Internet, here we come;Subject of the week;Social sciences

19th February 1999 at 00:00
Despite the advances in information technology in recent years, classrooms and modes of teaching have barely changed since the Sixties. Pat Smith argues the need for change

Technology has changed our lives dramatically. Watching Dirty Harry (1971) on television recently, I noticed how poor Clint Eastwood had to run from phone box to phone box to receive instructions from the kidnapper; nowadays he could have used a mobile. And in The Ipcress File (1965) Michael Caine's office is full of dusty filing cabinets, typewriters, and an ageing, smoking secretary.

So, given the technological transformation of the workplace, why have schools remained much the same as in the 1960s? And, more importantly, why have modes of teaching and learning in our information-rich society remained much as they were in the information-poor earlier years of the century?

Social scientists understand that society needs to change, and they have welcomed the Internet because it means that changes can be captured and discussed. Although there is no established sociology of the Internet, world-wide electronic communication is an aspect of the post-modern world which cannot be ignored.

Within three to five years' time, one machine will house television, video and computer. So education will change too, won't it? Will ways of teaching and classrooms be transformed so that the role of the teacher as information provider will go? Will the school of the future be an information centre for all ages, operating 24 hours a day, where parent and child can learn together, where better-paid teachers will be skilled facilitators, diagnosing and problem-solving and setting up group activities to "play" with ideas and expand perception?

The reality is special rooms with too few and too slow computers, booked in advance and liable to crash as soon as someone inexperienced approaches them. And a world where teachers fear pornography lurking around every corner on the Internet.

How can the gap be bridged? As social scientists we cannot ignore the Internet, but skilled teachers are needed to manage the resources. While Web sites may look authoritative, the Internet is awash with pseudo-research and propagandist material. It can be helpful to share information about useful sites with others in the same boat. The site of Hewett School (http:www.hewett.norfolk.sch.-ukcurricsocscience.htm) for instance, lets trainee teachers contact kindred spirits.

The best solution is to create an Intranet, a school-based network which takes materials from diverse sources and connects them with learning advice, recall tests and skills training. Helen Richard, a PGCE student who graduated from Keele University in 1998, devised an excellent Intranet on the underclass for her Year 12 A-level sociology group. This meant that, although all the teaching came from her, she did not have to stand in front of a class all the time. She could give more individual attention to students and set up more interesting group discussions.

The average teacher would need skilled support to turn the teaching plan into a technical reality, but it ought to be possible for the teacher to provide the blueprint for a technician to actualise.

The first stage in creating an Intranet is to find good sites to download. Tony Lawson, lecturer in education at Leicester University and a recently-retired chief examiner for AEB sociology, runs a site for the Association for the Teaching of the Social Sciences. It gives other useful site addresses as well as teaching materials.

IT should liberate teachers and students from the 19th-century style of copying from textbooks. And it will need creative social science teachers to exploit and channel the information highway into everyone's home in a usable and friendly form.

Hotspot sites:l Other sites accessed via the ATSS site are:l may need supervision.l Social Science Information Gateway gives an overview of available resources.Other sites:l anti-racist material.l http:www.upmystreet.comPut in a postcode and it produces interesting locality information.l http:www.illusionworks.comFor psychologists teaching optical illusions.l http:www.topss.htm. This is an excellent American site run by the American Psychological Society. l http:www.spsp.clarion.eduAs part of the topss site Mark Mitchell's home page gives the text of the third edition of an excellent psychology book.l Psychological Society.l http:www.timeplan.comExcellent politics resources.

Pat Smith is social science tutor for the PGCE at Keele University, and reviews editor for the ATSS

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