What happens when a school has access to the Internet on dozens of computers? Tim Clark of Research Machines' Internet for Learning service believes that the normal way for accessing the Internet in secondary schools will be through multiple access on the network. He believes that one dial-up access point in a large secondary school is about as useful as one telephone or one computer in a school.
Until now, the main bar to multiple access has been cost: not the cost of installation but the on-line charges. It is likely that new, flat-top tariffs, such as those announced by the cable companies, where there is a known charge for unlimited access on a large number of machines, will take away cost as the issue and allow the real questions to shine through.
The 1,400 students at Chaucer Technology School in Canterbury, Kent, have, for the past year, had access to the Internet on its network. Jim Wynn, the headteacher, says that any school interested in learning cannot ignore the Internet.
At Chaucer you are struck by the sheer number of computers. Jim Wynn spends 3 per cent of his budget on information technology; nationally the figure is 0.7 per cent. But, he says, "We should all be spending about 5 per cent if we take the information society seriously."
Forty of the 250 curriculum computers at Chaucer are linked to the Internet via a direct line to RM's headquarters at Abingdon, Oxfordshire. The advantage of this is that the Internet is available at all times. There is no dialling in; just click an icon on the screen and you can be in to the World Wide Web as quickly and sometimes more quickly than you would be into Encarta.
"We try to make it easy for people," says Jim Wynn. "Internet has made e-mail work and we didn't expect that. The main growth over the past year has not been in the use of the Internet but in the way that people use e-mail. Internet has made e-mail a reality for many people. The use of internal e-mail has increased my productivity and that of others: 10 members of staff can access the school network and Internet from their homes. We certainly find that IT has as great an impact on administration as it does on the curriculum."
History classes at the school have gained. Lesley Evans, who co-ordinates the subject, explains: "We discovered the Mary Rose site when we were doing work on the reign of Henry VIII. At first students found the material and simply printed it out and presented it to me. Of course, that was unsatisfactory, so I prepared a work sheet on the Mary Rose and now when I use that topic I have the pupils working through the assignments. It does mean that they have to read and absorb.
"Some of them have gone off to other sites such as clip-art sites to find images of ships because they were not happy with ones they had. We have also found that there is a tour of Canterbury on the Internet and we have found material there for our study of Tudor housing. Work at sixth-form level has been on their individual study. They have used the Internet for studies of American Indians, Christopher Marlowe and the Russian Revolution."
The Internet has also helped with maths, says Vic Ashdown. "It is a great database of up-to-the minute statistics - from sports results to the stock markets - and all in easily usable electronic form. The reality of the information and the fact that it is current increases the appeal and the motivation. We are hoping to set up a link with a school in Romania where we can develop some joint mathematical work."
The staff at Chaucer agree that the integration of the Internet is a whole school issue. "The management of change in schools is not well understood. The staff in this school are aware of the potential but they won't realise the potential overnight," says Vic Ashdown.
Mike Wharton, who is responsible for careers education, is enthusiastic about the Internet. "The attraction is that careers information should be up to the minute, and on the Internet it can be. Students can find universities and colleges and look at them before physically going there. It enables them to make better choices."
The staff bemoan the difficulty in finding information. They all know that the material is there but feel that they need help with listing it. Mike Wharton believes that careers services across the country need to co-ordinate their lists of worthwhile jobs. The school recognises the problem and has employed a former pupil, Chris Hatton, who is filling in time before going to university, to research possible sites.
The computers at Chaucer are managed by Derek Bird, who says that there have been no serious technical problems over the past year. "We could have Internet on all the computers, but we keep it to 40 to keep up the speed," he says. His next step is to develop an Intranet (an internal Internet) at the school, which will help the staff who worry about the amount of time taken to find things. "The material will be there and it will be backed up by material that has been produced in-house."
Jim Wynn feels strongly that every single document in his school should be available on the Intranet. "At the moment in every school there is a vast amount of material in existence that no one can locate. Put all your material on the Intranet and you can use your own internal search engine." Information handling writ large.
In a school where there is so much access to the Internet, are there any problems with children getting hold of pornographic and subversive materials? Derek Bird looks surprised and then bored with the question. "All Internet use is logged. All the students know it is logged and few take the risk. We can identify any breaches. It's as simple as that."
Most politicians will tell you that plugging a school into the Internet will transform learning. The lesson from Chaucer technology school is that, although there will, of course, be changes, these will be slower than anticipated and they will need to be related to a national infrastructure, which, unfortunately, does not yet exist. The other important point will be the quality of training in a curriculum context; having access to this vast resource does not guarantee inspiring teaching.
* RM Internet for Learning, Research Machines plc, 183 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4SE.Tel: 01235 826519