Dead poets society meets in cyberspace

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
English teachers who find the courage to plunge into the alien world of the Internet will discover that it is much less Philistine than they imagine, says Arnold Evans. Hypertext, e-texts, interactive novels, multimedia, collaborative authorship, the death of the book . . . listen carefully and beyond the hysteria of the hype merchants and the hum of the hard discs you might just be able to make out the sound of F R Leavis spinning in his grave.

The English he championed is indeed under serious threat. The superhighway, and the channel-hopping cyberculture that it will foster, will be at odds with everything he held most dear. For better or worse, English teachers are going to have to cope with this sea change in the way we communicate. They'll be pleasantly surprised to find that the first real manifestation of this brave new world - the Internet - isn't nearly as Philistine as they first imagined.

While it is true that you do need a lot of spare time and a brain the size of a planet to learn every intricacy of the Internet, English teachers will be able to find more material than they could possibly hope to use without having to know anything about the Internet itself. It's simply a question of making a bee-line for the World Wide Web (WWW). Find a friendly home page - Research Machines (RM), the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) and Kidsweb are all good starting points - and use the "hot spots" to hop, skip and jump to the other sites that are linked to it and which take your fancy. You can browse through these on-line or download them to disc or simply use them as a base from which to search out new prey.

Knowing how to do this is all that's really meant by the portentous phrase "network competency". Like "the new literacy", teaching it needn't be nearly as intimidating as it might sound. It entails preparing youngsters for a world in which they will have to "read" far more than mere books. On CD-Rom, and - increasingly - on-line, they will exposed to multimedia concoctions of pictures, sounds and vast quantities of text. They will need to know how to evaluate the quality of what they encounter; how to select and to summarise and, above all, how to hunt down needles in a proliferation of electronic haystacks.

They must also learn how to "write" in this new age: to be able to create their own multimedia essays, and communicate electronically as deftly as they do with pen and paper. With these skills, pupils can reap the benefits of the information revolution; without them, they're doomed to be global village idiots.

Fortunately, there needn't be any conflict between "doing the Internet" and "doing English". Its facilities lend themselves to most aspects of English teaching.

Electronic mail, for instance, offers an obvious stimulus for children's writing. They can correspond with contemporaries in faraway places with strange-sounding names or subscribe to one of the Internet's thousands of special-interest groups which embrace everything from the the Wars of the Roses to The Stone Roses. There are also conferences reserved exclusively for teenagers, while younger users can meet new chums in the virtual Kid Cafe or contribute to magazines such as Crayon which is written by children, for children. This needn't lead to excessive telephone bills: pupils can do their writing off-line (on a computer) to be e-mailed at the teacher's convenience.

As well as providing a real context for this kind of informal letter writing, the Internet is a perfect pinboard on which children can display their best written work. Indeed, in some respects the Internet is simply a gargantuan exercise in vanity publishing, offering wannabe authors a potential audience of 30 million readers. Pupils will find a bewildering range of sites where they can publish everything from poems to their latest multimedia extravaganzas. What's more, budding playwrights, novelists, or science fiction fiends can visit one of the many writers' workshops where they can go to seek more help than even the best motivated teacher would ever find time to give.

With access to the Internet, pupils need never be stuck for something to write about. As well as the universities, major libraries and museums which are willing to share some of their vast archive material, a multitude of other organisations (everybody from Greenpeace to Tupperware) have text and graphics files which are there for the taking.

To improve the standard of their writing, pupils might nip along to Purdue On-Line Writing Lab where they can download worksheets and exercises that will put them straight on dangling participles and suchlike. They might also want to make use of a startling array of electronic dictionaries and reference books which can be searched on-line. A paperback thesaurus might be cheaper and easier to use, but there can't be many school libraries with a budget that stretches to a Dictionary of Shakespearean Insults or most of the 200 or so other equally beguiling titles.

Nor can there be an English stock cupboard packed with as many classic texts. The Gutenberg Project, for instance, aims to have 10,000 of the most used books on-line by 2001. At other sites you'll find Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Wordsworth - indeed, think of any title by any dead author, and if it's reasonably famous and out of copyright, it's probably lying around somewhere in cyberspace. The Carnegie-Mellon University, for example, has a menu listing 100 poetry titles - which might seem a modest number until you realise that they include such slim volumes as The Prelude, Beowulf, and Homer's Odyssey.

With Penguin and Wordsworth selling classics at your local W H Smith's for about a quid each, the on-line texts are obviously not a viable alternative to printed books, but an invaluable tool for teacher or student who can use a word-search to hunt down a particular reference or download sections for incorporating in word-processed essays or worksheets.

In addition to the great texts, there are groups devoted to each of the major authors - perfect for the teacher hungry for some intellectual stimulation, though pupils may be happier with the groups of aficionados earnestly discussing Terry Pratchet, Stephen King, The X Files and every other campus favourite. Teachers of media studies will want to join them hunting through the gigabytes of up-to-the-minute material on movies, soaps, comics and popular culture.

But the most important lesson they will learn, from the English teacher's point-of-view, is the experience of the Internet itself. It's a marvellous demonstration of sheer excitement that can be generated by the simple act of communication. After a session on-line, they'll be left with a heady sense of the multifarious opportunities the world has to offer. You could describe it as an "enhanced awareness of the possibilities of life" - to borrow a phrase from Dr Leavis. He'd be livid.



http:schoolnet.sys.uea.ukschoolnet KIDSWEB








THE WORLD WIDE WEB VIRTUAL LIBRARY SourcesbySubjectOverview. html for poetry http:english-server.hss. cmu.eduPoetry.html

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