Broadcasting companies are making a strong move on to the Internet, writes Sean Coughlan
In the early years of any technology there's a period when it's almost as important to get the thing to work as it is to achieve anything useful with it. The first movies, showing trains arriving at stations and people crossing roads, were not exactly rivetting, but the novelty of moving images drew audiences.
Likewise, in the infant years of the Internet, rickety browsers in school computer rooms have been coaxed and cajoled into downloading all kinds of dull material on the grounds that the process itself is vaguely educational. But all that is changing. The latest generation of websites for education has a new level of complexity and quality in its content, ensuring that the thousands of schools connecting to the Internet for the first time find something that's actually worth using.
Among those leading this new wave are companies already established in broadcasting. The BBC, Channel 4, the Discovery Channel and Disney have all begun to develop attractive, content-rich websites for schools that are a generation on from the early pioneers of online school services.
Many of the first websites for education were created by technology companies - and it showed, with too many achieving the design equivalent of an anorak hung jauntily from the coat hook of a Robin Reliant. In comparison, if you look at the latest version of BBC Education's online service, you'll see a website created by an organisation used to communicating with a mass audience, with plenty of graphics and easy-to-navigate text and information.
What's particularly significant is that much of this content has been created specifically for the website and isn't simply material recycled from elsewhere. As an example, the BBC's television adaptation of Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend is the starting point for a multi-layered examination of the novel. There are essays on the novel's themes and characters, its historical context in Victorian London, a brief biography of the author and in an arrangement with the University of California, there's a link to more detailed, academic analyses of Dickens's writing.
The BBC's own introduction to information technology, its Computers Don't Bite campaign, has a website which complements its television and radio series and avoids any "tech-iness".
Under the title Learning Station, BBC Education has a range of online material related to its schools television programmes, including interactive quizzes and graphically attractive pages.
The fact that the BBC's website works and has well-thought-out material might not sound remarkable, until you take a trawl through the many defunct websites set up for education. Anyone who has searched for education news knows the irritation of clicking for "latest news" and finding that the most recent article is months old. It's easy enough to launch a website, but to keep it fresh and maintain useful material takes a serious commitment in time and money.
While lacking the relatively big bucks of the BBC, Channel 4 has found its own way. Anything free is a likely winner with schools, and Channel 4 is using its website to offer free, downloadable teaching notes to support schools programmes. It is really valuable as a simple, low-cost way to distribute detailed and precisely targeted information.
If a premier league of websites is emerging, a determining factor is often investment. To see the Internet equivalent of a bank-busting Hollywood epic, visit the Disney website. A little saccharine in places, there's plenty of it, with stacks of animations, sound-clips and stories linked to its films. The site is fast moving, with regularly updated pages.
Another excellent broadcaster's site from the United States is The Discovery Channel Online. This science and natural history television channel has a website packed with well-presented information - hundreds of highly-professional multimedia pages. Anyone who has ever made a web page will look at this site and quake at what it must have taken to produce and maintain. This isn't a computer company playing at being a publisher; it's a broadcaster bringing high production values to the Internet.
The Internet, like film, began life in rather rarefied circles and, as it moves into the mainstream, it is also likely that entertainment moguls will play a large part. For the Internet fundamentalists, with their dislike of graphics and television-style presentation, this is bad news. But for the rest of us, it should mean better made and more enjoyable websites.
BBC Education: www.bbc.co.ukeducation. Channel 4: www.channel4.co.uk. Disney: www.disney.com. Discovery: www.discovery.com