Four Good Reasons to Get Caught in the Net

Cyberschools Column

First Published in the Herald in January 1997

More than 3,500 schools worldwide are now connected to the Internet. With 5 - 14 still seeking a role and Higher Still ready in the wings should schools in Scotland be interested in a world wide stage?

There are at least four good reasons why schools should go online: e-mail; the Web; ftp and newsgroups and they're not as bad as they sound.

E-mail can be faster and more economic than either fax or phone. For many people e-mail is reason enough to connect. E(lectronic)-mail avoids the reams and reams of paper required - at both ends - by traditional fax machines and users have found that it leads to shorter messages; user-friendly to use the jargon but to the point.

A significant advantage is that you1re never put on hold. There's no telephone rage to the strains of music-box Strauss. Guidance teachers could actually send all their messages in non-contact time. Sending information by e-mail is always at local call rates, regardless of destination, and it takes seconds where the fax takes minutes. Files won't arrive unprotected in an open plan office. They'll stay at the mailbox until the relevant person collects them.

If e-mail were all that the Internet had to offer, it would probably be worth the investment. Schools could actually save money but there's more. There's lots more.

If school AFA's are becoming attracted by the efficiency of e-mail, teachers are quickly recognising the wealth of resources available on the World Wide Web. In the right hands the Web is a very effective teaching tool. No other resource offers access to such a range of information. A quick search for Jane Austen information will result in a list of more than 20,000 references; some relevant, some not. The real problem for teachers is knowing where to start and how to avoid enjoyable but perhaps ultimately fruitless hours of surfing potentially significant sites.

Surfing the Web is just like having a conversation with a Glasgow taxi driver. You pursue a line of thought with each link taking you deeper and deeper into a subject or off at a tangent into another one. I realised this recently when I was forced to abandon the car - no parking spaces - and take a taxi to a meeting.

Talking to the driver, as you do, I asked if the town was busy. He said it was but it was full of shoppers who weren't going very far. Then he told me about another driver who had taken one shopper back to Stirling, a distance of over forty miles he said. I asked if he'd read - in the newspapers - about the London taxi driver who had taken someone to Dundee. He said he had read it and asked if I1d read the story about the Glasgow man who'd won a lot of money recently. He'd driven him to the press conference to receive the cheque. And so we continued: surfing.

Each link, you see, led to another. We could have taken a totally different route. If our minds had clicked on Dundee we might have ended up discussing primary education via some comments about the bairn. Stirling could have taken us to Braveheart and on to Scottish cinema.

And so it is with the World Wide Web; enjoyable but sometimes aimless wandering. If e-mail reduces phone bills having access to the Web can easily increase them.

That's why CyberSchools will review Web sites directly relevant to the curriculum. The column should reduce the surfing without taking away all the fun. The Web has an enormous amount of relevant information if only you could find it. Each Web site does have its own address. You've probably noticed them in adverts.

Web addresses are less daunting than they look. A typical address looks something like http - hypertext transfer protocol - is just the system which enables clicking on links to take you to related information. It's not important to know how it manages this trick. http is usually followed by :// which means "address coming up" and then there's the actual address which usually begins www. for World Wide Web. The next part gives the name and a description of the source. If there1s any more after that it1s the files - Russian doll style - in which the information is stored. The SCET site, for example, can be reached on the Web. SCET is an organisation in the UK.

SCET's page is appropriately designed to look like a jotter and has lots of interesting information and links. It also offers a free screen saver.

It's possible to "download" the screen saver, in other words to transfer it from their computer to your own. Downloading introduces the third reason for connecting to the Internet file transfer protocol. FTP makes it possible to transfer software and other files to your computer (or floppy disk) and all the major computer companies have FTP sites. Many resources are available free, at least for a trial period. It's a bit like getting programs without the fancy wrapping. No cardboard boxes.

Transferring files from a source on the other side of the world is as easy as copying from a floppy disk. The down side is that it can take a quite a long time so it will rack up the phone bill. Even so it could still work out cheaper than requistioning the same software.

Some way on from the SCET site you could come across a teachers' forum. Discussion groups or forums are the fourth basic Internet facility, the so-called newsgroups. These subject noticeboards exist on just about every topic. This particular teachers newsgroup is actually called the Mighty Media Teacher Talk Forum. (Yes, it is based in America.) By registering, which takes seconds rather than minutes, you can read messages which other teachers have "posted". More than 800 new participants take part in this global staffroom discussion every month.

Messages are categorised to make them easier to find. Under "Teaching Ideas" Dawn Schurman describes how she and her class have worked with a local college to produce a newspaper. She says it's not a new idea but it works. There's space for everyone if you have a burning desire to share a good lesson plan with the world.

One primary school teacher and her class are currently reading The Gingerbread Man. As you no doubt know he runs away. The teacher's message asks if people from all over the world would send the class postcards from the "runaway". Could this be 5-14 Environmental Studies?

E-mail. The Web. FTP. Newsgroups. The Internet does have a lot to offer.

There is, I know, a small, almost Luddite subculture in Scottish education which scoffs at the Internet. Sometimes those involved seem to mistake cynicism for smartness, Scottish new lads continuing the kailyard tradition. It would be a shame to encourage such narrow views.

Education is about encouraging enquiring minds and the Internet offers resources from all over the world which can make enquiry rewarding. Scottish pupils deserve the opportunity.


Scottish CCC

Mighty Media Teacher Talk Forum

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