At Henry Box School in Witney, a comprehensive in Oxfordshire, Daniel and Sarah, two A-level economics students, are attempting to test the hypothesis that the wealth of a country is linked to investment. From a list on their computer screen they choose three countries - Japan, the UK and the Ivory Coast - and from a long menu of economic indicators they select two and immediately up comes the chart they need.
Later Sarah returns to the computer to get information on company policies for a project. She taps into a briefing from The Body Shop and extracts one of the company policy statements. She then cuts and pastes this in a word-processing document she is also working on. Not an unusual exercise, surely? This sort of information has been available in many forms for years. But there is a difference. First, the data the students are using can be updated daily and, second, they are finding it all in one place.
They are accessing BizEd Net, a new, unrestricted information gateway for economics and business education on the Internet. It is free for those already on the Internet.
More than most subjects, business studies and economics need up-to-date facts, figures and information, particularly with the increasing emphasis in those subjects on real examples.
Vast amounts of current information is what the Internet is supposed to be all about. But schools often find that navigating it is rather like finding a route through a jungle without a compass. Many a teacher has spent hours expensively surfing with nothing educationally significant to show for it.
"BizEd addresses that problem," said Chris Salmons, economics teacher at Henry Box School. "It brings all the information which could be all over the place on to one site. It also has information sources not found elsewhere on the Internet."
Initiated by the Economics and Business Education Association (EBEA), BizEd is hosted by the University of Bristol and managed by a consortium including Blackwell Publishers, Education and Youth (E Y) and Norfolk County Council as a non-profit service.
Most of the information is contributed by companies and leading organisations, including Virgin Atlantic, The Body Shop, BMW, BP, BT, the Central Statistical Office, the Inland Revenue and The Financial Times. To ensure that the information is relevant to education and that marketing hype and corporate propaganda is excluded, monitoring is organised by the EBEA.
"The concept behind BizEd is to develop a comprehensive gateway to a wide range of information in support of all business studies and economics courses currently undertaken in the UK," said Anita Roddick, chief executive of The Body Shop.
"The individual student is in control when using BizEd. The student is responsible for using the Internet not only to stretch his or her imagination and knowledge, but also to seek out and find meaningful information on how a company integrates its values into its business practices and results."
The service was launched in January, and, though certain areas are still threadbare, the amount of information is growing rapidly as new companies and organisations join, and will grow faster when teachers begin to contribute their own resources.
In four weeks schools logged 7,000 "hits" or sessions with the service, although how many schools this represents has not been calculated.
Included in the service are company case studies and briefings; macro-economic statistics, including UK share prices; financial data from leading UK companies; Penn World Data Tables for 152 countries with 29 economic statistics each, such as gross domestic product; answers from leading companies to questions students typically ask and a section on resources for teachers.
Also provided are short-cuts to the best economics and business resources elsewhere on the Internet.
Chris Salmons was particularly excited by a simulation available on an Institute for Fiscal Studies site. Called "Be a Chancellor", it enables users to see the effects on different groups of people of the economic changes which a Chancellor of the Exchequer might make. "It's so much more fun than just talking about it," he said.
Salmons finds the statistics particularly impressive. Because they are up-to-date, they are more useful than those provided on many database programs and non-interactive textbooks are often out-of-date before publication.
"The department found they could get into BizEd very quickly," Salmons said. "The indexing was straightforward, making it easy to go backwards and forwards. You can't get lost."
Ashley Slay, who teaches business studies in the school, was looking forward to getting more information on resources to use in the classroom.
Another service which both teachers thought would add significantly to their bank of resources was the "talk back" feature which enables users to contribute news, views and their own resources.
However, there is one major obstacle to the use of the service in the way envisaged by Anita Roddick and others: the shortage of computers. At present Henry Box School has only one computer linked to the Internet, and that is not located in a classroom.
It is difficult to see how each student in a class of 28 studying business studies will be able to integrate the service fully into their course unless more computers are provided. It is a problem many schools will face as they increasingly want to access information networks.
For further information contact: Richard Young, Business Education on the Internet, Centre for Computing in the Social Sciences, University of Bristol, 8 Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1TN. Tel: 0117 928 8478; the BizEd Net site address is http:bizednet.bris.ac.uk:8080