It might also surprise you to learn that many of the 8,000 servers that service these 2 million clients are linked together in a worldwide network which, until recently, was one of the best-kept secrets of the electronic universe. The Open University is one of the largest users in the world and is set to become the largest over the next two years.
These 2 million people have discovered FirstClass a powerful e-mail, computer conference and bulletin board system. Although it currently requires an Apple Macintosh as a server (a Windows server is due), users can be on either Windows or Mac and they can seamlessly communicate with one another and exchange files with impunity.
What makes FirstClass so attractive is the fact that using it simply creates another desktop on the top of your own computer desktop. It is a familiar world of files, folders, click and double click. It is graphical, straightforward and intuitive. Above all, it is lightning fast. At Pounds 65 for server software and with client licences roughly Pounds 1 each, it is also comparatively cheap.
In Scotland, the education sector has embraced FirstClass with enthusiasm. There have been a number of separate servers for up to two years in organisations. And now many of these servers are linked, or gatewayed. What this means is that exchange of information is possible all around Scotland at minimal cost to the user (local telephone calls) and the gateway manager.
For example, on the server at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology there are a whole string of conferences designed for computing teachers. They specialise in the various parts of the computing curriculum, Standard Grade, Higher, 5-14 and so on, and any teacher registered on the SCET system can make hisher contribution, but that contribution will be seen by teachers literally the length and breadth of Scotland who can comment, add their perspective or initiate a new discussion.
So for a local telephone call into SCET, a teacher in Inverness and a teacher south of Glasgow can exchange information and set up a continuing dialogue which will help them solve problems, exchange resources perhaps or discuss a thorny curriculum issue.
It also means that all the users registered on the gateway servers can e-mail one another as simply as using the Internet. E-mail to and from the Internet is also possible.
In Highland Region, Higher subjects are actually taught through FirstClass using the Tutorial and Conference facilities. In Argyll and Bute, a network has been established linking schools and pupils right across this remote and island- studded region. In Northern College, ex-students, now probationary teachers, can keep in touch with their tutors and each other wherever they happen to be teaching through a virtual resource centre and information network.
SCET ran Scotland's first FirstClass Conference in February and it was fully booked in a fortnight. Out of this, a commitment to ScotEdNet was born which, with Scottish Office involvement, might become an important network for education.
The FirstClass software is distributed by Eurosource in London and SCET is now a sub-distributor for Scotland. Both organisations run regular courses to train administrators. FirstClass is so straightforward that the basic administration can be delivered in a day and Eurosource also has its own on-line network for support, and it connects into the parent company, SoftArc, in Canada, which runs a massive worldwide advice and information system.
FirstClass is exciting, not because of its originality but because of its simplicity of operation, ease of use, friendliness and its relationship with the rest of the world.
SCET or Eurosource will send you a free FirstClass demonstration disc for either Windows or Mac. Eurosource, Hayes Gate House, 27 Uxbridge Road, Hayes UB4 0JN. Tel: 0181 561 1993.
SCET, 74 Victoria Crescent Road, Glasgow G12 9JN. SCET's FirstClass contacts are Mike Thomas and Duncan McKay on 0141 337 5069 and 0141 337 5052.
Nigel Paine is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology.
For more information on communications projects in Scotland see today's Computers Update in The TES.