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Cast your Net ever wider;Opinion

This week's launch of NetYear by David Blunkett, and the announcement of the National Grid for Learning before Christmas, may have excited some people and left others cold - but it will have filled many teachers with trepidation. Isn't there enough to do without having to get to grips with this untried and, frankly, scary new system?

Yet visitors to this week's BETT 98 show at Olympia realise quickly that, underneath the hype, the World Wide Web is simply a giant communication system.

Through it, children and their teachers can have access to a wealth of material of which earlier generations could not have dreamed. A French lesson? Use the Internet to find and print off bits of today's Le Monde. A project on space travel? Have a look at NASA's Web site. Can't remember how a particular poem goes? You'll probably be able to find it somewhere out there.

Of course, your search doesn't have to be curriculum-related. Your class is keen on making links with penfriends? Link up with another school - in Australia, perhaps. Want to have a peek at the inspection report of a rival school? You'll find it on the Office for Standards in Education site. A sixth-former wants to discuss higher education? You'll find that most universities have Web sites these days and many allow prospectuses to be ordered by electronic mail.

But the Internet is not only important because it brings information so quickly to your screen. It is also crucial that young people become familiar with it, because of the new relationship it gives them to knowledge. If we want them to develop as autonomous learners, this is a powerful way to do it. Unlike much formal learning, the model is: ask a question, and find your way to the answer. The excitement of following a trail to the information you want (and finding out other things along the way) is a thrilling learning experience - and a new way of making sense of the world.

David Blunkett spoke eloquently last Wednesday of his fear that widespread use of the Internet could widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Already children as young as eight are surfing the Net from their bedroom - perhaps searching for information on their favourite football team. Some even have their own Web pages. Yet others have barely touched a computer without supervision, and the idea of using it as a tool for finding things out has probably never occurred to them - or, perhaps, to their teachers.

The Government is allocating substantial sums to in-service training over the next four years - especially in relation to information and communications technology. Now it is up to the teachers to make sure that they - and their pupils - do not get left behind.

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