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Infobahn or Info-bootsale?

Hugh John sees dross and delight vying for our attention on the Net

As the Internet expands, with subscribers in 137 countries, parents and schools must begin to wonder if now is the time to get on-line.

In barely two years, the World Wide Web has grown from a promising development to an established entity with more than 30 million pages and is said to be growing at the rate of two million pages per day. According to the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), the number of documents available on the Internet doubles every 55 days and they are stored at more than 17 million addresses around the world.

Developments in computer technology mean that within the next few years, families could be buying inexpensive dedicated machines to plug straight into the Internet. This is the vision of Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle, who promises such a network computer by 1997. Acorn has been contracted to develop the technology, which will cost around Pounds 350. Although there is some scepticism within the industry, Apple, Philips, Sun and Microsoft have already announced plans for similar products.

The advent of cable and satellite telecommunications has accustomed consumers to the idea of weekly or monthly payments for a service previously paid for by licence fee or advertisers. Monthly connection to the Internet is, typically, between Pounds 10 and Pounds 15 with a one-off instalment fee. The next 12 months will see surf wars on an unprecedented scale as on-line service providers vie for a lucrative, fast-growing market.

Indigo, in Ireland, provides Internet connection for 1996 for a single fee of Pounds 30.25p. Enterprise, in the Isle of Man, is offering free access to all UK schools at local call connection rates.

Leeds-based Planet Online has offered to connect all of Britain's 20,000 schools to its ISDN network. Steve Pearce, the company's sales director feels the company can provide schools with "a viable solution at a sensible price". Chairman Paul Sykes has already outlined his plans to the Government and is to discuss them with the Minister for Science and Technology, Ian Taylor.

Meanwhile, AOL, a service run by America Online and the Bertelsmann Group is aiming to break into the UK market by offering free Internet access to every secondary school. It will also donate 2 megabytes of space to any participating school which wants its own Web page. Subscribers will also have access to AOL's services, including Education Anglia, managed by Anglia Multimedia.

Initially, the company will concentrate on support materials for the national curriculum, but its long-term intention is to encourage and strengthen links between school and community. Gareth Davies, general manager of Anglia Multimedia, foresees the development of on-line "chat rooms", where children can meet media or sporting personalities, and homework help forums where teachers provide real-time advice.

These new initiatives should mean that many more schools will soon be on-line. But how is this going to benefit pupils, and what significance will the Net have for links between school and home?

Opinions are divided on the lasting value of the Internet. Is it, as Nicholas Negroponte, media director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims, the most important technological development of our time, or, as Clifford Stoll has argued in his book, little more than Silicon Snake Oil?

Definite trends and possibilities are emerging. One of the most common uses of Web pages has been to promote the school and its resources, but soon schools could become the hub of local networks with links to the home, community and industry. Children unable to attend school could access information boards which would keep them posted on activities and homework.

Sponsorship in education has already brought closer links between schools and commerce and the Net could strengthen them. Careers teachers, for example, could help school-leavers prepare a CV which could be sent "down the wire" to local firms which could, in turn, inform schools of forthcoming job vacancies.

Some critics of the new on-line culture claim parents would much sooner visit the real school and meet teachers. But what of parents who through long-term illness or disability cannot leave their homes? To these, the virtual classroom, where they can see school projects, and the video-conferencing suite or real-time chatroom, where they can talk to their children's teacher, are not poor substitutes, but practical, modern alternatives.

Professor Stephen Heppell, who runs the Schools OnLine project, says the on-line school as a database or bulletin board, which can be accessed by families for homework and general information, is only part of the picture. The creation of Web pages will give schools the opportunity to "celebrate the individual", he reckons.

Children who have skills and interests outside normal school activity can be encouraged and nurtured. He thinks the serendipitous nature of browsing, where hypertext links take children from subject to subject, is one of the most stimulating aspects of the Web.

Schools OnLine is a collaborative and interactive process, and students who visit the site are encouraged to use the feedback option and electronically mail their suggestions to the project team. It is the interactivity of Web-based information that is so exciting and means that the site director or operator can constantly reshape and redefine it in response to the needs and suggestions of users.

Parents and educators are rightly concerned at the sleazier aspect of the digital nether world, but with sensitive management of hardware and software the danger of children coming into contact with unsuitable material can be minimised. The NCET advises parents that, wherever possible, home use of the computer should be in the living room rather than the bedroom. And parents should discuss contentious topics such as pornography and extreme political opinion with their children.

Pam Turnbull, editor of Parents and Computers, feels that media focus on electronic pornography has deflected attention from the more insidious threat of revisionist history on the Net. For example, anti-Semitic propaganda about the Holocaust which was formerly spread by Nazi groups in pamphlets and books is now being propagated on Web pages.

But there is much to celebrate and surprise us. The Poetry Society, founded in 1909, is now on-line and receives more than 3,000 visitors weekly. Maggie O'Farrell, the society's information officer, says: "The invention of the Internet is going to have as much effect on the way people write as the invention of the printing press." She cites the use of hypertext links as a creative writing technique which has yet to be fully explored.

So, Infobahn or Info-bootsale? Both. As the world clambers on to the Web for its 5 megabytes of on-line fame, we can expect a deluge of self-aggrandisement and dross. But there's no doubting that the Internet offers the educational community enormous resources and facilities.

In this unmediated electronic world, the role of parent and teacher as guide and arbiter will be crucial. The need to appraise and codify this vast pool of information will broaden the remit of teacher and parent, and strengthen the links between them.

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