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Travellers in search of the Promised Land

Sean Coughlan picks his way between the high hopes of the Net evangelists and the mounting phone bills of the Web weary

If you listened to some of the evangelists of the Internet, you would imagine that the Promised Land was only a mouse-click away. Endless libraries of information, links to all quarters of the known-universe, the distillation of human knowledge, an international forum for ideas - all within a modem's reach of your computer.

But if you listened to more cynical voices, you'd hear a less rapturous account of the Internet. They would warn that if the links to the Internet get crowded, the queue for the Promised Land can be a long one. And if the Promised Land has too many colour graphics, then you'd better not be in too much of a hurry to see it.

Schools plugging themselves into the Internet will soon find themselves face to face with both sides of this Jekyll and Hyde creation, with the excitement of having access to so much information being tempered by the frustration at sometimes having to wait so long to reach it.

What no one can deny about the Internet is the plain fact that there is so much of it. And it is this super-abundance of information that makes it such a tantalising proposition for education - with the potential for providing huge quantities of up-to-date educational material at low cost directly to schools.

But is this really a practical possibility for schools? Or is it just a talking shop for gadget-addicts? Will schools benefit from this link to a global network? Or will they suffer from its drain on time and money?

In an attempt to find out more about how the Internet might work in schools, the Department for Trade and Industry last year launched Schools OnLine, a project in which 60, almost all secondary, schools across the country were asked to road-test the Internet, using equipment provided by industry partners. Two curriculum areas, science and modern languages, were chosen for research, and for the past two terms the relevant departments have been experimenting with how the Internet can complement their teaching.

"It has surpassed my expectations," says Frank Dixon, head of science at St John Rigby, a sixth-form college in Wigan. "I approached the project with an open mind, but I've found it to have worked very, very well."

From a small group of students using the Internet at the outset, interest has spread by word of mouth, so that now access to the computer has to be booked in the same way as the sports facilities, with pupils using the Internet for study in their own free time.

An aspect of this success, Frank Dixon and his students believe, is the ease of use of the Internet. Students and teachers who might be less than enthusiastic about most forms of information technology, he says, have found the simple navigational tools of the Internet very approachable and easy to use.

From the experience of St John Rigby, Frank Dixon says, "the Internet has certainly been of value for learning science. It has a high motivation factor, giving students up-to-date material that they won't find in textbooks."

Although the modem and Internet connections have been donated free to schools by their industrial partners (ICL in the case of St John Rigby), the project has been shaped around the kind of facilities that most schools would use. As such, in St John Rigby, the Internet-linked computer is in a science room, connected by a modem to an ordinary phone line, without any special high-speed lines or any other expensive short-cuts.

From this corner of a Lancashire classroom, students have been roaming the universe. This isn't a piece of cyber-flannel, but a fact, as among many other science links, A-level students have explored NASA's extensive Internet site, with its banks of images of the solar system taken by space probes. As the Internet can take you as quickly to North America as South Kensington, students can connect as easily with the Science Centre in Ontario as the Science Museum in London.

As well as browsing pages, students have used the Internet to contact working scientists around the world. Prompted by a news release about discoveries made by particle physicists in the United States, students were able to e-mail the laboratory and gather more detailed information. This sense of immediacy has appealed particularly to the students at St John Rigby, giving them a sense of acquiring "real" information from the cutting edge of research. The Internet's pages are constantly updated, say the students, and escape the time-lag feel of textbooks and CD-Roms.

This interactivity has emerged as one of the key educational benefits of the Internet. Stephen Heppell, director of Ultralab, the Anglia Polytechnic University research unit that will be evaluating the scheme, says that "the Internet is about much more than just information on pages. It's a network to let people communicate with each other".

To this end, Schools OnLine has pages on its Internet site that allow teachers to talk to one another and to ask questions of science experts, using e-mail. British astronaut Helen Sharman answered questions about space ("Which way do plants grow in space?" "Do you get taller when you are weightless?") and in the chat area there are messages such as "any one know of any good resources on rocks, key stage 2, on the Internet? Please e-mail me with details". Or more practically - "How have people addressed the issue of paying their service provider when the project terminates? Most service providers require a credit card number to charge. Most bursars would rather stick pins in their eyes. "

Most bursars might quake also at the idea of equipment that runs up a phone bill of Pounds 2 per hour, whenever it's in use. If the Internet was used every hour, every day, every term, there wouldn't be much change out of Pounds 3,000 a year. Providing one Internet connection for a school might be affordable at such rates, but if each department had its own link, then the phone bill would become a very serious roadblock to the Internet in schools.

Whether or not the Internet can be accessed satisfactorily with ordinary phone lines is a further issue being considered by another of the participants, Hinchingbrooke School in Huntingdon. Duncan Grey, head of resources, says that schools will have to consider the long-term advantages of investing in more advanced equipment to make the Internet more classroom-friendly. This could mean higher-capacity phone links that will increase the speed of access to the Internet, a network system to spread Internet links throughout the school and an e-mail address for every teacher and pupil. Without more, faster and cheaper connections, he warns, the Internet experiment could become a "dead end".

At Hinchingbrooke, Duncan Grey and his students have been making headway in another area of the Schools OnLine project, which is to help schools make their own Internet pages. As well as pages devoted to science and modern languages, the school has set up an impressive Internet project based on a regular school trip to the battlefields and cemeteries of the First World War. This "virtual field trip", with photographs, poetry, accounts of the misery of life in the trenches and the response of young students to the Flanders war cemeteries are all published on the Internet, with plans for future pages to include sound as well as images and text.

Modern languages students at Hinchingbrooke have been using the international potential of the Internet, with correspondence being set up with a teacher in Germany. And, more exotically, two Australian students spending a year at the school are being taught Indonesian by their own former tutors in Australia, via the Internet. As Duncan Grey notes, there can't be many other schools in Cambridgeshire offering Indonesian.

The computer linked to the Internet at Hinchingbrooke School is installed in the library, a location intended to emphasise its place as a resource rather than a piece of technology. Its position in a public place, in eye-sight of the librarian, also helps defuse one of the other Internet anxieties, that the system will be used to access pornography. Although the prospect of children downloading porn from the Internet might excite the tabloids, in practice it doesn't appear to have been an issue in these pilot schools.

In Collingwood School, a technology college in Camberley, Surrey, the Internet computer is sited in the computers room, with a steady stream of print-outs emerging from the explorations of modern languages students. When Francois Mitterrand died, students were able to read the news, obituaries and the historical perspectives from French newspapers, giving them a taste of authentic language on a subject that wouldn't be in textbooks for months or even years.

Although this access to language resources was proving a great benefit, head of information technology Sheila Bond was also conscious of the difficulties. "Telephone lines are not fast enough, especially for lesser ability students, " she says. What is needed, she believes, are high-capacity "ISDN" lines, but this in turn "costs money". Likewise, to get the most from the Internet, each department would need several links, adding up to a considerable investment and operating costs. Add to this the eed for good quality colour printers and the staff time to maintain the facilities and then the new dawn of the Internet can seem a little further away.

All three schools were pragmatic about costs and the frailties of the system. "We couldn't get on the Internet at all one afternoon," says a St John Rigby student, a problem that is as much to do with the instability of fast-changing technology as the lack of expensive connections. But all the schools, and certainly the students, were enthused at the potential.

For many, the sheer volume of information on the Internet provides its own sense of enjoyment, the same kind of comfort-factor that you get from a shop that seems to have everything or a bar that has rows of really obscure whisky bottles - you don't want to try everything, but it's good to know that it's all there if you do.

But for education this depth of information, and the ability to exchange with others, is more than an impractical luxury, it's what makes it worthwhile. The "microbiologists' home page" might be something that many people would put off for a rainy day - but for an A-level biology student approaching the deadline for course work, this information could be of more compelling interest.

This first pilot phase of Schools OnLine was intended to end at Easter, but due to popular demand and sponsors' continued commitment, the project is now set to run through the summer term. After the participating schools have reported back with their experiences, the project is likely to move on to a more detailed phase of research in the autumn.

From these first impressions, it appears that the Internet is more than welcome in the classroom. But unless there is investment from Government and industry to cut the cost of phone calls and connections, it remains to be seen whether schools will ever get to the Promised Land.

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