It's official: the youth of today has finally disowned the book. A recent poll conducted by CNN and the National Science Foundation found that 77 per cent of American teenagers prefer to use the Internet for school projects instead of books or magazines. Reading is out, surfing is in.

Since high computer usage correlates with achievement of good grades, these kids may be on to something. It may suggest that the retention of knowledge acquired via hypertext is higher than that for material read in a book. When using the Internet for research, students have to think about what it is they're looking for and structure their search appropriately. This process of thinking and decision-making may enhance the depth of understanding of the topic they are trying to investigate.

The most staggering statistics that emerged from the poll were that an overwhelming 99 per cent of American teenagers had used computers and 67 per cent had access to a computer at home. Even more interesting was their enthusiastic preference for maths and science (81 per cent) over English and social sciences as favourite topics of study.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, a recent Asda study of IT departments of British schools indicated that 75 per cent of teachers considered their colleagues pretty clueless and lacking sufficient knowledge about computers. Some 90 per cent of respondents' schools were not yet connected to the Internet, although 85 per cent wanted to get wired. Asda's PCs for Schools initiative has already contributed around 2,000 multimedia machines for classrooms, and BT's Campus World has equipped around 3,000 schools to at least some degree. But what about the rest?

It is not just about e-mail or chats, although the ability to chat and have virtual friends is surely the best way of acquiring the skill for virtual teamwork and the ability to co-operate with colleagues working in remote offices. Groupware can support only people who have cognitive skills and concepts of virtual co-operation, and that can be easily trained via social activities on the Net.

Perhaps even more important, the CNN poll suggests that using computers enhances kids' interest in science, logic and maths - an important point to consider in the light of the dramatic drop in science students reported by many British universities. This signals a worsening of the current shortage of computing and engineering graduates, which has led to Britain falling behind its competitors in many areas of industry.

How many software packages that we use were developed in the UK? How many components of our hardware originate from these shores? As we all know, very few components of modern connectivity, communication equipment or hardware come from the UK. Despite having the advantage of shared language, British engineering has not contributed significantly to the computing revolution over the last 25 years.

This missed opportunity is due in large part to the lack of proper IT education in our schools. Computers in schools simply mean more and better engineers, scientists and programmers in the future, building a strong and competitive pool of people to take Britain into the 21st century. Getting computers into our schools is crucial if we are to be part of the next wave of the information revolution and share the enormous wealth generated by the hi-tech boom.

Tony Blair was making positive noises before the general election with his "e-mail for every child" plan. Such a project would involve providing all schools with PCs. But, considering the low levels of computer literacy among teachers in the Asda study, it might be spending money on hardware that will not be well used, expensive to run and disliked by teachers.

An alternative might be the network computer. The NC could be a way of moving things forward in schools that wouldn't break the bank. NCs can work with a TV as monitor, their maintenance can be centralised and is therefore cost-effective. Web-based training programs can be easily developed and shared without incurring incremental production costs. Most schools are equipped with TV, and have at least a few telephone lines that could be used for connectivity.

So a national program to wire up our schools based on NCs may be a way to stop our kids falling further behind. It would also create opportunities for British NC manufacturers such as Acorn, as well as UK educational software developers. Since the delivery of the educational programs could be synchronised with the national curriculum, it would also be a first step in getting schools to follow it, and to bridging the divide between schools that can and can't afford expensive PCs and an IT teacher to make them work.

Otherwise it will be up to initiatives such as Asda's, and take perhaps a million shopping years to equip our schools with basic PCs. Anyone interested in helping to put an "NC for Every School" project together can e-mail me at eva@never.com.

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