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Caught in the net

If any of you intellectuals out there saw the film Mission Impossible, you will have noticed the film's star, Tom Cruise, getting on the Internet at every twist and turn. This was technology as show business, with the daring agent tapping at his sleek, gun-metal coloured portable computer, tracking down the bad guys with little more than a few well-chosen keystrokes.

But what does it mean to be on the Internet? If your school went on to the Internet, would it be connected to the same network as the one seen in the film and what equipment would you need?

The Internet is an open-to-all global computer network, linked by telephone lines, in which people can use a computer screen to see the information held on any other connected computer anywhere in the world. That information could be the contents of the US Library of Congress or a page made by a primary school.

Imagine that the Internet is a telephone network that uses text and pictures rather than the spoken word. To use it, you need a chain of connections similar to using the phone. Instead of a telephone to talk into you need a computer to send and receive information, a modem (a kind of electronic adaptor about half the size of a video-cassette) to connect the computer to a telephone line and an account with an "Internet service provider" (ISP)- a company which will give you an individual address and a gateway to all the other computers on the Internet, rather like a telephone company gives you a phone number and a connection.

The telephone system isn't a perfect analogy, but it suggests the basic concept of computers linked in a way that enables them to share and collect information from anywhere in the world. It also suggests the fact that the Internet provides the frame and not the content. As in a telephone conversation, the information swapped can be useful or useless. It isn't like television, where channels offer a cycle of programmes. Instead, depending on the users, you only see the specific site that you've called up.

So how do you call up particular pieces of information? Assuming you have an account with an Internet provider and your computer can be hooked up to a modem and phone line, what you need next is a "browser". This versatile piece of software is your control panel for the Internet - you type in the address of the Internet site you want to visit, and the browser takes you there so that the "pages" from the Web site appear on your screen. If you don't have the address, you can use a "search engine". You just type in the title or subject you want and you get a list of relevant addresses. The browser will also help you to navigate through sites, forwards, backwards or to favourite pages.

The most widely-used browser at the moment is Navigator, produced by Netscape, with a recently-released system from Microsoft, called Explorer, emerging as the main rival.

In Mission Impossible, they didn't have to worry about stretching their IT budget. But this luxury is rare in education, so each of these items - modem, Internet provider and so on - have to be costed, compared and contrasted by schools.

But don't be put off by the jargon, because the Internet is relatively simple to use. Every fortnight, this column will look in detail at the practical issues of connecting to the Internet and suggest sites to visit.

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