Hang ups

William Shakespeare visited America. If that's the first you've heard of it, you'll be even more surprised to learn that he didn't do so until the early 1940s - presumably, as part of the war effort. It seems he even managed to encode cryptic references to his little-known transatlantic hop in the plays and poems he wrote 300 years previously. I know all this because I have been chatting to a man in Dallas who claims to be able to quote the lines in the collected works which offer irrefutable proof of the visit.

Of course, I should have taken copious notes and alerted The Times Literary Supplement to hold the front page. But instead I hurriedly told my source to have a nice day now and made him vanish like "breath into the wind" as the time-travelling Bard once said - possibly in a southern drawl.

This trick of being able to make people vanish is one of the great joys of Internet Relay Chat (IRC). If you feel trapped in a conversation that is boring, bigoted, blush-making or plain barmy, one imperious click of your mouse brings it to a merciful end. You are then free to search for new virtual chums - and there are legions of them hanging around in cyberspace for no other reason than to find someone else with whom to pass the time of day.

IRC enables those who are eager to chew the cud to congregate in a "room" of their choice. There is a bewildering assortment of these on the Net. But if you are new to IRC and want to explore the possibilities with the minimum of fuss and expense, take advantage of the free trials being advertised by the big Internet service providers: America On Line (AOL), Compuserve, Virgin Online and Microsoft Network.

I have been using AOL, which has hundreds - possibly thousands - of rooms devoted to everything from metaphysics to motor cars. Enter the room, and you can eavesdrop on the badinage which scrolls up the screen. If you want to join in, you simply type in your pearls of wisdom and they appear instantly. It's true that many of the conversations can often be embarrassingly anodyne, sometimes offensive, and occasionally obscene. But if you don't like the particular crowd in one room, you quickly bid your fond adieus and head for another.

IRC, however, offers far more than this. In addition to being able to engage in a communal chin-wag, it's easy to strike up a private conversation with any individual in the room. You and your new-found chum simply open a window in which you can chat without being overheard by the others. You can even set up your own private room, and, if you so wish, allow others to join you there - by invitation only.

The educational potential is obvious. Children might enjoy using e-mail but soon realise it's only a souped-up version of the service that Postman Pat provides. IRC, on the other hand, offers them the exhilaration of meeting new people and the spontaneity of a real conversation.

Teachers are already capitalising on this. In the latest issue of Educational Computing Technology, Chris Flanagan, a primary head, describes how AOL enabled him to create a virtual classroom in which pupils from several schools could "meet".

It could prove just as useful for older pupils. For example, AOL has rooms where the participants chat in French, Spanish and German. Here, pupils can practise communicating in another tongue, without having to worry about their accent. In English, sciences and the humanities, specialists could be summoned to lead discussion groups on every conceivable subject - including, of course, the vexed question of where Shakespeare was during the Second World War.


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