When will the websites bloom?

27th October 2000 at 01:00
THE possibilities of the Internet for the education seem endless.

We are continually asked by zealots of the medium to imagine 1,000 websites blooming - each offering an exciting revolution for parents, teachers or children.

Homework sites promise a wealth of support and advice to pupils at any time of the day or night. Parent pages offer involvement in children's education as never before and teachers are being recruited to provide training, resources and professional support on-line.

But, as anybody who has ever wiggled a mouse on the Internet will know, Utopia is such a distant land. It looks rather more like a building site than the exciting new world the enthusiasts describe - lots of hard hats and plans but not much to see yet.

So what will it all look like when it is finished? To get some idea of this you have to cut through the Internet verbiage.

Outsiders will often be bamboozled with sites claiming "100,000 hits this week alone". It sounds a lot, but the number of "hits" doesn't usually mean the number of readers visiting the site. It generally refers to the number of "page impressions" - that is the pages accessed by users. Fewer than 10,000 users can create 100,000 page impressions.

While sites are cagey about their readerships, it is clear that 100,000 page impressions a week is more than most medium-sized Internet education sites in the UK can boast - 20,000 to 70,000 is more typical.

And the advertising revenues are paltry. A banner ad on the Internet will typically pay pound;15 to pound;25 pounds per 1,00 times it is viewed. That means a site boasting 100,000 page impressions a week and one advert per page (they often squeeze more in) will be making the princely sum of pound;2,500 a week!

Greg Hadfield, chairman of Schoolsnet, one of the few start-up companies to make an impact in education, with 92,000 readers and 2 million page impressions last month, is pessimistic about the prospects for the smaller players.

"The windows of opportunity for garage publications are closing day by day," he says.

Other Internet players in education include the BBC, Channel 4, the Times Educational Supplement, with 1m page impressions a week, and the Department for Education and Employment's own website, with a 150,000 page impressions a day.

Two of the biggest of these, the DFEE and the BBC, do not need to make any money at all. The others have the backing of large media organisations willing to make substantial investment in the belief that the new media will attract new customers and, ultimately, extra revenue.

At the other end of the market are a mass of small websites produced by teachers or professional groups on a non-profit basis.

Struggling in between are those medium-sized education start-ups we were told were going to drive innovation on the Internet. Unless someone can persuade reluctant teachers and parents to buy educational products over the web it looks unlikely that the commercial Internet will resemble 1,000 flowers blooming in the near future. Instead, we can expect a few sturdy old oaks.

Chris Bunting

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