Banned together

30th June 2000 at 01:00
Interactivity is regarded as one of the most educationally valuable aspects of the Internet. But the best examples of interactive web pages are increasingly absent on computer screens in schools.

The mystery of why interactive elements on a web page may or may not appear on a school monitor is explained by the increasing presence of firewalls and disabling of some types of computer code by school servers. As well as allowing interactivity, these codes may increase the likelihood of virus infection.

This means the best interactive pages with simulations and demonstrat-ions that invite the viewer's participation often appear as a large grey space on the screen.

Helen Whitehead, editor of the website Kids on the Net, an online magazine by and for young people (http:kotn.ntu.ac.uk) is increasingly frustrated by the trend towards firewalls or policies that mean the most innovative tools on the web are banned. "Java and even javascript often don't work. It's very limiting when you're trying to inspire kids and adults to write in what is an incredibly exciting new medium. You end up saying 'If you could see this, it would look like...'" she says. But as long as computer viruses are sweeping their way around the world, convincing network administrators to open up their systems to the best and the worst of what the net has to offer will remain a struggle.

Schools running networks using Research Machines' Community Connect server software, will ease the task of tapping into their networks from remote PCs with a software package available free to all existing users of RM PIC (part of the package). EasyLink replaces RM PIC and enables users simply to log on to the school network from home, or any location, once they have been given access by the network administrator.

There is no need to load software on to the remote PC. Any files for which access has been granted can be worked on. EasyLink requires the Internet Explorer 5 browser and will also link laptop computers, either locally into the school network or remotely as for PCs.

Making the school network easily available from home means pupils can access learning resources as and when needed. With EasyLink, teachers can access their school files from home, mark homework and add resources to the network from home ready to use the next day. Schools not currently using RM PIC can purchase RM EasyLik for pound;295 plus a site licence costing pound;250 if everyone - pupils and teachers - is to have remote access to the network. Or schools can purchase the program, then pay pound;5 per individual user license if only a handful are to be given remote access. Contact RM's sales desk on 01235 854546 for details.

Schools may feel awash with requirements to introduce ICT across the curriculum, but the view from businesses as to how well education is meeting the ICT needs of industry is very different. According to research from management consultancy Andersen Consulting, Internet-related services will create an estimated 850,000 jobs over the next three years.

One hundred and sixty business leaders from leading Internet names such as Freeserve, QXL and America Online were interviewed, as well as government ministers. 88 per cent of respondents said they were already having difficulties finding employees with Internet skills. This will mean an estimated 80,000 unfilled jobs by 2002.

The answer, according to Internet entrepreneurs, is for education to become more focused on technology. The idea of a compulsory international technology certificate to ensure the spread of basic technological skills was welcomed and almost all respondents called for government to cut down on useless red tape and do more to promote ICT education.

Schools providing Internet access must have systems and policies in place to ensure that children use the Internet safely, according to guidance from the DfEE.

For most schools, this means choosing a service provider that filters material for the school network. In practice, this is bound to fall short simply because even the best filtering is imprecise. Most filtering relies on blocking sites with offensive material, but given the proliferation of such material on the web, maintaining comprehensive and up-to-date control is near impossible. Filtering may also leave e-mail unchecked so schools will need an "acceptable use" policy. This agreement between schools, pupils and parents should detail ways in which the Internet can be used.

Many schools already have such policies in place and examples of letters sent by schools for parents' signature can be found at vtc.ngfl.gov.ukvtclibrary safety.html. This useful website also gives information and links to all the issues surrounding the safe use of the Internet in schools.


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