School classroom

Shape the Future UK initiative to put PCs in hands of children

Microsoft and Intel have teamed up with RM Education to bring discounted personal computing devices to UK school children, in a bid to help students improve their educational attainment and thereby raise their lifetime earnings potential.

The Shape the Future UK programme, launched this week, provides government–funded schools with discounts of more than 30 per cent off the RRP of laptops and tablets for their students and teachers from vendors such as RM, Asus and Acer.

It is hoped the scheme will stimulate the uptake of personal computing for children at home by making devices more affordable.

Citing new figures from Experian, the team behind the scheme argue that it could help increase the lifetime earnings of each student by as much as £300,000 simply by helping them obtain a computer to use at home.

The Experian findings draw on PricewaterhouseCooper research into digital inclusion, which revealed that the most effective economic results from digital inclusion were seen where children had been given access to a computer to use at home.

“I passionately believe that Shape the Future is a true force for good – as has been proven with our projects around the world.  I’m thrilled that we are now bringing this programme to the UK,” says Joice Fernandes, Worldwide Leader of the Shape The Future Programme, Microsoft.

The computers use Windows 8 operating systems powered by Intel, and are pre-installed with education-based software, including Microsoft Office Professional and Kodu.

To some critics however, the move may seem little more than a knee-jerk reaction to the fanfare surrounding the Raspberry Pi, which was released at the start of the year and uses rival ARM’s processors and Linux OS.

The Raspberry Pi is a very cheap (around $30), durable, low-powered programmable computer the size of a credit card. Around 500,000 units of the Pi have been sold so far, and it is expected sales will top 1m by Christmas. The  Raspberry Pi's appeal lies largely in that it seems to stimulate children to want to learn code in a very practical way.

The whole point of the Pi is that it requires a little tinkering with. My research leads me to believe that you need stuff to make it work. It’s clearly not a bundle containing everything you need. One of the things you can do is program the operating system onto the memory card.

There are also add-on boards which serve to widen the Pi’s capabilities. Miranda Sawyer, writing about the Pi in the Observer on the weekend said that these add-ons apparently give it functions like “driving motors, making lights flash” or, my personal favorite, “turning your Lego man into an actual moving robot”. 

Critics may thus scoff at the Shape the Future UK initiative on the basis that it looks like a weak ploy by Microsoft and Intel to bring something, anything, of their own to the education market in the face of something a little more exciting. Could it be a somewhat cynical attempt to earmark marketshare in the education sector?

While the scheme itself doesn’t bring anything new to the table per se (other than offering a range of suitable computers more cheaply to those kids at school who are less likely to afford them) there is more to support this endeavour than initially meets the eye 

Research from the e-Learning Foundation, out earlier this year, pointed to a million children's exam results being on average a grade lower than their peers this year because the students do not have internet access at home. It said that 1.2 million teenagers log on to revision pages every week and those using online resources were on average likely to attain a grade higher in exams.

The scheme could also not come at a better time for disadvantaged children, who lost out when the new coalition government came into power. It cut the Home Access scheme set up by Labour three years ago, whereby low-income families were helped to do exactly what the new scheme sets out to – be able to purchase a laptop computer for children to use at home.

Furthermore, the agency which had responsibility for encouraging the use of technology in learning, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), was similarly removed by the new government.

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