For many, cyberspace is still the final frontier. But with a bit of effort teachers can reap the Net gains, believes Jacquie Disney.
Visiting North America recently, I was amazed at the frequency with which computers appeared in public places, particularly places of leisure. In any number of small remote outposts in the Pacific Northwest a computer was sitting in a local coffee bar connected to the Internet. And the lack of charges for local telephone calls meant there was no paranoia about how long anyone was online; it was simply a public service available for the price of a cup of coffee, sometimes not even that.
We have a way to go yet for sure, but much of the development currently happening in this country will result in a much greater integration of the Internet into our learning and public environments. As teachers, therefore, we have to be prepared for this wholesale change in public access to an extremely powerful resource.
I confess it has taken me rather longer than it should to become an Internet convert. The reason was that I found it all rather dull and frustrating until it started to help me directly with my work. I now realise there is nothing like it. As slow and clunking as it can be at times, the Internet provides access to an unparalleled range of information and communication opportunities.
I am a great believer in teachers using ICT for their own purposes before leaping into the dark with children. This is particularly the case with the Internet. You need to know some of the tricks of the trade in order to ensure some sort of smooth passage.
The worst way to start is the "Well let's dive in and see what's here" approach. Cyberspace is too vast to browse through and you will simply become lost in the mass of information and be left feeling numb. The way to discover what the Net is really all about it to use it to achieve a goal; say researching a curriculum topic, looking up train timetables, finding out about a holiday destination, looking up support for the national numeracy initiative, or even simply emailing friends and colleagues.
By using it in these ways you will get used to the type and range of information available: you'll develop some strategies for dealing with the amount of information you find and you'll become aware of some of the issues that need to be considered when using it with children.
One key to a more successful relationship with the Internet is the ability to search accurately. Refining your technique makes the difference between being presented with 3,650 possible sources of information on the Vikings, to 21 sites on "Viking buildings in Britain". Each of the main search engines such as Yahoo and Lycos requires slightly different techniques and, to help, each has a basic tutorial. It is really worth investing a little time getting to grips with these. It is also useful to know that different search engines produce different results when you ask them to look for your required keywords. To gain confidence, stick with one - only later may it be worth trying different search engines to find what you need.
Another useful tool is the bookmark or favourites facility. This allows you to keep a record of all good sites you come across worth using in the future. It also saves you having to remember difficult web addresses (URLs).
These sort of tips make a real difference when using the web. We are only at the start of this massive development and tracking down sites from around the globe can still be frustratingly slow. However, it is better to develop patience and grow with its potential than to use its current limitations as an excuse not to venture in, leaving yourself with a great deal of catching up to do in the not too distant future.
Jacquie Disney worked as a teacher and ICTadvisory teacher. She is the director of PIN (Parents Information Network) which has its own area on The TES' Learnfree website www.learnfree.co.uk
Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org