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PIN-ups;Essential guide to the Internet

The Parents Information Network's mission is to provide independent advice. Jacquie Disney explains

The Parents Information Network (PIN) started in 1994 just as the home market for personal computers was gaining a bigger profile with advertisements playing the guilt card: "you owe it to your children".

But PCs were expensive, which raised (and still raises) crucial issues of inclusion. Community access to ICT has from the start been a core element to PIN's vision.

Then, as now, teachers were getting some support - while parents were simply buying computers but getting little if any independent information and advice to help them to make informed decisions. There was also little awareness and help about how to make the most of this powerful new resource: many parents soon realised that the often difficult process of buying was superseded by the challenge of finding good quality educational software.

So the Parents Information Network was set up with a mission to provide independent advice and guidance - helping parents to understand the role, value and uses of computers, software and the Internet in supporting their children's education. It was also determined to help schools and other community learning providers who supported parents wanting to know more about ICT.

In 1996, it surveyed some 2,500 parents about what kind of support they needed most. A quite staggering majority (more than 90 per cent) identified independent, trustworthy reviews and, specifically, recommendations of educational software for use at home.

Parents wanted us to narrow down the bewildering choices and identify a trustworthy, more manageable selection.

The PIN software evaluation scheme was launched in June of that year. The network now manages a national network of review teams of teachers and parents. Teachers evaluate software in relation to educational content first, then parents and children evaluate what it's like to use at home.

As well as educational soundness, our evaluation criteria include design and presentation, enjoyment, "come back for more" factors and value for money. We introduced the PIN quality mark to software titles we have "approved" as a result of the evaluation feedback.

The scheme is now in its third year and the scale and challenge of our work is growing all the time. For the first two years parents' subscriptions helped to fund the scheme and members received regular reviews and recommendations, but we faced two major problems: we were deluged with software from publishers and our recommendations soon began to reach and benefit a much wider audience helped by press and media coverage.

We revised the system in September last year, introducing a relatively low submission charge for publishers (pound;75 per title) and introduced a further "gold" quality mark award. The products of more than 30 publishers have been reviewed - we have selected over 150 titles as having value for use at home, based on the review feedback. The current selection of reviews and recommendations are published in a Software Starter Pack available from PIN, pound;19.99.

Things are looking up. PIN's scheme is coming into its own; Government education policy is encouraging schools to develop links with the wider community - principally through the National Grid for Learning (NGfL) and the development of community learning centres. Inclusion in ICT is now at the heart of the political agenda.

At the other end of the spectrum, home PC ownership is rising rapidly, with education the second most common reason for home computer use, after games.

The PIN evaluation scheme faces new challenges and new pressures - most immediately we need to boost resourcing, especially as we make the transition towards the evaluations being published on the Internet. Such a development is inevitable if we are to realise the potential of a "parents' information network".

We remain clear that our parental remit should address both ICT haves and have-nots.

PIN supports parents directly but also - and increasingly - learning providers directly too. Our most recent guidance, The Internet: an introduction for families, proves this point, with the biggest demand ever coming from schools. Support from the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) underlines the home-school dimension of ICT support for parents.

Jacquie Disney is director of the Parents Information Network. Tel: 0870 604 0231E-mail:

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