Whereas earlier use of computer technology left the school and teacher in charge of the information base available to students, the growth of multimedia computers in homes, coupled with owners gaining access to the Internet, means that pupils may have access to a far bigger depository of reference material at home. It is this change from school and teacher to technology in the home that is so exciting and daunting.
At the moment, the Internet is not the information superhighway. In many respects it is a cobbled street and "surfers" are mere pedestrians. However, its worldwide infrastructure and growth rate means that it has become of interest to schools. Schemes such as Research Machines' Internet for Learning, British Telecom's CampusWorld and Acorn's Education Online mean that a full UK educational Internet service is emerging for schools and home users. So what use can be made of the Internet?
E-mail (electronic mail) has been the mainstay of educational communications in the UK. The Internet provides teachers and pupils with the opportunity to engage in and set up their own e-mail projects with partner schools throughout the world.
Contact can be established through schemes such as the European Schools Project. The ESP collates lists of like-minded schools throughout the world which are seeking contacts in Britain. Once contact is established, a co-operative e-mail project can be set up by the schools involved which can have a geographical or historical focus.
An informal way to set up activities with other schools is through subscribing to one or more teacher-oriented mail groups. Electronic messages are posted to a mail group and all subscribers receive them. Posting a request for help with a project usually results in an overwhelming response, with teachers then forwarding your request to other mail groups which they belong to.
Mail groups for students also exist, although it is wise to use only monitored groups for this type of activity. Kids-96, run by Kidslink, is perhaps the best in this respect. Children who want to participate send responses to four introductory questions and are subscribed to a mail group of children with similar interests.
Information on the Internet exists in many forms with perhaps the World Wide Web (WWW) being the easiest to use. Clicking with the mouse on screen buttons or highlighted words provides links to other pages of information on other computers somewhere else in the world. Geographers are the best off in this respect. For example, some networks hold weather reports and information from sites throughout the world, and these are updated automatically from computers at those sites. Text, photographs and even sound can all be downloaded to your computer for further examination and incorporation into students' work.
All major world newspapers are available with text stories from the day's printed copy and previous editions. If you want you can access original story material via Reuters and other news agencies.
On-line projects are also available via the WWW. An exciting example is MayaQuest, which took place in the spring and is repeated this winter. Students take part in a modern-day expedition to Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras. Laptop computers and a satellite modem link a cycling team to schools and homes via the Internet. During the three-month expedition students can use personal computers to interact with the team and help make decisions about everything from what they should pack to which of the pre-arranged research sites they should explore. Students have an opportunity to pose questions to archaeologists at those sites and consider problems pivotal to their research. As archaeologist Peter Dunham put it, "Students may not give us the exact answer, but they may force us to look at problems in new ways that could lead to the answer."
This is all backed up by printed materials, regular broadcast reports on CNN, a MayaQuest telephone hot-line and and WWW information and activities on ancient civilisations, maths, science, geography, art, architecture, and the links between the ancient Maya and present-day civilisations.
Much of the Internet-based information is aimed at the US education system. However, that will change soon. Campus World will provide UK curriculum projects and resources via the Internet in much the same way that Campus has always provided highquality educational projects. Acorn is exploring what might be done, given present technology, based on material and ideas being used in its interactive television trial in Cambridge.
Local resources should also be available soon. Norfolk's Advisory Service will shortly establish a World Wide Web site providing resources and projects based on the county, but open to all. One important aspect of the Norfolk service is that it will be truly curriculum-based.
"The aim is that our Web site will not be IT-centric . . . history projects will be presented in the history area with other history-focused material, not necessarily in the IT area. In this way we can 'sell' the integration of IT more successfully," says Steve Lepper, advisory teacher for humanities.
The Internet is here today, but within five years interactive television could well provide a greater range of materials without the intimidatory factor of a desktop computer. The prospect of infinite information sources for humanities learning available in the home will change the way in which we educate our children. If individual teachers hide away from the next stage of the information revolution they may be letting the world pass them by in more ways than one.