As I was sitting at the launch of Microsoft's Anytime, Anywhere Learning (AAL) project for schools, I was covetously touching the laptop computer on the desk in front of me. 'They'll be giving these to the kids next,' I thought. Which is exactly what they're doing.
If you don't follow the debate on IT in education, you might have missed out on AAL. The idea is this: kids get their own laptop computers instead of exercise books. Then they do their lessons on the computer, and a few years later, they lead happy, contented, IT-literate lives and laugh about the old times, when the old gramps (that's us) had to use pens and paper.
Then their own teenage children, who have been grown in a large tub of saline solution from seed, have been genetically engineered to be resistant to acne and are dressed in a fabric so light and flexible, yet so resistant to ageing that it lasts a lifetime while staying fashionable, will say: 'Shut up, you make me sick. You're soooooo boring, all you do is nag. I'm going round to Brian's so drop dead.'
Thus proving there are only so many things computers can accomplish in a generation.
There are two important things to know about AAL. One, it isn't about teaching kids to use computers - they know how to use them already. For the foreseeable future, it's about kids teaching their teachers how to use them, ha ha. Two, the scheme doesn't stand or fall on the largesse of some kindly benefactor with no business sense, such as Apple. It was invented by Microsoft and Bill Gates didn't get to be the world's richest man by giving away computers.
The kids (or their parents) have to pay for them, which means a lot of paper rounds. Currently, the betting from AAL's three hardware suppliers - Fujitsu, Acer and HP - is about #30 a month to be part of the scheme.
This rather puts into context the plastic ruler that was my yearly nod to investment in my education (my articles may be sub-literate but they are beautifully underlined).
Ironically, it's the horrendous expense that makes AAL a success in the US and Australia, where it is also being tried. There, the kids hang on to their laptops for dear life, preferring not to swap them for a Dallas Cowboys replica shirt or a couple of Es. And it also means the folks at home get use of a laptop, as long as they can find space on the hard disk alongside little Johnny's science project, his collection of essays and his directory of pornographic MPEGs.
AAL may not be the perfect solution to the education problem because if it catches on it will finally do away with the idea that education should be free for all, but it's the first ever self-funding schools technology project. For this year it's in 28 schools and if it works, it may turn up in thousands in years to come. Then you won't turn your noses up when the local headmaster calls to ask for a price on some hardware, will you?
Tim Phillips is a freelance IT journalist.
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