Think small and build your own intranet;Primary school systems;Education

15th May 1998 at 01:00
There are networks now available that are ideallysuited to the community culture of junior and infant schools. Les Watson reports

IT WAS easy to be seduced by the detail of the technology when computers first found their way into schools. In that first wave, a little knowledge was a considerable advantage, resulting in a self-reinforcing concentration on technology. The second wave recognised that what was important about computers in education was education. Now there is a repeat of this development with school networks - and it's moving into primary schools.

The networked primary school is still unusual, although the number is growing. There are two big problems: lack of knowledge and lack of money. As help is most likely to come to those who help themselves, my advice to primaries is to focus on educational issues. The question is not which network shall I buy, but what do I want to do with a network.

Networks have one big benefit over standalone computers: they enable sharing. Equipment such as printers, scanners, and even Internet access points can be linked. More importantly, they allow sharing of information as pupils communicate using e-mail, publish their own pages of information, or learn from those produced by others. The benefits of networking do not necessarily mean connection to the Internet - aimless browsing of mediocre websites would do more harm than good.

The advice from Alan Bennett of Xemplar is that primary schools have much more to gain by concentrating on developing their own intranet (a sort of safe, localised system not on the Internet proper). His logic is that primary schools tend to work as communities and have a well-established tradition of publishing children's work. As intranets are built around documents, this gives the school a vehicle for collective electronic publishing and also provides foundation learning in Internet skills.

Pupils can publish web-pages on simple peer-to-peer networks, such as RM Schoolshare (all RM PCs now have Ethernet network connections) or Xemplar's Matrix solution. These provide a relatively cheap way into networking for primary schools which amounts merely to linking machines together. The real advantage of developing an intranet with its own browser software is that a range of machines can be used. Both RM and Xemplar can link Apple, Acorn and PC machines. What's more, as the browser software used to gain access to the intranet pages is relatively simple compared with other software applications, an intranet can give new life to older machines.

Such an approach provides a clear educational purpose for introducing networking into the primary school, one that focuses on the traditional strengths of their culture and emphasises learning rather than the technology.

Les Watson is Dean of Information Services at Cheltenham amp; Gloucester College of Higher Education Xemplar 01223 724724; website Xemplar produces a Primary Matrix Networking pack for primary schools Research Machines 01235 826868; RM has produced a video for primary schools covering issues pertaining to the National Grid for Learning

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