Young minds lock into Web's wonders

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
California's schools are embracing the superhighway. Tim Cornwell visited some Internet pioneers.

Principal Susan Hanna turns a key to the future in her hands: a glossy black pyramid with a tiny camera eye, it looks like a paperweight or an executive's desk toy.

It's called a Quick Cam. Set it atop a computer hooked to the Internet, and what is the result? Video-conferencing for 10-year-olds. At this elementary school deep in the heart of Silicon Valley, the future is now. "Our kids don't get on computers to play," says Ms Hanna.

Cadwallader Elementary is on the doorstep of a new revolution in schools, one which promises to tax further those weary teachers who thought they had begun to master computers. It's no longer enough to have a working knowledge of software and the CD-Rom: the Web and the Net are here.

"I see fear in their eyes. Oh no! This is something else on top," says Donna Harris, who mentors fellow teachers on incorporating computers into the curriculum.

"There is a tremendous excitement here when you go on line," says Ms Harris, "but you've got to really plan when you are using this technology." Her class sits in groups of six at circular tables around a computer. To titillate their interest she took them first to a Janet Jackson page. Now they produce a newsletter with reports on world news today. As part of a history project, one group is exploring the archives of The International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Kentucky. They reached it via the US Civil War Center in Louisiana; the Web for these children seems a vast, brightly lit encyclopaedia.

In the next door classroom, 33-year-old Eric Burnett is unstinting in his praise of technology's newly opened doors. In a district with a heavily Hispanic population, it raises the interest level of students with poor English skills, he said. Most of them learn to type at an early age. "It gives students who are not successful the chance to shine," he said. "If I was to have them do book work, they would be be bored."

President Bill Clinton led what was billed as a "high-tech barn-raising" in California this month, a project named Net Day '96, where volunteers throughout the state installed six million feet of high-speed cable to connect schoolrooms to the Internet. Simply wiring up a school does not mean it can handle the Internet, but organisers are hoping that Net Day will galvanise efforts nationally.

The president has proposed a $2 billion fund to help schools nationwide get on line. "We are putting the future at the fingertips of our children, and we are doing it in the best American tradition," he said.

Mr Clinton wants particularly to include inner-city schools in places like south-central Los Angeles. But naturally enough it is in the affluent, educated, rapidly growing communities around Silicon Valley in northern California where computer know-how is the daily bread of parents' lives that the process is most advanced. Two schools in the city of Santa Clara - Lincoln Day and Cadwallader - are showcasing the new technology and are well placed to answer the oafishly ignorant question of what, exactly, is the point.

"The average textbook in California is years old," said David Abramson, a public affairs spokesman for the 3Com Corporation. "The reality is that American students spend an average of one hour a year in museums." 3Com is a rapidly-growing leader in the network equipment industry, and is helping local schools to get connected with cut-price equipment and corporate donations. Abramson's next factoid: 1995 saw more PCs sold into American homes than televisions. About three-quarters of these children have computers at home; in Silicon Valley, there is a clear correlation between computer literacy and employability.

Students at Lincoln produced their own "home page" and took part in a recent worldwide network extravaganza called "24 hours in Cyberspace".

The technology is expensive to own and maintain: Lincoln is a magnet schoool that has benefited from several million dollars in grants. Cadwallader has developed partnerships with 3Com and other Silicon Valley firms, and aggressively looks for donations and grants. Given their head, says Lincoln teacher Leslie Alperin, the boys in the class would surf the Net for cars, girls, and sports, though software programs are usually successful in screening for unsuitable keywords.

The challenge is getting them to work with what they find, to process the information and put it back out. The Web, she says, also gives them the ability to follow their own singular interests: "It's a sense of being outside in the classroom, outside in the world - particularly at an age when they aren't allowed to wander, bodily, by themselves."

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