Home and away is the Stateside story

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Idit Harel, the director of MaMaMedia, has a clear mission: she wants to look at learning outside school. A cognitive scientist and learning theorist, with a mind sharpened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, she has set up her own company to explore learning at home.

Later this year, MaMaMedia will launch a learning programme based on CD-Rom linked to the Internet. Why work with the home market? "That is where the computers are and will be. That is where children will have the real experiences, where they can build their own learning. We are not interested in computers for their own sake but for what they can deliver.

"People often ask are computers good or bad for children? The answer is computers are powerful. At MIT we have been exploring the intensity of the learning experiences that technology can bring."

Harel believes the Internet is not a child-friendly place and wants to develop content for parents who wish to provide an IT-rich Internet environment for their children. "The contribution that information technology can bring, especially with the Internet, is to take us to islands of knowledge. What MaMaMedia can do is create contexts, experiences, connections to the islands of knowledge and build coherence through play and fun."

Harel learned at MIT that, on average, it takes teachers five years to feel really comfortable with computers in their work.

"We know in the home it will be considerably faster - the improved access will see to that. When someone comes to my office or to my home we often sit at the computer together and share experiences of places that we know on the Web. I want to see children doing that. They won't do it until there are many, many places for them to go and different browsers for them to use."

Barbara Kurshan contributed to Networks Now, the 1995 survey of how the US uses telecommunication networks in education. It is probably the most comprehensive study of this type ever undertaken. "The emerging question is what role the state is going to play in educational networking," she says.

Kurshan feels the findings are optimistic: "At the moment there is a pause, but that is because of the way education spends money. We are going to see a great deal of development over the next year to 18 months." The report reveals that far more money is being spent on networking in the US than in Britain. Even in the land of enterprise they realise the job is too urgent and important to be left completely to collaboration with the private sector.

Each US state has more autonomy than an English local education authority and many have developed their own network connected to each school. Funding for these networks has grown from $18 million (about Pounds 12 million) in 1993 to $270 million (about Pounds 180 million) in 1995 - particularly astonishing, given that this comes out of public budgets.

The UK trend of restricting resources to subscribers' use is mirrored in the US by the Scholastic network and Prodigy (the Campusworld equivalents). Barbara Kurshan says states worry these providers will fracture the educational community infrastructure.

However, there are many states, like Texas, which will continue to use the Internet to provide information which is open to all and closely attuned to the needs of teachers. Many states accept the need for professional development and are offering enhanced training, lesson library plans and curricular guides for using remote resources.

The tone of the report is of continued, substantial and rapid growth: 69 per cent of schools are wired for network access - there is no comparable figure for the UK - and they are already reaping the benefits. The report notes that in 1993, distance learning did not use computer networks, but by 1995, this had changed.

Thirty-one states are planning major purchases for the current year. However, curriculum integration is a weak spot. "Teachers need ways to support rather than re-invent the curriculum," says the report.

There is a tendency in the US and the UK to hope that this will happen by osmosis, once the infrastructure is in place. Most of the figures in the report are for hardware and software. There is little data on how states intend to ensure teachers use the infrastructure once it is in place. It is disappointing to read that some states are still clinging to outdated software. Although 33 states make the World Wide Web available, only 11 support the use of a graphical browser like Mosaic or Netscape's Navigator.

It is a myth that the US system is totally different from our own. In some ways it is, but the similarities are more marked. The important difference is the real commitment to on-line learning, because it means children in the US are likely to be better served than those in the UK - in school and at home.

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