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Check out the grand gesture

The offer of a free on-line service to all secondary schools sounds too good to be true. Jack Kenny inspects a gift horse

Americans market in a totally different way from Europeans. The grand gesture raises British suspicion and the AOL on-line service has done just that with its offer of free subs-criptions to all UK secondary schools, handing them the potential to pick up masses of curriculum materials.

So, what's the catch? AOL's motive is clear. The company is betting that when parents hear that AOL is being used in schools they will be more likely to get their own subscriptions.

Jonathan Bulkeley, the managing director of AOL, has realised the potential of strengthening links between learning at home and learning at school. The AOL offer is not just Internet access, but free, unlimited access to the full range of AOL services, including classroom resources provided by Anglia Multimedia.

Peter Stibbons, of Anglia Multimedia, is not daunted by the challenge. He realises that if the service, Education Anglia, is going to be a success then he will have to move quickly to produce good content. The national curriculum service will be aimed at schools and children who want homework support.

The trouble with the Internet is that it is so vast. People expect an area of diverse, rich, multi-faceted resources. Peter Stibbons says: "Whether it is languages or mathematics, history or science, geography or design technology, there will be materials from Education Anglia to help the enquiring mind. "

AOL's parent - America Online (the other is the Bertelsmann group) - is the biggest of the on-line service providers, claiming to have more than five million subscribers world-wide. Like its main rival, CompuServe, it has its own area - a kind of walled garden - which can only be reached by subscribers to AOL. There are areas for news, entertainment, shopping, sport, weather, Internet gateway, travel, mail and education.

The content is good, attractively presented and AOL claims that most of its subscribers are so satisfied that they rarely venture out on to the Internet.

At the moment AOL is engaged in tailoring content for the UK. The Independent will be on-line as will the Daily Mirror. The AA will also be supplying services. AOL is already operating in Germany and France. Those sites are accessible from the UK and will provide a rich area for resourceful language teachers.

So how does AOL compare with its rivals, CampusWorld, Internet for Learning, Edex and Dialnet?

Let's forget that it is free. The installation of the software is the best that I have seen. I was up and running in about 10 minutes. It operates at high speed (28,800 bits per second) and it does seem to run faster than all its rivals but, as AOL admits, there have been some teething problems with the network. Most of the country will be in local-call range by April.

The material in the AOL area is of good quality, wide-ranging and some of it can be used in the classroom. The electronic mail (e-mail) is easy to use. Free Web pages are offered. Getting out on to the Internet is simple. It is, however, PC-only in the UK: a Macintosh version will be available later in the year.

There must be a down side. There is. The dream that the educational community would somehow find a way of pooling resources is now further away. And there is a danger of setting up ghettos - RM, CampusWorld, Dialnet, now AOL - all separate, all distinct, all with resources locked away and only available to their own subscribers (not exactly in keeping with the spirit of the Internet).

But do take up Jonathan Bulkeley's offer. If the response is good and parents become involved, then he could well be persuaded to extend it to primary schools and that would be challenging. For a secondary school, AOL is a beginning but not a long-term solution.

Dial-up access is just a toe in the water. Just as we would consider one computer per secondary school to be inadequate so, in the near future, we will consider one access point per school to be insufficient.

The long-term learning gains for schools will come from access to the Internet through the school network. The gains for AOL, and for students, will come from making the connection between school and home.

* AOL, First Floor, The Fulham Centre, 20 Fulham Broadway, London SW6 1AH. Tel: 0171 385 9404

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