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. …