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Negativity of the Net 'means it is no panacea'

The Internet is no "panacea" for schools and enthusiasm for it should be kept in check, according to a leading information technology teacher.

Negative features of the Net, such as violent, pornographic and racist material, outweigh the benefits for children, writes Tom Conlon, senior lecturer in IT at Moray House Institute, in the Scottish Educational Review. He attacks those who equate the Net with the educational future and, in the belief that schools cannot afford to be left behind, want Scotland to become "100 per cent wired" to the Net this year.

Mr Conlon is particularly scathing about claims made by Nigel Paine, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, which he describes as "evangelistic" and "messianic". Mr Paine, who wants Scottish schools wired to the Net as soon as possible, said in a lecture last autumn that a child seeking factual information would be better let loose on the Net than sent to a library.

Mr Conlon says that such views could put pressure on schools to "look good in the 'educational marketplace'". But the Internet is "neither a library, nor a community, nor a panacea for difficult problems of teaching and learning". It is of benefit to higher education, and school teachers might be able to cope with its "chaotic organisation, its absence of quality, its unreliability", but for pupils the negative features loom large and the benefits are much less clear.

Pupils may produce colourful project reports, but "cutting and pasting is not the same as learning: it may simply be plagiarism".

The Higher Still development unit is working on a course about the Net, which it has described as "democratic". Mr Conlon says the claim is astounding: "a more accurate label may be anarchistic although that label sits uneasily alongside the powerful forces that drive IT in the world today - for example Gates and Murdoch, the telephone and cable companies, and the communication moguls".

Mr Conlon suggests alternatives to the Net - internal school networks (Intranets), reference materials on CD-Rom, and subscription-based conferencing systems. A computer network dedicated to education would be expensive, but not impossible in light of the decision to devise one in America for scientists and engineers who find the Internet too choked with traffic.

The danger, he says, is that alternatives are overlooked because of "technology evangelism" which short-circuits or polarises debate and inflates expectations making "subsequent disillusionment".

#163;4m for superhighway

Tom Conlon's criticisms come in the week when the Education Minister launched a #163;4 million Internet initiative which will see more than 500 primary, secondary and special schools in the West of Scotland given access to the superhighway.

Brian Wilson was at Braidfield High in Clydebank, the first of a core group of seven schools, one in each council area covered by CableTel, which is awarding #163;20,000 over the next two years to provide training,hardware andor software that can be used by other schools.

Braidfield is to spend the money to develop the curricular use of the Internet. The school also has plans to have video conferencing with European schools as part of its modern language courses.

Mr Wilson confirmed that the Government's enthusiasm for linking schools up to the Internet is undiminished, as he expressed the hope that the CableTel "Partnering Education" initiative will prove to be "a significant step on to the superhighway of the future".

The Government plans to develop a "national grid for learning" which, initially via the Internet, will provide up-to-date training material for teachers as well as resources for pupils. There will be consultation on how this should be done following a White Paper to be issued shortly by the Department for Education and Employment on the structure of the national grid.almost inevitable".

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