School's webbed feat

30th August 1996 at 01:00
The Internet can be a valuable classroom tool. If someone asked you to name the feature of a school building most likely to bring leading-edge information superhighways into its classrooms, you might not think of asbestos. Yet, at Linlithgow Academy in Scotland, deterioration in asbestos led to the 1994 refurbishment in which the school decided to instal trunking to every room, allowing for a school-wide network.

The decision meant that when the cable company Telewest Communications was considering connecting the school to a nearby broadband cable hub and Edinburgh University was persuaded to give the school Internet access via SuperJanet, everything was in place for the Sun Microsystems Foundation to complete the picture by donating the computer equipment. Sun says that means that Linlithgow's 1,100 pupils have the fastest and most reliable widespread Internet access in the UK.

Linlithgow pupils enjoy state-of-the-art speed and reliability without the pressure of per-second running costs. For a flat Pounds 1,000 per annum for SuperJanet access, the school could allow users at every Mac in the school (currently 120) to surf the Net all day, every day.

The Lattice project (Learning and Teaching Telecommunication and Information Centre) went live in May after two years' voluntary work by teachers, parents, former pupils and staff from the partner organisations.

If the idea of 1,100 pupils surfing the Net raises doubts about piracy, viruses and pornography, it is worth studying the school's Responsible Use Agreement. To gain access, a pupil needs to be trained and sign a three-page agreement, which includes a promise not to hog the network. Once the pupil has a Responsible User card, use is monitored and the card may be withdrawn.

So far, the response has been encouraging, reports deputy rector Bob Ferguson. Net use is highly popular among pupils and there seems to be a spirit of pride in the school and its facilities. David Orr, principal teacher for computing, has the main responsibility for monitoring use via the Sun fileserver. The project has much to teach us: only after the constraint of on-line cost is banished can teachers address the problem of managing pupils' experience of the information on the Net.

The main problem is that many Net pages are unsuitable for immediate use in lessons because of their language level and sheer quantity of detail. The World Wide Web is overwhelmingly an adult place, While 12-year-olds can easily click the buttons on search engines, it takes experience to select the most promising from a list of hundreds of titles. A history investigation for 13-year-olds on the Vikings was certainly enlivened by Net access, and given the time constraint of 29 novice users, the teacher was wise to have pre-selected three pages for them. To avoid a big print queue for 29 identical screen dumps, printing was limited to the first "finders".

In the English lesson, pupils were encouraged to use felt-tip highlighters to identify relevant bits for their piracy project on their print-outs. In geography, a structured worksheet guided pupils through their Net search.

Without such techniques, some pupils are only too happy to submit a stapled set of printouts as if it is their own work. It might be tempting to see the Net as a resource more for the teachers than for the pupils.

However, that would be to miss the point. Not only does hands-on Net use provide a keen shot of motivation, but also pupils have far more time on their hands than teachers. There is great scope for senior pupils to develop their information-handling skills .

If you surf the Web to Linlithgow, note that you are looking at the work of two sixth-year boys: Keith Hossack and David Bissett. They developed the site as part of personal development, not IT, and acquired their tools from magazines and self study.

Linlithgow Web site:

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