Tony Blair has spawned a flurry of political interest in pupils' access to IT. But who will pay for it? A Kent secondary will spend Pounds 10,000 this year linking several of its classroom computers directly to the Internet - and considers it money well spent. Jack Kenny explains why
Chaucer School in Canterbury has access to the Internet 24 hours a day; there's no dialling in, just click on an icon and you can be in to Japan as quickly sometimes quicker than you would be into Word for Windows. Seventy of the school's 200 classroom computers became permanently connected to the net after headteacher Jim Wynn leased a direct line to Research Machines' headquarters at Abingdon under the company's Internet for Learning scheme.
American research has shown that Internet on every machine on a network, with access for everyone at all times, is the way to get the maximum learning benefit. Most British schools use dial-up access (a single modem attached to a phone line) which is a good initial step, enabling schools to come to an understanding of the power, problems, potential and economics of the Internet. Chaucer, a technology school with 1,300 students, is one of the first to follow the American route. But the costs of this kind of access are high: Chaucer's Internet link (a constantly open, high-capacity phone line) cost Pounds 2,250 to set up and will cost Pounds 9,750 a year to rent. Jim Wynn finds no difficulty justifying the expenditure. "Knowledge, information and learning are at the heart of what we do and the Internet can assist us with all of that. I have a budget of Pounds 3.5.million so it is a small part of that.
"Something like the Internet is an unknown in budgeting terms that's something that schools find hard to deal with. A leased line means the total cost is clear and there should be no surprises."
He says the link-up followed a six-month feasibility study. "We looked at having a number of dial-up points and realised that those would not be able to provide enough access. With six lines it could have cost us a few thousand pounds and benefited just a few pupils. We can use this lease line all day and all night and it would not cost any more. In fact, the more we use it, the better value it is."
Wynn says the school has a corporate vision of IT with the curriculum at its heart; the computer system is seen as a learning tool. The absence of IT lessons means the different subject departments are contracted to deliver aspects of the IT national curriculum IT literacy is a requirement for all potential staff at Chaucer.
He does not minimise the difficulties: "The Internet is complex and for the average teacher it's like a black hole. If you throw them at it, they will disappear into it. We are running awareness sessions for them and we have been developing a thinking course and information skills for students as part of that. If you are researching on the Internet then there is nothing like the Dewey system; you have to think in order to find your way around and it is not the usual straightforward thinking, more lateral."
Wynn claims that the Internet has made the curriculum more exciting and more relevant. The biggest user, so far, is the English department. Robben Lloyd uses it to teach research skills; students make random searches and write up the results in the style of various newspapers. A-level theatre studies students use it to explore the origins of Restoration theatre and the head of religious education has looked at the way the French nuclear tests are reported in newspapers all over the world. Wynn also hopes that Traveller children at the school can research their ancestry in Romania.
Network manager Derek Bird is impressed by the level of use: "Students access 11,000 pages on an average day. We have a log of usage, so I can tell where each computer has been and who took it there and at what time." RM prohibits access to sites like Playboy and Hustler.
The school is intent on using the technology to increase its links with the community. The school's thriving Education Business Partnership, which includes firms like KPMG Peat Marwick and local garage, Barretts, will use the Internet to put up advertisements for some of the other 70 business partners. And Jim Wynn will provide access for local primary schools to dial in to reach RM's Internet service. He also hopes that local teachers will tap into the network from their homes in the near future.
Tim Clark of RM says the UK is ahead of Europe and the Japanese but behind America in this kind of access in schools. "The software tools that pupils are learning to use in schools like Chaucer will be common in the future they are the tools that will be as essential as the ability to read.
"They get a real buzz out of using the Internet, sending e-mail to other students and experts around the world, publishing their work on the Web, joining in worldwide projects. The technology can enhance their work; it's more fun and it is easier to work collaboratively."
RM Internet for Learning, Research Machines plc, 183 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4SE. Tel: 01235 826000