It may be 16 years since the Computer Bus took to the road, but schoolchildren still can’t contain their excitement when it pulls in through the school gates.
There have been huge advances in technology since then – primary schools didn’t have the internet when the Department of Education’s bus was launched in 1998 – but ICT education adviser Alex Townsend insists the bus still has an important role to play.
‘IT is no longer something you do on a Wednesday afternoon,’ he said.
‘One of the big changes we have seen is IT increasingly supporting general teaching and learning.’
It has always been a big event when the Computer Bus turns up at schools.
‘Children start shouting “It’s the Computer Bus” and “It’s the Computer Bus man”.
‘As years have gone on, children may have become accustomed to home computers, iPods and iPhones but one thing that hasn’t changed since I first started is the enthusiasm and the thrill they get by the arrival of eight tonnes of Computer Bus for them to go on.’
The bus attends primary schools by invitation – and this year is seeing an increasing emphasis on coding, which is what makes it possible to create computer software, apps and websites.
Pupils are being introduced to three programmes of increasing complexity – Flowol, Scratch and Python.
Through online resources, children then continue their learning, with support from their teacher, back in the classroom.
The bus was also used up until recently for recordings for the inter-generational Tell Me Project.
And it was turned into a virtual gallery bringing the work of Kurt Schwitters to secondary schools while there was an exhibition of his work at the Sayle Gallery.
The idea for the bus came about when Mr Townsend, who was the head of ICT at St Ninian’s High School, saw the benefits of St Mary’s School pupils using their IT facilities.
At about the same time a Leyland National single-decker bus was withdrawn from service in December 1997 after 21 years with Isle of Man Transport.
Mr Townsend said: ‘Leyland Nationals had been converted into everything from a mobile bank to a mobile library, but not as far as I knew into a mobile computer room.’
The conversion work saw its seats being removed and windows at the rear and one side being panelled over.
Manx Telecom kitted out the bus with 20 state-of-the-art Apple Mac G3 computers while coach company Tours (Isle of Man) provided accommodation and technical support for the bus.
The bus was officially launched in September 1998.
Mr Townsend said: ‘It was originally intended to run for two years. Critics said it would be lucky to last six weeks. They said the computers wouldn’t stand being rattled around or they would be seen off to damp.’
‘But the computers have been utterly reliant and the bus has only had one significant failure in all the time we’ve had it, when a differential went seven years ago.’
There have been many highlights in the Computer Bus’s history.
In 1999, it was used by US database giant Oracle to secretly trial Think.com.
And later that year students from St Ninian’s and Ballakermeen high schools accompanied the bus to Earls Court, in London, for the BBC Tomorrow’s World Live exhibition.
The bus underwent a complete revamp to celebrate 10 years in education, and was fitted out with 23 of the latest Apple iMacs. Mr Townsend was recently named in Apple’s list of pioneers making a profound impact with its computers over the past 30 years.
‘There’s been a lot of support but it’s fair to say I see it as a fitting tribute to all the effort of a whole bunch of people,’ he said.
The Computer Bus is one of a number of successful ICT initiatives in education, brought in with ICT co-ordinating adviser Graham Kinrade and his predecessor John Thornley.