Samuel Pepys would have used the Net

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Ignore all the hype and the horror stories. Chris Abbott offers practical advice for writing on the World Wide Web. The biggest library ever but with all the books in a heap on the floor? A seething mass of racism and pornography? A vastly over-hyped medium which is in danger of imminent collapse? The World Wide Web is really none of these: it is a vast, almost free and totally accessible publishing medium for teachers and students.

That anthology of poems your class produced last year and which has done the rounds of all the other classrooms now, or the school brochure, or the letters the students wrote in response to a local disaster - all can find a home on the World Wide Web. Once there, they will all be read with interest by someone.

On-line school brochures have been the major Web development of the last year for education, but they probably give little idea of the many ways in which schools will be publishing electronically in the future. To measure the potential of the medium by the uses to which it is put now, and its present capabilities, would be to make the same mistake as those who saw no future in the first moving pictures.

So how should schools make use of this new medium? Initially, probably, to republish informative and creative endeavours that have already appeared on paper. That is why the school brochures migrated first, with the poetry anthologies and collections of stories coming along next. After that, the sky really is the limit.

Perhaps the greatest potential lies in the ability of the Web to enable joint publication by schools in different countries, towns or streets. With a certain amount of co-ordination, organised of course by e-mail, an electronic site can be planned by two or more schools with sections sent to the Web server as they are complete. Both schools can therefore respond to what has been produced and develop the ideas further.

Children as young as seven or eight years are capable of learning the basic steps needed to mark up text for a Web site, although this may be a little more daunting for some of their teachers. Since this process is very similar to that undertaken by sub-editors in previous technologies, there are some useful lessons to be learned about the stages involved in publishing a text, not to mention grammatical accuracy, spelling, reliability, and the laws of libel and copyright.

Reliability and accuracy are important areas to consider, and ones that many Web sites fail to take into account. Although not a Scot by birth, I did marry a minister's daughter from Fife, and one of our first forays into the Web involved looking for information on Scotland. We were delighted to find a page by a university student which seemed to be authoritative.

It would be true to say that I was a little surprised by the form of the chosen map. It was an aerial view of Britain as seen from a plane hovering above Shetland, which had the interesting foreshortening effect of making Scotland appear many times larger than England and Wales. The really striking information was contained much further into the document however, where the people of Scotland were described as being "currently ruled by a Fascist neighbouring state".

Whatever our reaction to that site (no longer in existence by the way), we must applaud the impulse which led the student to publish his views. It is that urge to be heard, to comment on contentious issues and add a voice of concern on a particular topic which attracts young people to the Web. As individual users many of them have created their own home pages, fascinating documents full of arcane references to bands, sport, television programmes and other Web sites.

The best of these are interactive electronic diaries, existing in a clear line of descent from the likes of Samuel Johnson or Anne Frank. If Samuel Pepys were alive today, he would have a Web home page, complete with today's Diary entry, a link to other Great Fire sites and an explanatory map of the City of London.

Schools must see electronic publication as an activity sited within English rather than information technology for the appropriate emphasis to be given to content and communication. Older children can be given whole Web sites to plan and operate. Students could work in groups on a mini-enterprise publishing scheme, collecting the information, assessing and reformatting it, designing the site and evaluating the response. If the information displayed is interesting or useful, the project will have a much longer life than all the strange objects made from redundant factory products which have characterised some mini-enterprises in the past.

Local information could be published on the Web by schools as a community service; perhaps a list of local childcare facilities or a guide to local leisure facilities. The latter would be much more useful if students in the school wrote critical reviews of the facilities and welcome at each sports centre, but remember those libel laws and make sure they check their facts. And you will, of course, want to offer a right of reply on the site to the people whose facilities are described.

Whatever the content, the key activity for the young people involved is the process of publication as well as writing, the unique difference between the World Wide Web and previous Internet facilities. With such exciting potential, it is vital that schools use this medium and use it well, leading to new linkages and ever-expanding projects.

* Conference: Chris Abbott of the School of Education, King's College, London, will demonstrate publishingby schools on the World Wide Web,Thursday 2. 30pm

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