Since late last year, the history department at Sackville comprehensive, East Grinstead, has had a room with 16 computers permanently connected to the Internet. This service, installed by SchoolNet and funded by the West Sussex education authority, is having a dramatic impact on the way the department is teaching history.
The SchoolNet package includes an ISDN connection, unlimited webspace and a delivery system which allows every student and member of staff to have their own e-mail address.
As I have had experience of creating material for the Internet it was decided to establish a history department website. The idea might sound daunting but producing web pages is no more difficult than using a word processing package. At Sackville we use Corel Webmaster Suite, but there are a great number of other packages on the market.
The computers have been set up so that whenever the user goes on to the Internet they automatically arrive at the Sackville school site. The menu then allows them to select the relevant department or year group.
For example, Year 8 have been studying Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. On the Year 8 history web page there are links to websites that provide biographies of the two, a time-line of events, and details of the Civil War.
The wealth of information available on the Internet makes it possible to organise individual research projects for students. For example, "The Emancipation of Women: 1750-1920" website includes biographies of 60 women who played a prominent role in women's rights. Each entry includes primary sources about the women. The website also has sections on women in the 19th century, pressure groups, strategies and tactics; and Parliamentary Reform Acts.
Each student is given the name of one of these women to research. In follow-up lessons, the students share their findings with the rest of the class. In doing so they explore the links between the individual women and look at themes such as childhood, wives and mothers, further education, work and women's organisations.
The Internet enables students to become authors as well as users of information. Sackville students are involved in a project based at the European Union Virtual School and with students and teachers from France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden and Greece, are producing an encyclopedia on the First World War.
Each student is responsible for one entry. As well as material on national issues, they also research the effect the war had on their communities. By the end of this year we should have more than 1,000 pages of information on the Internet. This makes students' work more meaningful as they are aware they are contributing to a global reference library.
Another website enables students to investigate the Vietnam War. It has an interview area where students can interview Vietnam veterans and members of the Vietnam Peace Movement by e-mail. Dr Robert Blackburn, the website's historian, is also available to answer questions.
At the moment one of the most daunting is finding websites that contain the information you want to use in your teaching. In time, the National Grid for Learning Virtual Teachers' Centre and the Historical Association websites will probably be the main places to visit. However, at present these sites are very much in their early stages. The BBC Education Guide and BUBL both provide a large number of reviewed websites and the Spartacus Website Guide includes a comprehensive list organised under national curriculum history study units. Other organisations supplying useful information for history teachers include Channel 4, History Today and The History Channel. Two organisations based in the US, the Scout Project at Wisconsin University and the Indiana Teaching Centre, also offer an e-mail service where they will send you details of recently reviewed history websites.
John Simkin teaches history at Sackville school, East Grinstead, and is webmaster at Spartacus Educational