The jungle on your desktop

It might be over-hyped, but video-conferencing lets pupils glimpse the history andculture of peoples acrossthe globe, writes Valerie Hall

hanks to the Internet and video-conferencing, schools are spoilt for choice when it comes to linking up with online expeditions to far-flung corners of the globe. But is this method of enlivening learning as great as it is cracked up to be?

David Hassell is head of curriculum and institutional development at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA). He believes there is "enormous potential, provided organisers wishing to involve schools match what they're doing to the curriculum. But some are poorly planned and the cynic in me feels they could be seen as a way of getting good PR and funding from sponsors."

One venture undoubtedly geared to schools is The International Challenge: Tropic of Cancer (TIC.TOC), an ambitious 18-month fund-raising expedition in aid of cancer charities.

Starting next winter, about 80 young explorers aged 18 to 21 will pass through 18 countries, roughly following the Tropic line. They will, according to TIC.TOC leader Sarah Ewing, "compare and contrast lifestyles, languages and environmental issues, exchange data and information with distant schools, and swap news and views with children of different races, cultures and religions".

The ground was prepared with pilot projects that pupils followed on the Internet while mirroring some of the scientific activities. These included a junior project on the migratory habits of sperm whales in the Caribbean, and secondary projects on weather and climate in the Moroccan Sahara, as well as the Hong Kong business environment.

Another recommendation from Hassell is River 2000, which describes itself as "the first expedition to trans-navigate the world by the rivers, lakes, canals and inland seas of Eurasia, the Americas and Africa". Led by British explorer Alexander Stannus, the River 2000 team sets out from the Greenwich Meridian in December, aiming to return there on December 31, 2000. En route, the team will set primary and secondary ICT projects on topics ranging from water quality to human impact and environmental change, based on geographical, scientific and environmental surveys. As a result of the project, Stannus has been named Associate Laureate of the 1998 Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

Hassell's seal of approval also goes to the Kota Mama (Mother of the Lake) expedition for selecting a secondary school, Brixham Community College in Torbay, Devon, to communicate with them in English and Spanish via satellite computer and telephone link. They will also transfer text and digital video images on to the Internet for other educational establishments worldwide to access, relay questions to the team and post the answers on the website.

Organised by the British Chapter of the Explorers Club, the expedition is following in the wake of the 1947 Kon-Tiki and 1970 Ra II expeditions in testing the theory that the pre-Inca Tiwanaku civilisation, dating back to 1200BC, used reed boats to travel and trade throughout the Americas and across oceans to other continents. It is also highlighting the need to excavate Bolivia's 30,000 unexplored archaeological sites.

During the first phase, the team - often waist-deep in mud - sailed and hauled their boats along the 400km of lagoons, swamps and canyons between lakes Titikaka and Poopo. After a live link-up, when Bolivian archaeologists spoke of discovering a Tiwanaku settlement and the remains of a fortress, Sarah Roache, aged 13, said: "It was really interesting, particularly the excavation of two stone Cha-Cha pumas (half male, half puma) at the settlement. I am enjoying the research." Ben Lawson, also 13, said: "It is a three-dimensional experience, better than textbooks."

Brixham will continue its involvement next year - when the fleet follows the South American coast for 1,000 miles to Montevideo - and in 2000, when it crosses the Atlantic to Cape Town. A range of cross-curricular materials will be produced, says college vice-principal David Parker: "Kota Mama is having an extremely positive effect on students' motivation - so many wanted to be involved in transmissions we had to turn some away."


Magellan Global Adventure

1997-2000: the Schurmann family is retracing Magellan's route. Provides e-mail interaction with the crew and educational team. Teachers' guide contains 100 lessons (social studies, science, maths and communication) with links to the Encarta encyclopedia (www.adventureonline.commagellanindex.html) Arctic Challenge: attempt at first circumnavigation of Greenland by dogsled and sea kayak. Study ideas related to science, social studies, maths and writing (www.adventureonline.comigeindex.html) Ocean EXPO: two-year sailing adventure circling the globe to mark the 500th year of Portuguese exploration and the International Year of the Ocean. Information on ocean ecosystems, coral reefs, island habitats, geographical and marine exploration via live contact with skippers (www.bwsailing.comSOC.html) go to pic library Details of the International Challenge Tropic of Cancer plus over 80 project ideas and information on associate membership can be found at: Kota Mama (Mother of the Lake)(at kota-mama.awc.

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