So here we are, living a little uneasily on the fault line between our print-based past and our electronic future. Something seismic is afoot but we can't quite put our finger on it. We were alarmed when the Internet arrived, but most teachers are still too busy surviving to go live on the Internet, bringing in a lesson on a wing, a prayer and a modem.
It's just that the Internet is so vast and, at times, too irrelevant for what teachers and students need in schools. However, it has given us one precious gift : the realisation that digitally stored information in the form of World Wide Web pages is going to be very important.
Some estimates say that 80 per cent of the information we hold will be stored in Web-page format by the year 2000. Think of a Web page as an electronic screen of information capable of showing text, graphics, and possibly sound and video, that can be linked to other pages using a process known as hypertext. If a word is blue and underlined you can click it and move to another page that shares a connection. Learning is about seeing "the interconnectedness of knowledge", so the Web page is a natural tool for teachers and learners to catalogue and connect the various parts of the curriculum.
Many schools are already building an internal collection of Web pages to share curriculum resources, display student work, and provide administration details on class groups and timetables. Such resources are known as "intranets". Think of these as mini "internal Internets" made up of linked Web pages over which the school has total control. Think of them as inland waterways with locks to oceans of knowledge. The pages that staff and students make and share within schools may well be as important as anything outside.
There is also the information law of "geographic proximity". What lies on an Internet server somewhere out in California might be diverting, but it's what the teacher in the next classroom knows but won't or can't tell you that's compelling, the sort of information you'd kill for.
Imagine if all your old Banda masters were Web pages that you could scrutinise and print out instantly. Or if all the end-of-term tests were on the network and all the rudiments of every subject were available anywhere on the school network. Imagine if the whole national curriculum was on your intranet so that you could cut and paste it into your departmental handbook before the inspection team from the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) arrives. You might even want to build some cross-curricular links between subjects as hypertext links.
This is a reality at the Fallibroome High School in Macclesfield, where even end-of-module exams are multiple-choice tests stored as Web pages on the school intranet. Students log on and complete the test, and then a script written by the network manager, Nick Aymes, "automarks" their work and turns the results into a database in Access. Work smarter not just harder, as the advert goes. Nick runs his intranet over a 150-machine network and favours a Novel Netware network for speed of use.
Nigel Hagger Vaughan at South Bromsgrove High School, Hereford and Worcester, has stretched the idea of a school intranet to a powerful conclusion. The school intranet, known as South On-line, runs over a standard RM Net LM network using the Windows NT operating system. A stalwart team of students literate in HTML, the program language for Web pages, is Nigel's main way of keeping the pages up to date and sharing the workload. He has even managed to get 14 computers connected simultaneously (at bearable speed) to the Internet using one phone line.
The students are so proficient that they use their own "cookies" (little market research programs) to see how much use each area of the intranet is getting. The Year 10 Options pages had been visited more than 500 times when I was at the school. Organic growth of the resource is well under way,driven by a willingness to share ideas and the excitement and reward of students seeing their work on screen. Nigel has even provided an intranet "cookbook" on the school's Web site which gives great practical detail on how schools can set up their own intranet.
As soon as two Web pages are written and linked you have the beginnings of an intranet. To look at a Web page you need a browser - software that displays a Web page on screen. The two most common browsers, Netscape's Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer, are available free to schools.
The simplest form of intranet is a browser running on a stand-alone machine. Primary schools could have an intranet on one machine in the library or foyer using this method. Larger schools with networks can run their browser on the school network using an internet information server, so that the intranet can be shared around the school. Windows NT comes with a server built in. In turn, Web pages may be downloaded from the Internet and (subject to copyright) be made part of the school intranet.
Imagine you're a Year 7 pupil in a new school. You didn't really understand what a noun or an adjective was in the first week's lesson but now, five weeks into term, you daren't ask. Instead, you pop into the library, open up the school intranet and select English from the main menu.Then you choose "What Words mean" and click on "nouns and adjectives and verbs" - there they are with large print and lots of examples. Second-chance learning, courtesy of the intranet.
The intranet is the first really straightforward way of sharing learning recipes outside class time that IT has provided for schools. By the millennium, most publishers may be offering the electronic version of their text books as intranet plug-ins. Students could take away the relevant chapter on their floppy disc. The excuse that "The dog ate my homework" will become "my sister wiped my disc" and we'll call it progress.The technology is almost in place but next we will need a change in the learning culture so that all can contribute and all are willing to share.