportunity to follow it up immediately afterwards. You have to watch the whole programme, whether or not it is all relevant, because there is no way of editing it, and you cannot revisit parts of it later.

The arrival of the video should have liberated schools. Now, you can watch your programme when it suits you, and fast-forward over any irrelevant bits, and stop the program at any point to discuss what you have just seen, or predict what is going to happen next, and watch the crucial bits as many times as you like. The relative affordability of televisions means that many schools have more than one, timetabling pressures are substantially eased, and in many cases the programme can be watched in your own classroom. But is this what you do? Do you start with learning objectives for your class, then think how the medium can best be used to meet those objectives? Or do you simply let the telly take the strain for twenty minutes?

So how do you use your computer room, if you have one? Do you have access only at certain specified times? Are your actions conditioned or circumscribed by the physical layout of the room? Perhaps your lessons are, in Avril Loveless's phrase, a matter of 'demo - rush round - plenary', and your time is mostly spent in fire-fighting activity, re-booting machines and fixing printers. Or perhaps you try to keep the class all together in an appalling lockstep while you plod through a long series of instructions about how to use a program, pausing at every step to ensure that everyone has managed to keep up. How do you balance teaching about computers with teaching with computers?

Imperata is a splendid piece of software, designed to assist in the organization and management of a class set of computers. Teleste, its makers, describe it as an 'application and activity control system'. I have had it installed in a computer room for more than six months now. From my base machine (which could in theory be any machine on the network) I can lock anyone else's keyboard or monitor, send the contents of my screen or look at the contents of anyone else's, I can take over the operation of any computer from my own keyboard, or send messages to any or all users. I can view the contents of several other screens simultaneously as thumbnail images. Crucially, I can send bundles of files to the hard discs of any of the other machines on the system. Imperata performs all of the above apparently effortlessly, and it is very straightforward to use - you do not need a degree in computer science to get to grips with it.

Two possible modes of operation spring to mind.

The trouble with this is that is not really the way I want to work. A primary school computer room is extremely unlikely to house more than 30 machines. Probably the majority of rooms I have seen to date have about half that number, and a common expectation is that pairs or small groups of children will work at each machine. Typically, machines are arranged round the walls, sometimes with a cluster in the middle of the room; relatively few have the machines arranged in serried ranks. In my case I can see all the machines by standing in the middle of the room and rotating slowly, so I don't particularly need to monitor the monitors via the thumbnails.

Similarly, it has not proved helpful so far to operate someone's machine remotely in order to show them what to do - it is a great deal easier (and perhaps educationally more sound) to stand or squat beside them and talk them through. I don't go along with the makers' image of the more able or experienced pupil helping the less competent by linking machines and working together - why not simply work together at one machine? Isn't there some powerful learning to be had in actually talking to each other about the processes as you do them? And doesn't it work to the benefit of both partners, as in paired reading? All the usual problems associated with unequal pairings would still apply either way ('Let me do the typing - I'm much quicker than you').

The functions discussed so far, it seems to me, are built on the model of children working alone, each at their own machine. This is not the way primary schools have done it in the past, partly because they have had too few machines, but also because many teachers believe in the value of the social learning that can take place when children work collaboratively; and I think it would be a mistake to change a justifiable and good practice for one imported from elsewhere. Secondary school computer rooms often contain far more machines, and secondary students spend far more of their time working on their own. The business community increasingly expects people to work collaboratively but from individual workstations, in different offices, different towns, or different parts of the world. This is fine, but such collaborations generally start from an assumption of competence - they are not intended primarily as learning activities.

In situations where primary children would be expected to work on their own at a machine, for example in using an Integrated Learning System, the functions discussed would be of relatively little use, as users are expected to proceed at their own pace, and the whole point of the activity is that it is intended to be individual and non-collaborative.

I think the best way to use computers for whole-class teaching is with a large screen or data projector, with everyone focused on the same point. Good interactive teaching necessarily involves a lot of body language, gesture and eye-contact, and relies on a level of collaborative participation that cannot be achieved if children have their backs to each other. Sending my screen image to everyone's machine is perhaps only really useful when I am demonstrating how to use a piece of software - and ICT teaching would be greatly impoverished if that was all it was about. Of course they do have to learn this, though they don't always need to be shown at great length. Because I am fortunate enough to have a data projector I have not actually found myself using Imperata for this purpose, but in the absence of a large screen device, using Imperata to share the demonstration around all the monitors is vastly preferable to having to crowd the whole class round a single small monitor.

A much better model, in my view, is to think of it as a means of sharing, particularly in the plenary part of the teaching session. Imagine your Literacy Hour session taking place in a computer room. I will be generous, and grant you a data projector. You start with a piece of text (perhaps downloaded from the Internet, perhaps typed in by you beforehand), presented in a large font size so that everyone can see in clearly. When you have read it together, discussed it collectively, considered why certain phrases are used, how mood and atmosphere are developed, or whatever, you then speculate on where the narrative might lead (or where it might have come from). You then work collaboratively as a class on the text, adding, subtracting or modifying bits. Then at a certain point you save your file, send it out to everyone's machine, and children work in pairs or small groups to continue the text. When it is time for the plenary, you lock everyone's keyboard, and invite pairs or groups to present their text on the large screen and comment on what they have done. I think Imperata could be an invaluable tool in this type of context, particularly as I can prepare files beforehand to incorporate an appropriate measure of differentiation into the task, and then be selective about which files I send to whom.

Working with students, I have set tasks which involve researching information on the Internet, translating the information into a PowerPoint presentation, then making their presentation to the rest of the group. It is amazing how much can be achieved in a short space of time, and Imperata certainly speeds up the process of transition between presenters.

Recent versions of Imperata include the facility to send predefined portfolios of web pages to be used in an activity, and Version 4 will include a cut-down browser with no 'favorites' or history icons to lead users off the point. This should be a great asset in keeping children focused on the task in hand, and in minimizing the risks of inappropriate use of the web; and it should go a long way towards allaying the fears of parents nervous about children's access to the web.

I hinted at the beginning that I thought the computer room had a limited lifespan. I think you should take the computers to the learning, not the learning to the computers. Paradoxically, this in itself could enhance the usefulness of Imperata, and could perhaps give a fresh point to the facilities I said I did not use. Imagine a scenario in which the class has access to fifteen laptop computers, all with wireless networking to a range of, say, fifty metres. Imagine that children are dispersed around the school building and grounds, using their laptops to gather data about - what? Favourite crisps? Birds visiting the birdtable? Cars going past the school? Though I am in loco parentis, I cannot always be with all the children all the time. How do we communicate with each other? It is much easier for me to keep track of things by means of the thumbnail views, or to send screen messages rather than sending runners; and if anyone gets stuck, I don't always have to go all the way to the birdtable to unstick them.

So - overall, I can heartily endorse Imperata, though I think primary school users should think carefully how to make the best educational use of it. I am aware that there are other packages that provide broadly similar facilities, but frankly I have found them rather restrictive. Imperata has a considerable potential for flexibility and imagination, and I think it will continue to develop as a first-rate resource.

Factfile: Imperata is made by Divace Learning Solutions (UK) Ltd., 7 Hales Road, Leeds LS12 4PL. 0113 263 6700, Fax 0113 263 6705

Version 4.0 is due for release on 30/04/01.

Imperata is sold through a nationwide network of accredited partners who have been fully trained to install and support the software locally to the school.

 

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