Make friends all over the world

24th May 1996 at 01:00
Louise Thomas discovers the joys of the Internet and finds how it can add a whole new dimension to school projects. It's broadened my outlook, improved my teaching, given me new friends all over the world and changed my life. And it's fun!

I started using the Internet about a year ago as part of The Learning Network's pilot scheme for schools launched by a consortium led by the National Design and Technology Education Foundation (NDTEF). After an initial training session at the Southampton Institute we were on-line and on our own. The idea was that we should explore and come up with ways to incorporate this new wonder called the Information Superhighway into the curriculum.

As you will appreciate, especially if you are a fellow IT co-ordinator, there was no time to spend on the project in school. I invested in a modem at home and set about "surfing" late at night. I was soon hooked, much to the disgust of my long-suffering partner. With the aid of a useful book, All You Need To Know About the Internet by David Winder (Future, Pounds 14.95), I soon learnt all the jargon and was navigating pages of the World Wide Web (the Internet's friendlier face) with ease.

Newsgroups, the infamous Bulletin Boards, seemed to be full of weirdos and trivia so I wasted little time on them. However, the potential they offer for getting one's point across to the world is a powerful draw.

I struck real gold, though, with my user-friendly e-mail system. Quite by chance, as often happens on the Web, I discovered St Olaf College in America. Here they run a service to the international education community which connects classrooms all over the world. I registered my e-mail address and soon dozens of messages a week were arriving in my mailbox, mainly asking for keypals Q the Net adds many new terms to the English language.

Last September my new intake of 12-year-olds were learning word processing skills by writing to partners in Japan, Argentina and the US. As friendships grew, the pupils included scanned photos of themselves in their "letters". I developed a close personal correspondence with the Argentinian teacher which continued after the school project ended.

Similarly, I built up a relationship with a teacher in Tel Aviv, so that when Rabin was assassinated I wrote a note of condolence to her. The reply, which expressed the feelings of many Israelis, was very moving and illustrated perfectly the power of the Net to increase international understanding.

There have been many unpredicted spin-offs at school. One day we received simultaneous messages from both North and South America Q one complaining that it was too hot to play outside and the other describing heavy snowfalls. This immediately led into a serious geography lesson.

Most classes have at least one loner. One such 12-year-old wrote a long introductory letter to her keypal. The reply began: "You sound such an interesting person, I'm so pleased that you are my keypal." The smile of this rather isolated child, as she read her letter, lit up the room. Also, petty jealousies and teenage tensions can be defused by the cathartic effect of pouring out one's feelings at the keyboard. All this for the price of a local phone call. The letters are typed off-line, usually during the lunch hour, and all are sent down the wire together in a short log-in session at the end of the day.

The exuberance of the Americans is infectious. A letter from Idaho read: "It was delightful to run over to the computer every minute or so to find another friendly outreach from Great Britain. We read them aloud and laughed so hard we thought we would suffocate." The teacher, Richard Hancock of Gale Junior High School, and his English classes are collecting objects for a friendship box to send to us by snail mail (post). They are thinking of including Idaho potatoes so that we can use them for our fish and chips!

E-mail is only one small part of the Internet. The major element for us is the World Wide Web, where you can find leading-edge information on any topic. My business students now turn to it as a first resort and are always successful in trawling up useful info.

The main difficulty in using the Web is the temptation to wander off target since there is so much of interest. To help make searches relevant and thus save teachers' time, various service providers, such as Research Machines, offer subject-indexed pathways.

There is also the danger of unsupervised minors wandering into questionable areas. This can happen quite innocently. I was interested in recent research involving DNA from insects embedded in amber, as in Jurassic Park, so I typed in "amber" as a keyword for a Netsearch. Among the hits was a list of electronic "call girls", one of whom was called Amber.

One way of addressing this issue, and at the same time overcoming the technical problems and cost of having a whole class on-line simultaneously, is to download a series of pages on one particular topic. This "trail" can then be saved on to the central hard disc (the server) of your network and used in the same way as any other subject-related software.

However, this process is time-consuming and can be quite difficult. An alternative to this is offered by The Learning Network. Any subscribing school has access to discs of downloaded trails on a variety of curricular-relevant topics. Climate Change and The Shakespeare Trail are two of the titles available, but my favourite is Alternative Energy Resources.

The trail starts at the Internet Virtual Library and decides to stick to wind power since there are so many responses to searches for "alternative energy".

We are directed to the European Wind Energy Information Resource Centre, then to Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Q an excellent site, pitched just right for education. We then hop over to Washington to read Bill Clinton's views on the subject and on to the Franklin Institute where we are given instructions on how to build a windmill in class. We return to Cranfield in the UK for a map showing British wind farms.

The accompanying worksheet points us in the direction of Cornwall and asks why the farms are sited where they are. From Berlin again, a source of good listings, we hop to the US Department of Energy. Here they give us some costs Q how much to generate a kilowatt hour of electricity Q but it's in cents so we look at the current exchange rate to find out what the sterling equivalent is. The US Department of Energy also gives figures on optimum wind speed so we are directed to meteorological data for Cornwall and then. . . you get the idea.

Another valuable service provided by The Learning Network is access on the Web to the popular support materials of the NDTEF. These can be downloaded even if you are registered with another examination board and include exercises for its IT Competency Certificate and excellent Case Studies aimed at Key Stage 4 Business, Information and Design Technology courses. All we need to work out now is how to give a whole class access to this quality and variety of information.

The reponsiveness of the Internet remains a source of awe. The other day I needed to carry out a search on a restricted-access database held at the Northwest University in Wisconsin. I sent a request by e-mail to the page manager with my request. Less than 10 minutes later he had done the search and the answer from the Wisconsin mainframe was in my computer's mailbox.

One thing I have noticed over the last year has been the incredible rate of growth of the Net. For once, the hype is justified. We are at the beginning of a revolution in communications which will have profound repercussions, not only in education, but on society.

Louise Thomas is the IT co-ordinator at Headington School, Oxford OX3 7TD; e-mail: aq34@dial.pipex.comWebsite: NDTEF, The Old Chapel House, Pound Hill, Alresford, Hants SO24 9BW. Tel: 01962 735801 e-mail: Website: http:www; Learning Network, The Old Tannery, Oakdene Road, Redhill, Surrey RH1 6BT. Tel: 01737 773545St Olaf College Website:

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