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A question of attitude

The reluctance of some schools to embrace the Internet is largely due to fear, says Joanna Livingston

Open any newspaper, educational journal or cyber-happy PC magazine and you'll find an article on how the Internet can help in education. According to the converted, it inspires the most reluctant school pupil, expands the horizons of the economically challenged, brings higher education to the Outer Hebrides, and can display the galleries and museums of the world in every classroom.

It's also a winning subject for politicians; nowadays we don't get promised mere bread and circuses - it's all bytes and circuit boards. So why, then, is barely one school in 20 grabbing all this wonderful free information so that it can produce the next generation of Hawkings and hackers?

I believe the answer is fear, which comes in many forms and disguises. One wholly rational component of this fear, felt by anyone responsible for budgeting, is that the school telephone bill will soon look more like the school telephone number. The solution to this would be to introduce free local calls, although if this ever happens, and every school in the country immediately logs on and stays there, it's likely to produce the Internet equivalent of August Bank holiday on the M25.

The rest of the fears are less clear cut and harder to voice. Concern about costs is often a respectable mask for the three objections that many teachers come up with: "I don't know anything about it", "What if they find something nasty on a web site?" and "The students will know more than I do".

The first of these objections usually comes garnished with a mention of lack of time and the second with a reference to the sensibilities of parents. The last one is not usually put into words, except very quietly under the duvet, when no one is listening.

New technology calls for changes in teaching style. The particular change demanded by computer use, especially the Internet, is about attitude - "the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage".

This idea is bound to meet with some resistance from older teachers and from traditionalists of all ages. It's very hard, for example, for a teacher who's always been the local expert on Shakespeare's metrical verse to accept that a semi-civilised 12-year-old can access the web site at the University of Texas and cast a whole new light on the subject.

It's not necessary, nor is it possible, for teachers to keep up with every new development. But it is vital for them to try and change their attitudes. Many teachers, through no fault of their own, are permanently set in Red Queen mode - it takes all the running they can do to stay in the same place. Some retraining in information technology would surely be more useful than all the form-filling and navel-gazing insisted on by the Department for Education and Employment.

So, if you know any teachers who aren't quite ready for the 21st century, see what you can do to get them upgraded - it would help us all.

Joanna Livingston lives in Belvedere, Kent

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