The Internet in the classroom: a waste or a wonder?

How educational are e-mail and the Net for pupils when their teachers don't know how to use them? If Labour wins office it must steer schools in the right direction, writes Anita Pincas
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The Labour Party has suggested that all school pupils be given an e-mail address and access to the Internet. It is easy to clap hands and cry, "How marvellous!" In practice, it could turn out to be an expensive, time-consuming and even frustrating turn-off for teachers and students.

The first question must be, "Why do it at all?" The teaching of skills does not require it, and any idea that the Internet will lighten the teacher's burden if pupils work independently is fanciful. The classroom of the future will rely both on the Internet and on books. But we must be realistic about computer technology compared with the simple book - and about the scope of e-mail and the Internet compared with that of other media such as videos and CD-Roms.

If the world of the Internet is to be used to good effect, money and effort must be spent on making it more easily accessible and controllable by teachers. One of the risks is that these international media will never be controlled, and children with their own e-mail addresses could become vulnerable to a whole new category of "predators". The only control possible is at the point of user access: for example, one e-mail address per class, and that under the teacher's supervision.

In principle, sending e-mail messages is as simple as faxing. In practice there is a wide choice of software, some of which is more suitable for classroom use than others. For maximum benefit, it is important for teachers and children to learn to touch-type.

Beyond that, what do you do with e-mail for a large group of children? Some schoolchildren already have e-mail pen pals, or are involved in joint projects with partners in other countries. The Internet opens up the wider world in a way very different from television. It allows direct communication with otherwise unknowable people. Children may become better communicators, because e-mail can be an intimate contact. They may also improve their knowledge of a foreign language by coming to perceive its reality.

Users become faster writers, but children's English (other than their vocabulary) will not improve as traditionalists may wish. E-mail fosters informal styles, with shortcuts, abbreviations and tolerance of typing and spelling errors. It may well, however, increase children's perception of the value of literacy.

The other aspect of the Internet referred to by Labour is the World Wide Web. In theory, it offers any information one would like to have - for instance, geography statistics, the latest rock'n'roll charts, medical advice. In fact, it is not technically as straightforward as e-mail. Finding appropriate Internet sites and "addresses" can be such a nightmare that one just gives up. And logging on to a site at certain times of day with ordinary telephone lines is often slow and expensive. The Internet is already overloaded. The Web is not a replacement for a good library. Its information is scattered, random and incomplete.

And there is a limit to what can be read comfortably on screen. More important is that children can learn new skills for handling information, such as classifying, making connections, putting ideas together, in conjunction with other computer skills, such as word-processing and database handling.

What has to be done to make the Internet accessible? A few suggestions:

Teachers not only need to be trained in the new technology; they must also be given the time to experience it.

Teacher education needs to emphasise the educational aspects of its use.

Schools need high-speed telephone lines.

A well-co-ordinated public information drive should seek to demystify this whole area.

If Labour wins office, it will have a unique chance to steer schools in the right directionn

The writer is lecturer in education, Institute of Education, London University.