Home but not alone

20th October 1995 at 01:00
On-line reference sources for the family are gaining ground in the United States.

Merlin John does some homework.

The days of going to the library to use what are often limited selections of outdated books for homework research could be coming to an end for many students if a service being pioneered by a United States company signals a major trend. Homework Helper places a huge selection of reference and news materials just a local phone call away from any home, school or library computer.

The service already has 20,000 US subscribers who pay $9.95 (about Pounds 6.30) per month for two hours on-line (and $2.95 for every subsequent hour) for access to more than 100 newspapers (from the Los Angeles Times to the Jerusalem Post), 400 magazines (including the Economist), several encyclopedias (including Compton's and Funk and Wagnalls, on which the Encarta CD is based), a thesaurus, thousands of photographs, hundreds of maps and works of literature. Roughly four new content-provider agreements are signed every month; the latest is with Reuters.

Homework Helper is only available to Windows PC users who subscribe to Prodigy on-line services, but its developer, Philadelphia-based Infonautics, plans to place it on the Internet's World Wide Web so that it can market the service globally. Anyone who has an Internet-ready computer with Web browser software should be able to sign on by 1996. Infonautics is now considering ways to "localise" the service, and to exploit multimedia (such as sound and video) as the technology improves.

But would UK families really want such a service? In a word, yes. Maia Terry is a 13-year-old pupil at Parliament Hill secondary school in London. During the summer she was asked to visit her local reference library to research a wildlife homework project. It took two hours on a Saturday afternoon and cost about Pounds 2.50 in bus fares and photocopying fees. Using Homework Helper during a recent visit to the US, the same task took her 15 minutes on-line and the accuracy, depth and contemporaneity of the information was much better. The words and pictures were saved on to a computer disc to be worked on at her convenience.

"It was fascinating, and much more fun than going to a library where you have to be quiet or sit next to someone who is disturbing you," says Maia. "Homework Helper feels like it wants to be opened; there aren't many limitations or dated points of views or facts like in some of the old books in libraries. And you don't have to get the bus to the library in the freezing cold. You can do it all in your own home.

"Normally, when I go to the library I need a dictionary, but when you work on Homework Helper you can easily look up the words, because the dictionary is on the screen. And the writing is not too simple and not too complicated, so that it doesn't get someone like me frustrated. It is very human-friendly - any age would probably enjoy it."

Maia also enjoyed the range of opinions offered. At the height of interest in the OJ Simpson trial she was able to read the attitudes of the mainstream newspapers (guilty) and of the black US papers (not guilty). "When you look up something that people sometimes have strong opinions about you don't get just one point of view," she says.

Teenagers often have strong opinions of their own: "I would welcome Homework Helper into my house with open arms - it's brilliant."

But what about issues of access? Isn't there the much-voiced danger of creating information haves and have-nots, with middle-class parents subscribing to this type of service and lower-income families excluded?

Infonautics boss Marvin Weinberger, an information technology evangelist, talks of an "information democracy". He says that Infonautics is trying a number of tactics: pressuring information providers to stick to "realistic" consumer charges; trying to secure distribution of the service to "free usage channels such as libraries and schools"; setting aside "5 per cent of gross revenues to provide free andor subsidised access to the needy and disadvantaged".

So far, no comparable service is being offered to UK homes, but that could soon change. Schools computer supplier Research Machines' Internet for Learning service is available to parents. Crucial to Homework Helper's success will be the quantity, quality, cultural relevance and the cost of its rivals. BT's CampusWorld, for example, gives access to national media through the excellent FT Profile, but this costs roughly Pounds 10 a month on top of the regular CampusWorld subscription charge. And neither Internet for Learning nor CampusWorld offer Homework Helper's kind of sharply home-focused facilities, or such a depth of professional information services which, individually subscribed to, would cost a small fortune. So, theoretically, there is plenty of room for Homework Helper and other services like it, and cost is likely to play a major part.

So what is Infonautics aiming for? According to Marvin Weinberger, "Infonautics' guiding principle is to create astonishing information value and foster information democracy by providing premium content at realistic consumer prices to turn information consumers into Infonauts. Expect to see a fully functioning multimedia application that includes a highly intelligent 21st-century search engine to make information exploring faster, simpler and more entertaining."

And what of the poor old public library? Well the eitheror argument is usually a red herring when it comes to information technology. Television didn't kill books, and neither will computers. And all the good libraries have embraced the new technologies as and when they have appeared, including computers and CD-Rom. In fact, libraries are already being touted as public access points for the Internet.

* Homework Helper e-mail address: info@infonautics.com * Research Machines: 01235 826138 * CampusWorld: 0345 626253

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