Net gain for learning

As children return to school, Sandra Vogel sees how the Internet is becoming an educational tool for pupils and parents

As children and teachers return to school for a new year they will find that the Internet is becoming increasingly important as an educational tool. More and more children are "wired" at home, and many will have spent some of the summer getting to grips with the new medium. Some will have found exciting and interesting places to visit and revisit, and might already have used the Net on school summer holiday projects.

Increasing numbers of schools are also becoming wired, and plenty have gone as far as creating their own Web sites, but there are still remarkably few real resources on the Internet aimed at children and their parents. There are a few specialist providers, working mainly, though not exclusively, within the schools environment, and while we are beginning to see an increase in initiatives, the UK still lags far behind the US in terms of both number and quality of services. Virgin Net, Richard Branson's Internet service provider (ISP), has recently realised that there is a gap in the market, and is attempting to fill it with a new service that is squarely targeted at home users. A company called RM provides the information for this service, which comprises the data from more than 70 commercial CD-Roms, ranging from encyclopaedias to picture libraries and from dictionaries to newspaper archives (including five years' worth of The Independent).

RM is a big player in educational computing, and is a key supplier of hardware and training. Since early 1995 it has also been Britain's only education-specific ISP. For pounds 12.50 a month, schools get a dial-up connection to the Internet for Learning service, which provides a whole swathe of classroom-specific material. For an additional charge schools can have access to the Living Library, whose content is the basis for the Virgin Net venture. Schools have embraced the service. Of the 5,000 secondary schools in Britain, 3,500 are subscribers. For Tim Clark, marketing manager at Internet for Learning, the move towards providing services for home users via Virgin Net was simply a matter of expanding markets. "RM is well known in education circles," he says, "but few people at home have heard of us." This despite the fact that parents can get an "out of school hours" subscription to Internet for Learning that includes an e-mail address and standard Web access for pounds 8.50 a month.

"While individuals can subscribe to our product, they tend not to," Clark says. "Yet aspects of Internet for Learning are relevant to parents, and children can use it at home as easily as at school. A partnership with an Internet service provider known to home users is ideal for us to expand our market and reach a wider but still highly relevant audience."

The main alternative to Internet for Learning for home-based users is BT's HomeCampus service that will launch in earnest this month and whose ethos is similar. Peter Ananicz, product manager of HomeCampus, explains: "The Internet is now becoming a part of people's lives. Lots of parents buy PCs for their children, and we think HomeCampus will help them." A subscription costs pounds 4.95 a month, on top of the subscription you pay to your ISP. Many of the features found in HomeCampus have been developed from BT's in-schools product, Campus World. The kinds of things you can expect to find on HomeCampus this autumn include information for parents about school governership and PTAs, and for children how to cope in their first week, personal safety and help with homework.

Aside from these major league services, there is a relatively small but very high quality array of often much more targeted and time-specific services emerging. When educational software publisher Yorkshire International Thomson Multimedia decided to run an experiment on the Web earlier this year, it had no idea how popular it would be. Their one-off Interactive History Day was aimed at A-level students. It covered the events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War and was designed to get students thinking about their reactions to information as it flowed through during the day. The site achieved nearly 75,000 "hits" and was recorded as the fifth most popular UK Web on its single day of operation.

David Taylor, director of Electronic Publishing, was responsible for the project. He has begun work on another event in the same vein, this time covering the events of Armistice Day. It will be live on 11 November.

Primary schools fare poorly in terms of Web sites and Internet connections, but the desire to participate when services are there is just as keen. The Brixton Connections project involves 15 local primary schools and is funded by Brixton Challenge. Its recent Our Day project invited schools to produce an online diary of their lives. A total of 66 schools from round the world participated.

The National Council for Educational Technology, a body with a central role in developing the use of IT for education, is keen to see projects like these do well. Janice Staines, senior programme officer at NCET, is developing a series of Internet-based treasure hunts aimed at Key Stages One and Two. Initially covering English, maths and science, they should be up and running by half-term week. The treasure hunts will take children away from the computer, suggesting classroom activities as well as Internet resources that can help in the hunt. Staines admits that it was not always easy to find UK Web sites on which to base the hunt, a sure sign of the dearth of suitable Web sites at the moment n

BT HomeCampus

http://www.campus.bt.com/HomeCampus

Internet for Learning

http://www.mlpc.co.uk

Living Library

http://www.livinglibrary.co.uk

Virgin Net education services

http://www.virgin.net

The Brixton Project

http://www.brixton-connections.org.uk

YITM Interactive History Day and Armistice Day project

Http://www.yitm.com

NCET Treasure Hunts

Details from http://ncet.org.uk

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