Time to stop hiding behind pilot studies

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Child of the computer age, newly graduated Nick Mailer is impatient with the obfuscations of those seeking our votes.

As the general election approaches, watch out for those information technology-in-school photocalls. The ones with the beaming politicians crouching over a gaggle of suitably multi-ethnic schoolchildren, pointing and staring, mesmerised by a computer monitor.

In 1992, the spin doctors ensured the image was one of cutting-edge CD-Rom multimedia. This time around, the best-dressed monitors will don the exciting hues of the latest Internet Web browsers. Most politicians will be satisfied just nodding in suitably vague approval at the Internet, while revelling in their technical ignorance.

Just as it is acceptable for those in civic life to be suspicious of, and illiterate in, scientific issues, it is positively de rigueur for them to wallow in ignorance about IT. The twee comments often presented as mitigation reveal a kind of patriarchal condescension: "Oh, my children enjoy playing around with the computer, but I'm hopeless! I can barely set a video recorder. " Can you imagine the same politician getting away with "Oh, my children enjoy reading novels, but I'm hopeless! I can barely fill a fountain pen"? Until such ignorance becomes an embarrassing stigma rather than a badge of pride, the Department for Education and Employment will continue to offer more hot air than hardware when it comes to IT, particularly regarding the World Wide Web.

The Internet in education is still at that stage in its development where it is seen by some as little more than a playground for utopian idealists and assorted crackpots. Those lucky to work with the schools brave enough to have established an on-line connection when everyone else was braying about cyberporn and drug cook-books have a different tale to tell.

Where the illiterati still whisper "There be dragons!", those who have sailed beyond this prejudice have discovered new lands that should excite anyone who has a modicum of interest in education and its possibilities beyond merely filling up a young head with predigested knowledge-patterns.

In its sustained and sensitive use, schools are demonstrating that the Internet offers more than just a glossy photo opportunity and an extra paragraph in the school prospectus. Every day, teachers and pupils are achieving what would have been unthinkable five years ago. They are making significant and deep contacts with their counterparts continents away. They are sharing ideas, involving themselves in global science experiments, composing music and learning languages and cultures outside the textbook. This is not mere proselytising. The results and reports are there to be discovered for anyone who is mindful to find them. Through the Internet, these sorts of contacts are not privileged and artificial "once-in-a-lifetime" exchange-student events, but are extended into the everyday dynamic of the classroom.

Children are able to adapt to the eclectic hotpot of the Internet with a delight and enthusiasm that is instructive to those who still believe our linear education system is well adapted to the intrinsic structure of the hungry young mind. Certainly, there is a lot of rubbish out there, but that is part of the charm and power of the medium - we are presented with much information that is undigested and potent with possibility.

Pupils and teachers need to learn how to process and make use of the information. The Internet is a product of many minds, which, like the bodies that contain them, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Until this decade, pupils have only really been encouraged to learn from the sort of mind that can produce a closed and rigorous textbook. Now, whether teachers and government ministers like it or not, they are increasingly going to learn from humanity as a whole. To those who believe that the Internet is still the preserve of a well-delineated techno-elite, I invite an examination of the huge range of individuals behind the home-pages at any service provider or organisation.

So, once we've taught politicians to enjoy the Internet and integrate it into their lives, to learn about the medium rather than talk about it as though it is something "other people" take part in, what should the average teacher demand as thanks for the fortuitous introduction? Well, high-speed and non-metered connections to it would be a good start. For too long, telecommunications organisations have been promising much and offering little. It is a technical and economic fact that every school could be put on-line within a year, and not just with a clunky old telephone line or expensive independent ISDN connection, but with a high-speed leased line direct to a number of academic or commercial Internet backbones. Government has spent too much time hiding behind pilot studies and viability reports.

It is now time for ministers to stop procrastinating and to put their money where their mouths are. Give the schools their connections and train them in using the available services. Then let them get on with integrating a vibrant and exciting global education into a cornerof every classroom.

* Nick Mailer is a corporate support engineer with Easynet. e-mail:koekie@koekie.org.uk.

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