RISC OS in schools todayBy Chris Williams. Published: 13th Feb 2005, 15:40:03 | Permalink | Printable
RISC OS powered special school recognisedThe UK education sector was once a great bastion of RISC OS, albeit a very long time ago. Times have changed radically, yet the question remains: where is RISC OS in education now? To set the record straight, we got in touch with various schools in the UK who are still employing RISC OS in their classrooms to find out how they're coping in the modern world of ICT.
Knightsfield School, in Hertfordshire, was recently awarded a Naacemark at the BETT 2005 show: Knightfield is the first school for deaf children in the country to be awarded the Naacemark, which recognises excellence in ICT teaching. Apart from a few Apple Mac computers (which are used for digital video processing and speech recognition), the school is completely RISC OS powered.
"The Naacemark provides a framework for using ICT to enhance teaching and learning and provides opportunities for the school community to develop ICT capability," Sharon Pointer, Knightsfield's deputy Head teacher told us.
"There are now 270 schools that have achieved the Naacemark, of these just over a quarter are secondary schools and about 5% are special schools. Knightsfield's assessment for the Naacemark took place in November, against the secondary school criteria, as these proved to be more appropriate than those for special schools. It was very exciting to be presented with the award at BETT, especially when Steve Bacon, general secretary of Naace, confirmed that this was the first award for a school for deaf children. We are also the first special school in Hertfordshire and as far as I know, the only RISC OS school to have achieved it. Richard Hall from Branston Junior School met me there and two of his staff are going to visit my school to see what we are doing."
The school employs a AUN level 4 file server to provide storage space for staff and student files and Access+ for application sharing. They also use a Navaho server for their Internet connection and email.
Sharon added: "My main reason for using RISC OS is that the system is more robust and user friendly than the alternative. I have deaf children gaining GCSE ICT with at least one grade higher in ICT than in their other subjects. Pupils can use the computers around the school pretty much independently and - as long as they don't use the Internet - unsupervised, which could not happen with non-RISC OS computers and special children. We have been doing things with RISC OS for 8 years that PC users could only have dreamed of until recently."
Her only bugbear is web browsing: With Oregano 1 and 2, WebsterXL and Fresco at the school's disposal, their main choice is Oregano 1. However, the lack of modern Flash support means websites, such as their LEA's online career assessment site, do not work. Knightsfield are currently considering using a Windows 2000 server, which pupils can use Internet Explorer on via RDesktop, although are reluctant over the price.
"I'm totally not happy about this, but I am going to need to solve the browser problem before too long, as online testing is also looming and you can guarantee that it is likely to need the Windows platform," commented Sharon.
At the end of last month, I visited Bablake Junior school in Coventry, where RISC OS is used exclusively. Every classroom has around six StrongARM RISC OS 3.7 RiscPCs in A7000 cases, totalling up to 50 computers or 4 children per computer. RiscPCs and Iyonixes are also used in the school's offices (the Datapower database that managed all the pupils' records was impressive) and every computer is connected to a flatscreen monitor. I found a lone Windows PC running the school's library system, which uses a fingerprint sensor and voice recognition to identify borrowers. Library cards are obsolete, you see. During my tour of the building, I passed a RiscPC in the reception area running !OHP to display information.
I was shown around by Bablake Junior's IT manager, Gary Locock, who offered me a cup of strong coffee after I spent the morning navigating the urban maze of Coventry city in the rain. "We really trust our children," explained Gary, after I noticed how the children were allowed to use the computers unsupervised. Bablake is a private independent school and this, according to Gary, gives it a little freedom in terms of the implementation of the National Curriculum. For example, in year six, the children learn how to write HTML with !Edit and Oregano before later moving onto !HTMLedit. "Some people use Logo, we use HTML," says Gary.
The school is ideally interested in students with potential and pupils must pass an entrance test to be accepted into year three.
"One of the first things I teach the children is that you cannot break our computers. They aren't like their Windows PCs at home, where their parents will be worried all the time that something might break," says Gary, who relies on the resilience of RISC OS. Children can bring in floppy discs, surf the web and check email with little fear of introducing a virus into the school, for instance. The Iyonix in the staff room had a sticker on it, pasted under the reset button, that read: "Press and hold if the computer goes wrong".
"I would not want their problems," commented Gary, when I asked how his colleagues in the Windows PC based IT department of Bablake Secondary school coped. "The priorities are also different for the senior school. They have career preparation to deal with as the real world is Windows based and the older children need experience and training for Windows. I don't think, though, it's doing our country any favours by concentrating on just one OS, especially from a company with dubious business principles. We're supposed to educate our children and in the case of Windows in schools, we're here to widen their horizons, not narrow and focus them. We're not here to provide training for employers."
Unlike others, the school doesn't have a dedicated computer room and instead keeps machines spread out across the building. Classroom windows have stickers on them that say the computers aren't Windows PCs to deter burglars. Although having a dedicated classroom would be convenient, argues Gary, from a security stand point, a single room would be a gold mine for intruders.
Interestingly, the school uses !Alarm to schedule the sharing of games on the network, so children can play and amuse themselves outside of school hours. An hour long computer club runs after school, where pupils can catch up on computer based homework and later treat themselves to software such as Zool, Heros of Might and Magic and Bunny Race - a game that a student wrote some years ago. During school time, I watched a class of children use !Paint and !Draw effortlessly to make cartoons using photos of themselves. One child was using Spex to design her ideal bedroom in 3D. The network also includes Artworks 2 and OvationPro, plus lots of freeware.
I saw more RISC OS computers that day than I normally see at an annual show, and the most uplifting part was seeing them actually being used and enjoyed. I commented to Gary that, due to the size of the platform, being a RISC OS user can sometimes leave you feeling quite isolated and alone in the modern world of IT. When I asked if RISC OS in education nowadays relies on priviledged and independent schools, he replied: "State schools would have other problems to worry about, and they would go with whatever their IT advisors tell them. As a private funded school, we have greater control."
On the subject of management, Gary has written a number of Obeyfile scripts that roll out software updates to machines across the network. Each machine stores the applications locally and quickly boot into the desktop will all the essential shortcuts on the pinboard and iconbar. Pupils can then access their files via Lanman98, using their username and password. Another Obeyscript on each machine uses the computer's IP address to decide on which classroom the computer is in and attaches the necessary files and applications to the pinboard. For example, say, 10.0.0.30 to 10.0.0.40 is for the machines in a year three classroom, the script will recognise this and pin up the software suitable for the year three pupils. Gary also uses a 40" plasma TV screen, connected to a RiscPC with a Castle USB card, to demonstrate software and teach IT to classes. The RiscPC is controlled by a remote control handset that interfaces with the USB card.
"Windows was never designed to be used by a seven year old, whereas RISC OS can be picked up quickly by anyone," says Gary, as we wander through classrooms during break time. However, he admits that he's tried disguising the RISC OS desktop as a sort of compromise between RISC OS and Windows. For example, the backdrop is coloured Windows 2000 blue and each machine has IClear installed to provide Windows style cut'n'paste'ing in icons. This is to keep the desktop familiar to staff and students who will be used to Windows from home.
Bablake use a Windows 2000 server to provide Internet Explorer via RDesktop, but otherwise use Oregano for web surfing. Gary argued that it's cheaper to buy one fast Windows 2000 server, rather than 24 new PCs, for example. Their gateway server has a white list of acceptable websites that the children are allowed to visit. "Obviously, you wouldn't let a seven year old wander around a shopping centre on their own, and so we don't allow them to go anywhere on the Internet," Gary told me. The Navaho server that acts as the Internet gateway is Linux powered and also provides email and other services. Printers located around the building are connected to the ethernet network and use the LPR protocol to receive documents.
Gary continued: "Without RDP and a decent RISC OS client, I doubt if we could have continued with only RISC OS for this long. RDP gives us the all important comprehensive web access. Frankly, existing RISC OS browsers are all hopeless for educational purposes these days. Only the Oreganos and WXL will even operate under our Navaho webmail and proxy system, and all three are two slow and buggy to be a professional solution.
"I might add that the Iyonix is also critical to hanging on to RISC OS. Without a realistic hardware upgrade path, I would have had to consider alternative machines simply to avoid becoming a technology museum. We have around 50 machines all told, none less than StrongArm power, nearly all based in normal classrooms and for this the 'bomb-proof' nature of RISC OS is a critical advantage. I doubt if we could operate in this free and easy way with Windows-based workstations."
The Leys School in Cambridge is also an independent school, but here RISC OS is under threat.
"We are still, just about, using Acorns here, but only in the Science Faculty, and then only in Physics and Chemistry for datalogging and plotting of graphs using GraphDraw," Head of Physics Andrew Harmsworth told us. "However we are phasing them out, as most modern dataloggers require USB. I know you can upgrade to USB, but there's no USB support for dataloggers. Irrespective of that there has been no upgrade to the de facto datalogging standard (Insight) from version 2 - Logotron stopped supporting RISC OS years ago. This means it is woefully inadequate for complex analysis."
Andrew, who praised Chris Johnsons' !GraphDraw for being arguably better than Excel, continued: "We continue to use RISC OS via VA5000 on a PC - the software Orrery is excellent and quick to use for demonstrating solar system dynamics. The PC equivalent - RedShift 5 - is far more comprehensive, but also has a highly complex user interface so we've yet to use it instead of Orrery.
"The chances are, therefore, that by September we will no longer regularly use RISC OS hardware, and it will be left solely under emulation. And even then, only for demonstrations by teachers who know how to use it. Most don't and the kids have no experience of RISC OS any more."
Andrew also believes RISC OS will need more than just fresh hardware: "It's not the hardware that's the problem - it's proper support for Internet technologies and the publication of 'new' software that actually excites and stimulates the kids."
Tiverton High School confirmed that they are also still using RISC OS powered hardware. Peter Bennett told us: "For pupil use we have around 70 Riscstation Networx, 60 A7000+, 20 RiscPCs, 30 Acorn NCs and one Iyonix. We use thin client technology to deliver Windows to clients if needed. We have about 40 PCs also. I'm not sure how long this will last, mainly because of Internet browser limitations, but we have no immediate plans to change things: delivery of the curriculum is greatly simplified by using RISC OS and the kids can't usually wreck the systems."
Are you using RISC OS in education or business? Let us know
Update at 11:06 14/2/2005
Knightsfield is currently considering using a Windows 2000 server for RDP, rather than actually using one as the article originally stated. Also, Dave Wisnia of Fieldhead Carr Primary School in Leeds has told us that they are using 11 StrongARM RiscPCs with TextEase+, in a shared network.
Interestingly, Dave said his children have a problem saving their work: "Windows users have to negotiate threir way through a maze to get to their own folder; RISC OS users initially have some uncertainty about the first drag and drop save, though this can be resolved in Textease."
He adds: "RISC OS would be a viable alternative if there were up to date ports of Flash and Director. Without those, PC's will be rippling through the classrooms, and the last RPC will probably go by September 2007."
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