Off for a surf-free summer;Last word

23rd July 1999 at 01:00
THE view has often been expressed that if a chimpanzee sat at a word processor, banging away merrily on the keyboard, it would eventually, after a zillion billion random attempts, produce a Shakespeare sonnet by chance. If you want to see how the chimpanzee has been getting on so far, then turn to the Internet. Several million of its miscues are on display there.

The Internet is a tool with wonderful potential. Colossal amounts of information, once denied to most of humanity, are now available to anyone with a computer, a source of electrical power and a link into the system. Like other mass communication media, however, such as newspapers, books, radio and television, it is only as good as its contributors and users.

There are great hopes, which I share, that the Internet will make a major contribution to education. As someone who never had a toy train I love anything with a few buttons and flashing lights. I use the Internet regularly to track down research articles and occasionally to check train times. It offers that typically wide range of possibilities.

Unfortunately, it is also the ultimately permissive medium. Whereas print and broadcast media tend to use mainly writers and contributors who are highly skilled and knowledgeable, the Internet is undiscriminating. Inaccuracies, rumour, bad taste, trivialities, all these can find a place.

It is a minefield for the unwary or gullible. Children, especially, need to be excited by its good potential, but warned about its many frailties.

Scanning the millions of pages and graphics, or "surfing the Internet" as it has become known, is a popular pastime for obsessives as well as for ordinary people.

In fact, I can tell you a really sad story about surfing. There is a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority website containing schemes of work for primary teachers. Apparently large numbers of people visited this website on Christmas Day.

Who on earth were they? Could there be an Internet surfing club for really sad teachers? Do they meet regularly, hold hands, eagerly devour web pages on tooth decay, or what to do on a wet Friday afternoon? Did they meet for Christmas lunch and then cry: "Bugger the turkey, we could be on the Internet looking up how to teach astronomy attainment target number 22c"?

Were they even teachers? The Open University has a significant audience of insomniacs who are not signed up for its courses but who tune in at unearthly hours. They are known as "eavesdroppers". Members of the general public, sick of television sitcoms and soaps, may have decided that watching programmes of study float across their vision can be a lot more fun: "Come on Madge, let's go down to the Hyperspace Cafe and surf a few lesson plans." It's probably all the rage in Huddersfield.

It might even have been pupils themselves, cutting out the middle man. Perhaps they feel they want to peruse all the curriculum papers they have seen their teachers scanning so avidly in recent years: "Miss, can I borrow your 1995 national curriculum revision documents? My dad wants to sing them to me before I go to bed each night. He's been told they're a belting read."

Or was it pupil surfers looking for new video games? Perhaps they used one of the various search engines, typed in a term such as "levels", hoping the latest version of Tomb Raider would come up on their screen, and found a mass of national test data instead.

I have marked the work of children who have been using the Internet and there are many gains, as they can access colossal stores of information. However, some had simply imported ill-digested web pages into their work. "Information" is out there and there are billions of tons of it. "Knowledge" is what is inside our heads. Transforming information into personal knowledge that you really understand requires more than mere surfing.

When you are on holiday, therefore, surf the sea, not the Internet. If you are a headteacher, think about retiring and surfing the Internet permanently, instead of surfing the sea of papers on your desk. You can safely do this because your governors will then send for Lenny Henry to run the school.

Have a good summer.

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