The Internet is likely to dominate the debates on education and information technology this year and while it is easy to be excited by its promise, it would be sensible also to be concerned. For there is a danger that the needs of education will be bogged down in arid arguments, first between communications regulator OFTEL and BT, and then between the Government and the Labour party. In fact, OFTEL is expected to announce a scheme for schools at BETT96.
In the past, the Department for Education and Employment has provided funding for CD-Rom, portables and the like. Now, with communication technologies that have a vast potential for learning and earning, there is very little cash available for schools.
Michael Heseltine's November announcement of Pounds 10 million for information superhighway projects contained only Pounds 500,000 from the Government for National Council for Educational Technology evaluation. The rest was put up by businesses. So there is little Government money, but lots of glossy brochures and election slogans.
Two years ago at BETT there was no Internet, the word was hardly mentioned. Its subsequent growth has amazed everyone. The quick-witted and the entrepreneurial have moved quickly but large concerns like BT and Microsoft have still not produced satisfactory responses. The whole area is in flux. The BBC Networking Club has already been and gone and so has a major provider, Cityscape (taken over by Demon).
This year has begun with problems for two major Internet providers to education. CampusWorld's high-profile launch with road shows across the country has been marred by complaints from people unimpressed by the contents of its "walled garden" which contains a number of BT services and a selection from the Internet. And those who have bought high-speed modems (28,800 bps) have found that the CampusWorld network will only let them log on at the slower 14, 400.
The Research Machines service, Internet for Learning, was launched just a year ago and already has almost 2,000 subscribers. The news that the service will be supported by Acorn, Apple and CableTel gives it a profile that makes it a serious rival to CampusWorld. However, Internet for Learning has had problems with the speed of transmission across the Atlantic.
Tim Clark of RM blames some of this on the fact that most of the content is in the United States. He emphasises the need for more content in Europe, so that the traffic across the Atlantic is reduced.
A new contender, Dialnet, will be exhibiting. Dialnet claims to have links with nearly half the secondary schools and sees the introduction of an Internet service as a natural development. Its past experience has been with communications between exam centres and examination boards.
Communications giant Oracle is also sizing up education. The company has announced its intention to provide its own Internet software to schools free of charge and to create network space for schools to put up their own information.
The real test will be the impact in the classrooms. As so often happens, some of the best IT initiatives begin in Scotland. Maggie Symonds of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology says: "On-line communications in Scotland have developed at least as quickly as elsewhere, mostly because the need is there to overcome distance. Primary schools in small island communities link up with each other, with remote teachers, and the world at large.
"There are projects in Argyll and Bute as well as in Orkney. Secondary students throughout any region gather virtually to form viable groups. Teachers pursue their professional development, and deliver courses on-line."
Lothian and Grampian seem to be the leaders in Internet use with pilot projects being carried out there.
Even more use is made within further and higher education. For example, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye, is experimenting with the delivery of Gaelic courses via the World Wide Web. The proposed University of the Highlands and Islands has been responsible for introducing much of the infrastructure required in the region it will serve, and Scotland's central belt is served by a cable network, available free to schools.
In Northern Ireland, the CLASS project, which is about the efficient administrative use of computers in schools, is using the Internet to link all schools into the system.
The NCET moved quickly last year to bring out Highways for Learning in a paper version as well as an electronic version which is updated periodically. The NCET is also sponsoring many of the BETT seminars which will look at the uses of the Internet in primary and secondary schools.
The centrepiece of BETT 96 will be the Net@BETT which will be run by RM's Internet for Learning in conjunction with Apple, Acorn and CableTel. It is to be hoped that ways will be found to continue the co-operation after the show.
Toby Wand, BETT's exhibition director, wants the Net@BETT to give teachers an opportunity to explore the Internet. "We will set up an informative and visitor-friendly area, designed to highlight the future role of the Internet within schools and colleges and provide practical examples of its applications across all subjects. Teachers will be able to sign up for Internet sessions and explore the potential.
Also new this year is the BETT page on the Internet. The address http:www.emap.combett will give prospective visitors a comprehensive view of the show, so that they can plan their visit.
The Internet is also influencing multimedia software. TAG Developments has recently launched HyperStudio for Mac, PC and Acorn. It is an authoring program enabling the bringing together of text, images and sound. The Macintosh version is ahead of the others and the latest development is the ability to write presentations that will be a mixture of material on the computer's hard disc and live links to the Internet.
One of the most intriguing developments will come from Philips Media's School 2000. The company has persevered with CD-i (Compact Disc Interactive), and it is now possible to get on to the Internet through it. Philips claims that this development puts the Internet squarely in the centre of learning areas. The materials will be visible on larger TV screens rather than on the usual monitors. All the usual Internet areas will be accessible and Philips claims that the total cost will be much lower than buying and using a PC. (See page 11.) ICL and the Ultralab research unit have been prime movers in the Schools On Line initiative. Their stands will feature some of the schools and students they have worked with over the past few months and show how the scheme has been implemented.
The offerings from Acorn will include the World Wide Web browser element of InterTalk, its Internet, e-mail and bulletin board software. The browser will be integrated into InterTalk soon after the show, and will be available as a free upgrade to existing InterTalk users.
CableTel, one of the country's largest providers of cable television, Internet services and telephony, will be exhibiting at BETT for the first time this year. It is rumoured that it will make an announcement concerning a major new initiative.
CampusWorld will almost certainly have some major announcement too. It claims to have more subscribers than any other provider to education. Its publication, Teaching and Learning with the Internet, is a good guide to the whole area. Phil Moore, of CampusWorld, says: "CampusWorld is different - it provides content. It does not just give pointers to other services."
It is easy to be swept away by BETT sales talk. Some very important issues are lurking in the background. "Information should be free" is the slogan that libertarian Americans use about the Internet. Naive and idealistic maybe, but there are powerful groups in the USA who believe it. Think of our library services at their best. The free flow of ideas is an important concept and should resonate strongly with educators.
But already CampusWorld has set up its walled garden. Other Internet providers are whispering about charging for content. Do we want a two-tier educational Internet in this country? Are we happy to envisage the creation of an Internet version of satellite television?
The Internet and what will follow is important for education. We should at least be talking about ways of making it a national resource and not just something for commerce to fight over.
* For Internet books, see page 39
* Acorn - stands 241,440
Apple - stand 251
BT - stand 211
CableTel - stand 839
DIALNet - stand 269
ICL - stand 250
Microsoft - stands 221, 231
NCET - stands 544, 560
Philips Media - stand 680 Research Machines - stand 131
SCET - stand 164
TAG - stand 166
Ultralab - stand 640