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Tips on tools for trips to the unknown

Jack Kenny offers some practical advice for novices on the Internet.

You've read all about it. You know that the Internet is a network connecting a vast number of networks. You've heard that the school down the road is making plans. Worried about being left behind?

Rest assured that the Internet is not going to go away. It is going to get better, it will certainly get cheaper and we will start to learn over the next few months how it can be used effectively in the classroom.

First of all make sure you have a good reason to use it. The Internet is wonderful, but whether it will be wonderful in your school or just something that sits on the sidelines like a broken slide projector will depend on the ways teachers, students and parents are prepared. At the moment it can be slow, irritating and technically flawed, but its future is exciting.

The basics you need to start with are: access to a phone line; a computer; a modem; a subscription to an Internet provider. An ordinary phone line is adequate but, you should check that you are connected to a modern exchange. If you can afford the expense it is better to install a line dedicated to the work; then you can ensure it is in the best location.

The computer should be at least a PC 486 or equivalent Apple machine. The Acorn Risc PC will be fine, but for other Acorn machines consult Acorn (01223 254254).

A modem is an electronic device which can be either in the computer or attached to it. This links the phone line to the computer and changes computer information into a code which can be transmitted across the phone lines. Modems are rated with speeds of how many bits per second they will transmit, many in schools are 2400. For Internet use you require at least a 14,400 (about Pounds 120); if you can afford it get a 28,800 (about Pounds 180-Pounds 200). Prices of modems vary, so shop around. Remember the faster the modem the less time you will be on-line.

Next choose your Internet provider (see opposite page). When the subscription is paid, your provider should send you some software to get started. For instance, Cityscape sends the bizarrely named Trumpet Winsock which connects you into the network; Air Mosaic, which enables you to move around the world with ease; Eudora, a program for mail; and another one for conferences.

Other software that you might be given or acquire includes: a gopher; ftp; archie.

* A gopher (go for) is a program that will search around various computers across the world to see if there is anything to match a search term that you have entered. It will then display it on your machine.

* Ftp is "file transfer protocol". This is a piece of software that will enable you to fetch a file from elswhere.

* Archie is a search program too.With all that you can explore and decide how all this is going to make learning more exciting.

"The real job of the computer is not retrieval, but discovery," Marshall McLuhan argued in the Sixties. There is so much to discover and that is part of the problem. The vastness of the Internet means that you will use some parts more than others. In other words your concept of the Internet will be different from someone else's.

All search tools work in different ways, but most are effective. It is exciting to see the images from the space shuttle of Etna erupting, awe-inspiring to be able to look at our world from the view of a satellite taken just this morning, stimulating to be able to read Russian and American newspapers commenting on the day's news. You can subscribe (free) to electronic magazines and they will appear in your mailbox within seconds of being published. You can share projects with schools across the world. There has been concern over air quality, so why not talk to a Los Angeles school about a problem they have known for years? Our media drop stories after a few days. The problems remain, so why not find out what is still going on?

Historians can move to a Florida site to find first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. For scientists there is the satisfaction of sharing ideas, checking research and being an active part of a living community. For teachers in primary schools there is the opportunity to get in touch with other schools doing similar work. For modern language teachers there is the chance to connect with schools abroad and to access pages in the target language. There is even a page where you can follow the progress of the Tour de France.

There are some practical tips that you might find useful. In the early morning most of America is asleep and access can be faster. Use more than one search program. If you can't find something, assume that it is there and it is your search skills that are letting you down. When you find a site that you know you will use again, make a note (bookmark) of it so that you will find it easy to return. FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) are a helpful feature of the Internet. They are collections of answers to the kind of questions that people have asked in the past and are full of practical advice.

Don't read large amounts of text on screen, download it instead (especially the books about Internet for beginners). Some people argue that the best way to search is through subject lists and there are many of those.

Parents have an important role because it is likely that an increasing number of homes will be connected to the Internet. We need to share with parents the riches that we know are there, because eventually technology like this will minimise the gap between home and school and bring about the much talked about de-institutionalisation of learning.

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