The mid-Eighties were magic years for me. Writing adventure programs for children allowed me to bring my fantasies to life. Over the years, the magic slowly dissipated as schools began to turn to the sort of software that, in the early days, they had scorned.
I was convinced that, for me, the enchantment had disappeared for ever. But, not for the first time, I was utterly wrong. While I was still crying into my beer something equally magical came into being. The Internet arrived.
Recently I had to write a piece about the Internet for a travel magazine, so I spent 45 minutes taking a cyberjourney. I typed in the word "vacation", waited for a list of Web sites and took the first one that looked promising. Moments later I was off to Hawaii. I popped into Tahiti Nui for French toast - thick slices of French bread dipped in a light egg batter and served with coconut or maple syrup for $5.50. I booked bed and breakfast at Kalani Aina, a beautifully-appointed suite with private entrance situated on a three-acre country estate. I checked out the houses for sale with an estate agent and then enjoyed a Captain Zodiac Rafting Expedition which combines the thrill of rafting with an eco-adventure on Kauai's remote Na Pali coast.
Magic? Absolutely. And mainly because I knew that all those words and pictures were coming into my home directly from Hawaii. I could almost smell the flowers. If I, well into my prime, could be so excited by such a journey, surely primary teachers must be grinning from ear to ear as they marvel at how the Internet can inspire and motivate their children? So I came back from Hawaii and set off to visit some schools.
After chatting to a few teachers I gained the impression that just about every primary school that uses the Internet is in touch with a school overseas. Robin Whitby of Applegarth junior school in Croydon said: "A school in Sweden contacted us after they saw our Web home page and the children of both schools have been sending e-mail, pictures, photographs and multimedia presentations to each other."
A few miles away, Ketayun Shavaksha of Park Hill junior school said: "Our class are all key pals with a child in a class in the US. The teacher contacted us via our Home Page. The children have scanned and sent photos of each other, and they gossip as well as giving news and comparing school systems and fashion. We have also sent work across to each other to compare."
John Rivers, of Headcorn county primary school in Kent, was expecting a party of Dutch children the week before SATs week, and John Corder, of Downsview primary school in Upper Norwood, south London, was about to be visited by two groups of teachers from Ohio and Connecticut in the same week. In addition to arranging visits and swapping information, linked schools are able to engage in collaborative projects. Robin Hood primary school and Selly Park technology college for girls in Birmingham have worked with two schools from Singapore to produce a Web site devoted to the voyage of HMS Illustrious to Singapore and Hong Kong. On a slightly different tack, Ron Hansford, of Sutton on Sea primary school, Lincolnshire, plans to set up a book appraisal network to exchange views about books written by children's authors, set and answer book quizzes and compose stories with children from countries with a shared heritage.
I was a little disappointed to find that the chances of children being able to embark upon cybertrips to Hawaii are slim, but there are good reasons for this. Robin Whitby of Applegarth junior school is not alone when he laments: "We only have one machine to use the Internet and one phone socket. Telephone costs are a big worry. My budget is very small." John Rivers speaks for many when he says: "The Internet will only be used effectively if we have adequate funding specifically for IT provision." He believes we are losing the great IT lead we built up in the Eighties. "Without the help of the parents," he says, "it is doubtful if we could continue with the Net."
It is not only the lack of equipment that frustrates teachers but the time taken to find suitable material and download it. Internet search engines are very useful but simple searches using key words usually turn up vast amounts of unsuitable or irrelevant material, and advanced searches require that you have a degree in logic to understand their structures. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that cater for education - BT's CampusWorld (which claims 1,200 primary subscribers), RM's Internet For Learning (500-600), and AOL (500), for example - assist by providing links to educational sites but, even with this facility, teachers need to check pages to see if they are appropriate. A common strategy is for teachers to either use bookmarks to provide a list of sites relevant to a particular project or save the pages for children to look at later.
Supervision by teachers is also important to prevent children accessing material of which Mary Whitehouse would not approve. Although some ISPs do provide a degree of security, such as Internet for Learning and CampusWorld, it is astonishing how frequently one comes across X-rated material by accident.
Alex Clark, in his report on the Croydon IT and Communications at Key Stage 2 Project, is also concerned about the vulnerability of schools to unwanted attention when they publish their own Web pages. He advises "pupils' surnames are never used; if photographs are used, pupils should not be identifiable; parents' permission should be sought before children's work is published; and a teacher should be present when e-mail is downloaded."
With an increasing number of homes having Internet access, schools are beginning to realise that the Net can be a useful medium for communication with parents. John Rivers finds that more and more parents are sending him e-mail messages instead of letters, "possibly because they reckon there's more chance of me reading their messages than if they write normally". He uses the Web to publish a school newsletter, a PTFA newsletter, and spelling lists for each class.
So are our children able to make a leisurely exploration of Hawaii from their classrooms? Maybe not just yet, but I'm not dismayed. My overall impression after investigation was that the Net has far more potential for primary schools than I'd imagined. Perhaps we'll have to wait until 2000 before every child can explore those islands where "the spirit of Aloha has allowed a melting pot of cultures from all over the world to find common ground, and a new home, in this most gentle of places".
And maybe that description of Hawaii could apply equally to cyberspace.
Mike Matson writes software for primary schoolchildren.
voyage to Singapore and Hong Kong: http:www.britcoun.orgsingaporeoceanwave
Headcorn CP school: http:www.rmplc.co.ukeduwebsitesheadcorn Croydon communications project: http:wkweb4.cableint.co.ukdavprofnetindex. html
Sutton on Sea primary school: http:homepages.enterprise.netseagulls
Robin Hood primary school: http:www.rmplc.co.ukeduwebsitesrobinhindex.html
NCET Educational Internet Service Providers Project: http:www.lavenderndt.comeispschoolsfocusindex.html
NCET page on Effective Searching:http:www.lavender ndt.comeispresindex.html NCET links to Search Engines: http:www.lavenderndt.comeisptoolsindex.html To overcome the problem of having a single e-mail address at a school, useful free mailbox services are offered by RocketMail and MailCity.
They allow anyone to have their own mailbox which can be accessed from the Web. RocketMail offers free e-mail for all school students and carries suggestions on using it effectively.
RocketMail:http:www.rocketmail.com MailCity: http:www.mailcity.com Mike Matson