It's become fashionable these days to criticise the Internet. The blase say that it's a mess and everything is difficult to find. But that's not really true. What should be criticised is the use that we have, or haven't, made of it. There has been no all-embracing national initiative and there are few clear guidelines for teachers on how to incorporate it into the curriculum.
Relatively few schools have got their collective heads around the challenges posed by this sprawling, unruly technology. You can look at the Internet as a giant CD-Rom full of diverse information, or as a software library, but probably its most creative use is as a publishing medium - real publishing, school sites out there side by side with the media giants.
Invicta Grammar School for Girls in Maidstone, Kent, has to open early to deal with the demand for the Internet; the school has Internet access on 17 of its machines. Girls arrive at 8am so that they can do some research before lessons start.
Sue Glanville, the headteacher at Invicta, is impressed with the way that the girls have absorbed the technology. "All the girls here are comfortable with IT and it is they who are driving things. Staff will often use the Internet at the instigation of the girls. Some of our design and technology work is benefiting enormously, and English and science have gained greatly. The school now has its own Web site and the girls contribute a great deal to that."
We are in a kind of golden age for the Internet. So take advantage of it. The AOL free subscription offer is still open. The Microsoft offer of Tools for Schools is underway. Some of the offer includes free evaluation and free copies of software - video-conferencing, publishing, templates, Web Whacker, Internet Phone. Microsoft says that with these tools you can set up your own Intranet (internal network) in an hour.
BT CampusWorld's collaboration with Microsoft - The X Project: Schools' Election Online - is an intriguing development. The idea is to increase interest among young people in the general election as well as demonstrate an innovative use of the Internet. The site is made up of a number of areas, and there is material for primary, secondary and special needs. You do not have to be a subscriber to CampusWorld to take part. All schools that register will be sent a copy of Microsoft's Tools for Schools.
All Microsoft's recent products come with ways of linking them to the Internet - Word, Publisher, Excel, Creative Writer. Probably its most satisfying addition is Front Page97, which takes the grind out of creating Web pages and allows your creativity to shine through. Hypertext Markup Language used to be the province of people who enjoyed writing just to create a straight line. Front Page means that you can create a page just as easily as you can write a Word document. Your documents can include words, pictures and sounds. It is the writing of the future - now.
RM's Internet for Learning site is one of the best on the Web in the UK. Unfortunately, there are now restrictions. If you are not a subscriber, you will not be able to get to all the sections, although there are still extensive areas that you can reach.
Education Online is supported by Acorn, Apple, Xemplar, Dial Solutions and Sun Microsystems. Mike Collett, one of the founders of this service, is keen to point out that the site developers want open systems, that is free software that can be used on all the leading systems of hardware. The site is still being developed, but the service hopes to publish worksheets that teachers can download, adapt and utilise in the curriculum.
TeacherNetUK, based on an Australian model, is intended to bring together existing projects under a national umbrella. It does not yet have a Web site. More details can be obtained from Marilyn Leask.
Interaid is a charity set up to encourage schools around the world, particularly in developing countries, to connect to the Internet. It has a twinning scheme between schools in Johannesburg and Birmingham. You can link up to other useful Web sites through the Interaid site, which invites educational software developers to provide their software free for downloading. There are also materials to help teachers and pupils to use IT more effectively.
Schools OnLine is a research project (see page 10) with an award-winning Website set up at Ultralab, Anglia Polytechnic University's learning research centre. Professor Stephen Heppell is trying some innovative things: "We are finding out what works and what doesn't," he said.
All these organisations have something to offer schools. The potential is there; we just need to learn to co-operate. If you want to see what can be done when organisations get together, then look at the Science Learning Network. Like other Internet pioneers, they didn't just talk about it - they got on with it.
* INTERNET SITES
BT Campusworld http:www.campus.bt.comCampusWorldelection97 Education Online http:www.meiko.co.ukeol Interaid http:www.hovihelp.co.uk Marilyn Leask firstname.lastname@example.org Microsoft http:www.microsoft. comuk education. RM's Internet for Learning http:www.rmplc.co.uk Schools OnLine http:www.ultralab.anglia. ac.ukpagesschools_online Science Learning Network http:www.sln.org