The Web in our back-yard

20th October 1995 at 01:00
A home-grown network is opening up for schools, writes Michael Prochak.

While everyone ac-knowledges that the Internet's World Wide Web is rich with content from all over the world, in education it is often perceived as being heavily biased towards North America. However, there is a new "virtual community", with a more Eurocentric aspect, which is now offering schools the best of the Web. Although it is still in its early stages, contributors range geographically across the continent from Spain to Norway.

Schools OnLine combines a new service for schools with an on-going research project run by the Ultralab unit at Anglia Polytechnic University. The project was originated and funded by the Department of Trade and Industry with support from a host of commercial sponsors and helpers.

"Tim Eggar, Minister of State at the Department of Trade and Industry, originally had this idea to use DTI money to connect schools to the Internet using ISDN(Integrated Services Digital Network)," says project director, Stephen Heppell. "We went along and said this wasn't enough and made some suggestions. They said, OK and then made us an offer we couldn't refuse. So we decided to turn the whole thing into a research project."

Unlike much Internet access, the key element of Schools OnLine is that it seeks to offer students a positive, creative role, not just the ability to browse through interesting material. They can now access information, browse, download, then contribute to or change existing material. These on-line publishing facilities are in advance of anything available commercially. Initially funded from September 1995 to Easter 1996, the service went live at the end of September, when over 60 schools were connected. The number should increase to over 1,000 during this academic year and it is hoped that the project will continue beyond that time.

"There are two teams developing materials specifically for science and modern languages," says Heppell. "The science team is based at Sheffield University and the modern languages team is part of National Council for Educational Technology. In these curriculum areas there are activities like data gathering across the country, to involve students directly and stimulate active debate. " In addition to these two curriculum areas, the project includes a team of annotators developing a range of pages covering media, music, special education, gender, the social implications of computers, modelling and more.

Although the project is funded by the DTI, it aims to bring together higher education research, schools and commercial partners. "Instead of a huge national infrastructure," said Heppell, "each school finds a local sponsor for its server, browser, etc, so all the set-up costs are borne at local level. We've also worked on the Web page design, so that students themselves can open, edit, create and republish pages directly on the Web. We've tried to move away from the readerreceiver model to a more creatorparticipant model. Rather than simply saying 'This is how it should be done', we're saying, 'These are some of the questions we are seeking answers to'. Schools OnLine is definitely pushing forward the concept of what can be done with WWW pages."

The other interesting thing about the Schools OnLine project is that it is not running on a gigantic complicated Unix computer but rather on a much more affordable and accessible Apple Macintosh Internet Server. "We've made the assumption with this project that all schools will become server sites in the future," says Heppell.

If all this sounds rather like Tony Blair's high-tech vision for schools, it's probably because Professor Heppell helped write the Labour Party's policy document on IT and the Information Superhighway. "Projects like Schools OnLine," said Heppell, "are right at the heart of what Tony Blair wants with BT and schools. It's simply a vital part of education's future."

For information contact Stephen Heppell, Ultralab, Anglia Polytechnic University, Sawyer's Hall Lane, Brentwood,Essex CM15 9BT. Tel: 01277 200587

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