Not drowning, but surfing

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Despite Tony Blair's faith, suspicion and fear hang over the use of the Internet. Roy A Jackson tries to debug the future.

Tony Blair has announced that by the year 2002 every one of Britain's 32,000 schools will have the most modern of computers, teachers who know how to use them, and all connected to the World Wide Web for less than Pounds 1 per pupil per year. His pledge has received the moral - though not directly financial - support of Bill Gates, the billionaire guru of Microsoft.

Many schools are crying out for better technology and greater access to information; although such calls have to be weighed against other urgent needs such as for more teachers, better salaries, more up-to-date books, and classrooms that don't leak. The fact remains, however, that the promise has been made and, hopefully, will be kept without sacrificing other pressing needs.

So what's the problem? Why warnings of caution from the likes of the Princess Royal? Scouring the newspapers over the past few days, a number of reservations have been expressed: * Connection to the Internet just means access to too much pointless information.

The Web certainly has its fair share of puerile material. If you tap in one or two words in one of its many directories you are bound to be presented with hundreds, if not thousands, of entries. But is that the fault of the Web? Remember, you are dealing with a world library; the likes of which has never existed before.

Imagine if you walk into a "real" library and ask for any material on, say, the environment. What can you expect to receive? Apart from the fact you will probably have to wait a few months while the books you need are found, you can expect enough reading material to last you a lifetime.

The Web is no different, only it is much faster. Students can be taught to make their requests more specific which is an important study skill. Also, these days, web directories are divided into sub-directories, allowing 'surfers' to concentrate on their own specialist subject.

* Such a reliance on information will result in students who cannot specialise.

As the Princess Royal herself said in her speech last week to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, it is the use of information that becomes knowledge.

I recently conducted an experiment with sixth-form students who were asked to answer a typical A-level question, using only the Web as a resource. As I am also an A-level examiner I can vouch that what was produced was considerably better than could be expected from students using only the local library. The Web students made use of the most up-to-date articles, as well as researching conflicting opinions. Showing discernment is an important skill and one often lacking in students who rely on only one or two textbooks.

* Computers will eliminate the need for teachers.

On the contrary. If anything, computers makes teachers even more important: having access to what can be a bewildering amount of information requires careful guidance from professional educators.

Teachers should also play an important part in the development of educational resources on the Internet and they should welcome this as it will prove to be a valuable source for employment in the future.

* It will lead to the end of books.

If we can separate ourselves from our emotional attachment to books, we need to ask what they are for. Originally they were perceived as a cheap and effective way of storing and imparting information. A book is still certainly the best medium for reading long pieces of information and you can't beat them on a train journey. I suspect they will be with us for a long time to come.

Aficionados of that great prophecy of the future, Star Trek, will know that despite access to instant information, the captain likes nothing better than to curl up on the sofa with a good book.

Again, we must remember what, in an academic sense, books are used for: we want our students to be able to have access to differing material offering alternative views and opinions. We encourage them to read widely, to scan reading material quickly, to make use of indexes to select specific material in books. What better and cheaper way than the Internet?

* Computers don't teach young people how to interact with people.

Well, no more nor less perhaps than books or television, although many Internet users argue that the computer's inter-activity has resulted in friendships, and even marriages.

You will always have your so-called "computer geeks" in the same way you have bookworms and telly addicts. But such obsessives are the minority.

The computer is a tool. For many, its initial novelty proves to be an attraction, but like anything else, the more it becomes accepted as an aspect of everyday life the less it will be seen as dominating our lives.

* Pupils will have access to "adult" material.

The Internet is still relatively young, and issues such as censorship are still in their early stages. Nonetheless, the technology does exist to censor material. But there are more significant moral dilemmas that need to be faced. Who decides what is to be censored?

There is some concern that the market may be monopolised by Microsoft which would, therefore, control the information. Laws need to exist to avoid this situation, although it is highly unlikely that any one organisation will ever be in the position to control something so massive as the World Wide Web.

* The technology will be out of date almost as soon as it is installed.

This could be a serious problem. Schools that already have invested in information technology are being told by their pupils that they have a faster and better computer at home.

New technology is being introduced at an incredible rate. However, it is possible to invest wisely and protect yourself against purchasing dinosaurs. In many cases hardware is designed to be "future-proof" (within limits, obviously) by downloading free upgrades from the Internet.

The most important thing in the future will be just to have the basic hardware: the monitor, processor, keyboard and printer. As the hardware becomes more integrated with the Internet, the idea of the need for large and powerful drives will become redundant.

For far too long, a good education has been severely restricted by limited resources: poorly equipped libraries, parents who cannot afford to buy books for home reading, teachers who have to struggle with dated texts covered in graffiti. The Internet is a valuable educator as well as an equaliser. Perhaps the most valuable thing about the Web is that it doesn't discriminate according to a person's sex, gender, class or culture.

Roy A Jackson is a lecturer at Kent University, A-level teacher and principal examiner. He is also a freelance writer and regular contributor to Encarta Encyclopedia

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