The locations may be virtual, but you need geographical skills to find your way around the Internet, says Karl Donert
Much of geography is about places and news - the kind of up-to-date information which is at the heart of most Web developments. Geography therefore has a crucial role to play in the successful use of the National Grid for Learning (the Government-supported project which aims to get all schools online by 2002) even though the places visited may be virtual.
"Net skills" include an awareness of "virtual" location, so geography and geographical skills become very important when accessing the Web. Information searching by browsing and surfing are increasingly augmented by what might be termed "orienting" -searching for information using "geographical" skills.
For example, many large Web sites have their own site maps, so finding your way around their pages requires mapping, identification and logging (bookmarking) skills. In some cases, using maps is the main way to explore a site, such as the Virtual Tourist (www.vtourist.com) and City Net (www.city.net).
Both require quite sophisticated geographical skills to access and retrieve the required information. In these cases, scale, direction, distance and a sense of place are all important indicators that need to be used as you move from one page to another.
Classroom access to large amounts of suitable information is at the heart of the National Grid for Learning. An example of a network-based development fitting these criteria is the PointCast software and information service. Subscribing is free and the free PC or Mac software (4.0 MB in size) can be downloaded from www.pointcast.com PointCast is an American-based service that offers subscribers an easy way of accessing news on their PC. The material is downloaded in 20 to 30 minutes and then can be accessed without the expense of staying online.
The information can also be made available internally across a network. You may need a fairly powerful computer to store data for delivery to a network, but you only require Windows 95 to obtain, view and manage the information for yourself. PointCast therefore provides you with the opportunity to develop your own easily updated Internet information system.
The categories of information available are National and International News, Business, Technology and Entertainment. The information does have a north American orientation, but European and UK channels are likely to develop. Selecting the channels you want to receive is simple. They include weather, CNN, sports, The Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Wired magazine.
PointCast pages contain full articles, animations, graphics, pictures and "ticker-tape" style headlines. They also provide direct access to multimedia products through the Web via hyperlinks to key information providers such as satellite agencies and news stations. This saves a huge amount of time searching for additional information.
It is also possible to customise PointCast in order to collect only the information you want. Available "channels" can be added or removed so that any irrelevant information can be filtered out.
The real potential, however, lies in customising pages and creating our own channel using the free PointCast Studio software. You could add your own content and create a similar "look and feel" for your own school or department pages. The delivery of your own multimedia learning materials to your pupils can thus be easily incorporated into your PointCast system.
Karl Donert is senior lecturer in geography at Liverpool Hope University College. His book "A Geographer's Guide to the Internet" is available from the Geographical Association, 110 Solly St, Sheffield S1 4BF