Which way to cyberspace?

Hugh John

Virgin AOL

There are many ways to get connected to the Web. TES writers put some educational Net suppliers to the test

It's a fierce arena that Internet service providers occupy, and newcomers had better be good. Given Virgin's media interests, and an expansionist policy that makes Genghis Khan seem positively stay-at-home - finance, radio, soft drinks, trains, planes - there was a certain inevitability about its entry into the fray. Virgin Net, which claims a membership of 60,000, came on-line in November 1996. The education channel was added in August.

The mainstay of the channel is RM's excellent Living Library, an on-line reference archive that draws its material from educational publishers, newspapers and selected Web sites to provide a wide range of resources. Publications from the Oxford University Press include its School Dictionary, Children's Thesaurus and Book of Famous People. The principal general reference source is World Book's Multimedia Encyclopedia. Liris Interactive has supplied The Kingfisher Children's Encyclopedia, there are 1,500 digital images from the Corbis Picture Library and Helicon has contributed The Hutchinson Dictionary of Science and The Hutchinson Dictionary of History. With the exception of the newspapers, all the information available has been filtered, and articles are indexed according to the curriculum. Living Library's search engine scrutinises the whole collection of reference material, which means that children need only learn and apply one search technique.

Newspaper articles from the past five years are provided by the Daily Mirror, Mirror on Sunday, The Independent and Independent on Sunday. More than 5,000 links to the World Wide Web are included in Pathways, which is also part of RM's Internet for Learning.

At the moment the education material is free, but Virgin intends it to be a premium service, which will add about Pounds 3 to the flat rate monthly tariff of Pounds 10. At Pounds 13 this is still competitive and compares favourably with AOL's monthly charge of Pounds 16.95. Living Library will not, however, be offered to schools as part of the Virgin Net package because RM considers that the education market needs its own special expertise and support.

AOL is a European collaboration between the Bertelsmann publishing group and America OnLine, with more than nine million subscribers worldwide. Its purchase of CompuServe gives the company a few million more subscribers.

Established in Britain in January 1996, it now has a membership of more than 200,000. For the past 18 months, AOL has offered free Internet access to all secondary schools in the UK, and will donate 10 megabytes of space to any participating school that wants to put up a Web site on the Internet. It is also involved in a pilot scheme with 20 West Sussex primary schools that are now on-line. If successful, primaries throughout the county may be given accounts. Richard Methuen of AOL is optimistic that further parent participation and local authority involvement will enable the company to extend its schools' programme.

But free Internet access is not AOL's only attraction. Its pedigree is as a content provider. While its encyclopedia, Hutchinson's Multimedia, may lack the breadth and depth of World Book, the educational content, largely provided by Anglia Multimedia and a network of support teachers, is wide-ranging and stimulating. The Learning Channel also has a comprehensive special needs section and access to Br?derbund's site, from where it's possible to download demos of educational software.

Parents looking for educational software reviews and sensible advice on buying IT equipment should click on the PIN (Parents Information Network) icon. PIN describes itself as "an independent organisation set up to help parents and carers cope with the fast-moving world of computers". It has produced some excellent articles including "Homework", "Using the Internet" and "Computers in Primary Schools". The Advice Centre addresses parents' concerns about the World Wide Web, unmediated information, and the plethora of technical jargon associated with the Internet.

Secondary schools are certainly attracted by AOL's offer of free connection and free Web space; so far more than 2,500 schools have taken up the initiative. Equally, Virgin Net's astute co-opting of Living Library, competitive subscription rates and their own allocation of Web space - 10 megabytes per user - are sure to appeal to many parents and domestic users.

CONTACTS: * Virgin Net - 0500 558800; http:www.virgin.net

* AOL - 0800 3765432; http:www.aol.com

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