From Nothing to the Net: Experiences of an Inner City School

Fay Hartland
Falla Park Primary School, Felling, UK

Introduction

While a connection to the Internet is seen by many people in business and higher education as a necessity and by others as something to aim for, schools--particularly those at elementary level--are struggling to come to terms with information technology (IT). They are often unable to afford even the most basic equipment, let alone a sufficiently powerful machine, a modem, an additional telephone line, and subscriptions, to enable them to become involved in the Internet.

This is a great disappointment. The schools most likely to gain from the Internet as a resource are those schools that are least likely to be able to gain access to it. Schools in socially deprived areas, where the children travel little and are rarely exposed to cultures and lifestyles different from their own, would benefit tremendously from the opportunities that the Internet can provide.

The government's views

Last year, the British Government issued a booklet called Superhighways for Education. This was a consultation paper, and it asked for educational institutions and industry to contribute to the debate on the information superhighway. It also stated that "through cooperation between schools, colleges, universities and industry, we can pilot new ways of teaching and learning using the new communications technology" (1).

The outcome of this consultation paper, The Way Forward (2), is not very satisfactory. Statements are made such as "online communications and particularly broadband communications, had potential to support every area of the school curriculum." It lists several factors that the "success of superhighways in schools" are dependant on. These include expert staffing and technical backup and better indexing and cataloguing mechanisms. There is one statement that shows at least partial recognition of the problems that schools face: "In schools a considerable proportion of equipment was over five years old and unsuitable for connection to networks. Replacement and connection would involve not only new, more powerful equipment, but also subscriptions and staff training costs." This is a fair summary of some of the problems, but there is no suggestion of how these can be solved. More importantly, there is no offer of substantial funding from central government. The admission that the age of equipment is a major problem for schools makes offers from companies such as Microsoft (3) and British Telecom (4) of free networking software or Internet access impossible to take advantage of for many schools.

Both of the government papers are full of rhetoric and grand ideas. An increasing number of senior schools are using the Internet, many of them through partnerships with business; but it is taking too long for primary schools to join the world of the Internet.

There are many publications issued by the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET). When reading these glossy publications, it is easy to forget what the actual situation is, regarding the Internet in primary schools in the United Kingdom. When looking on the Internet and reading communications on schools lists, it would be easy to believe that primary schools are playing a large part in this revolution. However, it is important to remember that only schools that have an Internet connection appear on the Net. Research I am undertaking shows that most primary schools in the United Kingdom either do not yet consider the Internet a useful resource, or do not have the financial means to become involved.

There are several problems that schools, particularly those in the primary sector, encounter other than cost. Firstly, although most schools have an IT coordinator, this is often taken on by someone who has an interest but very little specialist knowledge. Secondly, there is the problem of access by the children. Unless there is a computer connected to a telephone line in the classroom, it is very difficult to supervise children using the Internet--and this is vital if they are online because of telephone charges. Most primary school teachers teach all day; they have no noncontact time. Therefore, unless classroom helpers can be found, there is no facility for working with groups of children in another part of the school. Thirdly, a lack of confidence and training in IT generally means many teachers do not feel comfortable using computers at all, let alone allowing children to use the Internet. These are just some examples of difficulties faced by schools, even if there is a member of staff who is interested. The primary problem is, however, certainly one of funding.

Through this paper I intend to demonstrate that it is possible to become connected with a minimum of equipment and expertise.

Falla Park Primary School

Falla Park Primary School was built about 1900. It is a typical Victorian school. Although there have been new schools built within our education authority area, we appear to have been overlooked. There are some fundamental problems with an old building that are exacerbated by the fact that our school is in a socially deprived area. To demonstrate how socially deprived the area is, here are a few facts and figures: The unemployment in Felling is 15.4 percent (as of January 1996), compared with a national average of 7.9 percent (5). When the last census was carried out in 1991, approximately one-third of households with dependant children were one-parent families; this compares with a national average of literally half this figure (6). Gateshead (the local education authority) has some of the highest incidents of poverty-related diseases in England. There are many other figures available, but one last statistic that may be relevant relates to car ownership. Nationally, in England and Wales approximately 38 percent of households do not own a car; in Felling this is about 72 percent (7).

Classrooms suffer from broken windows on an almost daily basis. The roof leaks in several places (recently onto our only PC). Plaster is coming off the walls. Extremely high ceilings make some classrooms impossible to heat to a comfortable temperature in the winter. On many days, the temperature does not reach 12 degrees Celsius (52 degrees Fahrenheit); union guidelines recommend 16 (64 degrees Fahrenheit).

There are approximately 280 children at school; there is also a kindergarten that has a very good reputation. The problems at the kindergarten are different: The building was built just a few years ago. Many of the children who are admitted at the age of three have communication and social problems. The majority of these children automatically move into the main school.

I don't want to make it sound all doom and gloom. The school has a very friendly atmosphere, and most of the staff work together to provide a safe, happy environment for children who often lack this at home.

The pupils

Many of the children have learning difficulties. We have a full-time learning support teacher who works with many of the children, giving them additional help with basic skills. However, he does not have sufficient time to see all the children who would qualify for support in schools in a less deprived area. It is all relative.

Fewer than 10 percent of the children have a computer at home. The national figure is approaching 40 percent (8). Many of the systems the children do have are very old, and there is concern from educationalists that the implications for children from poorer backgrounds are grave (9). The basic problem is that the children from affluent areas who have machines at home also have parents who are happy and able to contribute to school events to raise money for equipment at school. Our parents' inability to contribute to the school, together with problems such as building repairs, mean our children miss out in every way. Last year, we had to spend over £1,000 on repairing windows broken through vandalism. This money would go a long way toward the cost of a PC.

The children are naturally enthusiastic about computers. Generally, brighter children learn how to use technical equipment more easily. This should not necessarily be the case. However, there are several possible reasons for this. Children who succeed at school are generally from homes where there is more support and a happier and more stable environment. Consequently these children have higher self-esteem and are more confident. They are also more able to concentrate for longer periods and are less likely to become bad tempered and frustrated, possibly because of a better diet and more sleep than some of their colleagues.

The computers that we do have can cause problems. I am sure these problems are the same in every school. There are endless arguments about whose turn it is to use the machine and what it can be used for. This ultimately comes down to good classroom management. However, when there is one PC for 280 children, this is particularly difficult to coordinate. There is a computer in every classroom, but these are unreliable for specific curriculum work. It is often the case that there has been some careful planning undertaken in order for all children to be able to use the computer during a particular week, only to find that half way through the week the machine needs repairs.

The equipment

Although there is a computer in every classroom, during the time I have been IT coordinator, there has not been an occasion when all these have been working. Most machines are more than 10 years old; and even our pride and joy, the PC, is over a year old and already slow even though it has been upgraded once. How often are computers replaced in industry?

There is some excellent software for all the machines, but we now have three different platforms, so there is a conflict of interests when buying additional software.

There has been a growth in the use of cable technology in the United Kingdom in the last few years. We have been lucky in that United Artists Communications have targeted schools in Gateshead for the installation of cable television and telephone lines. This makes the cost of telephone calls cheaper, and United Artists have been keen to install extra lines for no cost. We have therefore been able to establish a dedicated line purely for the new PC's modem. This may not appear to be particularly vital; but while carrying out my research into how many schools have an Internet connection, many of them stated that one reason they do not have an Internet connection is that the line would have to be shared with the main telephone system for the school. This, of course, is not very practical.

Our achievements

In May 1995, the money was found, after six months of persistence on my part, to buy a 486 PC. This was money that had been earmarked for a new set of trash cans that would be protected from vandalism and arson attacks. Our chairman of governors managed to find us a grant for the trash cans. The 486 is a multimedia machine and is my and the children's pride and enjoy--some staff do not share in my enthusiasm. As teachers well know, if there is some money available, it is usually necessary to fight for it. All curriculum coordinators think, understandably, that their area is more needy than others. The problem that IT has compared to other subjects is the cost of the hardware. A few hundred pounds can make a difference in terms of books, art materials, or musical instruments; but £1,000 will barely buy a respectable PC, let alone the software to go with it. There is also the problem of persuading other curriculum coordinators to allow software relevant to their area to be bought out of their budgets. Why should the IT budget have to provide funds for geography, history, and science programs? They would not expect IT to fund the books for their subjects.

I have a head teacher who is aware of the importance of IT and who is also in agreement that we cannot continue to make do with our extremely old and inadequate equipment. He has also trusted me to choose which platform we are going to invest in. Some members of staff would prefer alternatives and believe PCs to besubstandard and a waste of money.

After several problems, a working PC arrived and was installed. I have already mentioned how we were able to obtain a dedicated line for the modem. This, in the United Kingdom at least, is a huge bonus--one I am fully aware makes life a great deal less complicated than it could have been. In fact, if a dedicated line had not been possible, it is extremely unlikely we would be using the Internet now.

When I heard about a project that was being set up by the University of Newcastle to encourage schools to go online, I made sure our school got involved. This is a project run by enthusiasts who work in the Computing Service Department at the university. There is a Unix machine available to be used as a server; and while the connection is free, we pay for the local calls to connect us to the university. There is no financial support and a small amount of technical support that is limited because the project is being run on a voluntary basis and the people who are involved already have full-time jobs at the university. The idea is that the schools that are involved should get together through e-mail and run a sort of self-help group to attempt to iron out many of the problems encountered. This should also provide support and ideas for the classroom generally. It has been a little slower getting off the ground than the instigators of the scheme had hoped for a variety of reasons There are two that I believe to be particularly relevant. Firstly, people who are not particularly confident in using e-mail or even computers feel vulnerable and are frightened to ask questions in case they sound stupid. Secondly, and this is particularly the case for me, it is actually difficult, unless you have a computer on your desk constantly, to use e-mail on a regular basis; this makes communication difficult. I think we all realize the importance of checking mail on a regular basis and the need to reply to messages reasonably promptly. At school, it is possible to go for days without finding the time to sit down at the computer at all.

Before my head teacher agreed to the expense of the modem and the telephone calls, I had to take him to the university to show him what the Internet could do and persuade him that it was a resource we could not do without. It is particularly important for children in a socially deprived area to have access to the Internet. The lives our children lead are very parochial. Many of them spend most of their lives within the Felling area. Many of the pupils at our school rarely travel further than a 10-mile radius from their homes.

The advantages of using the Internet in a school where many of the children are socially deprived include the development of their understanding of the global community. Their experiences of lives of people within their own country is extremely limited, let alone experiencing how children from other countries live. The use of the Internet has promoted an interest in and enthusiasm about parts of the world that they did not know existed. They willingly search for countries on a map and communicate happily with children from other cultures. So far, they have participated with a project on lakes and rivers set up in Australia; and they have communicated with children from countries such as Greece, the United States, Poland, Brazil, and others. They have communicated with several countries in connection with a project on weather. It was interesting for the children to contact others all over the world and ask them what their weather was like. It was a far more valuable experience to receive first-hand information with which to make comparisons, rather than purely researching weather reports in newspapers.

Being a primary (elementary) school connected to the Internet is quite a novelty in the United Kingdom. As of April 1996, we are the only primary school in Gateshead, where there are about 50 similar schools, that has a link. Consequently, I was invited to be involved in and take four children to a Schools and the Internet Conference that was held at Sunderland University, about 20 miles away. This was basically a day's introduction to the Internet for primary school head teachers. The children were more excited by the prospect of being taken by taxi to the event than the awesome task of demonstrating their e-mail expertise to 80 or so head teachers. I had made sure I chose reasonably sensible children who would get the most out of the experience. I took two year-6 children, age 10, and two year-5s, age 9. They were very successful in their demonstration. They showed that primary school children can use e-mail effectively and gain valuable information from it. I had arranged for some friends to be available to answer questions the children asked them via e-mail to ensure we would be able to provide a decent demonstration, and it worked very well. The children were congratulated on their behavior, their demonstration techniques, and their expertise. The head teachers were from schools that were Internet-less; and until they met us, many believed you had to be from a "good school" in a "good area" with plenty of money to be able to even entertain the idea of connecting to the Internet. Now they know that with help from a few friends it is possible for anyone to begin, at least to explore the huge number of experiences we can give children that are not available within the classroom. I think it is particularly important to make these experiences available to children who would otherwise have a very limited view of other people's lives. They can communicate with countries that previously only existed on a page in an atlas or in a reference book.

The good news is that because of our contribution to the conference, we were paid £150, with which I started a computer fund. This is increasing very slowly but surely with help from raffles and other fund-raising activities run by the children with my help. Even more exciting, we have been given a new multimedia PC by one of the organizers of the conference. This is to be in my classroom, connected by a dedicated line to Campusworld (a limited Internet service provided by British Telecom), also paid for by our kind benefactor. This is a great bonus because until now, we have been unable to access anything other than e-mail (apart from the World Wide Web with Lynx, which is difficult to access and not very user friendly) due to the configuration of our RM WindowBox PC. As we all know, these things do take time. The conference was in November 1995. I have just received the PC!

The fact that this machine is going to be in the classroom overcomes the problem I discussed earlier about lack of classroom support. Until now, the only PC we had was in the library; and this has prevented me from using e-mail with the children as much I would have liked. It is not possible to leave the classroom to work with groups on the computer. They can, to a certain extent, be left to work on their own using other applications; but I once made the mistake of thinking one of the children I had taken to the conference in Sunderland knew how to use e-mail. He dialed up correctly, sent the message he wanted to send OK, and told me he had hung up. I did not check until lunch time--only to find that he had not completed what is a fairly complicated procedure with our old fashioned mailer, and had been connected all morning. Luckily, it was only a local call, and we have a cable telephone line, so it was fairly cheap. The head was very understanding and put it down to experience. I learned that however capable you think the children are, they must be supervised. Consequently, since that day, no children have been allowed to use e-mail on their own. They write their messages and I send them after school or at lunch time. This is a shame, as they do not take part in the whole experience. This will change after Easter, when I can work with groups in the classroom and can oversee my children working with groups from other classes.

With 280 children supposedly using one machine, it is also very difficult to ensure that it is used properly. If each class is given a time to be on the machine and then something crops up, as is often the case in the primary classroom, the machine sits and does nothing. It is possible to put aside the PC just for year 5 and 6 children. This however, looks very much like favoritism on my part, and the problem of the machine sitting doing nothing still exists. Unless the machine is in a classroom, there continues to be a supervisory problem.

Conclusion

One way in which using the Internet with children is rewarding and straightforward is that they have no trouble understanding or coming to terms with the technology or the concept of the Internet. They do not attempt to come to terms with how the computer they are using can communicate with children 12,000 miles away. I believe this makes the use of the Internet with younger children such a valuable resource. It is important for us to exploit areas that the children find interesting or particularly easy to grasp. Despite our meager beginnings, it is possible to see how the children have taken this "new" technology in their stride and how it has widened their horizons in a way that could not be possible through any other classroom experience. I hope I have demonstrated how it is possible to become involved, all be it at a fairly basic level, without great financial expenditure.

References

  1. Superhighways for Education, a consultation paper, HMSO 1995
  2. Superhighways for Education: The Way Forward, HMSO 1995
  3. Computer Weekly, 29 February 1996, page 23
  4. Reguly, Eric, The Times (Section 2), 27 February 1996, page 30
  5. Department of Employment (England and Wales), January 1996
  6. Office of Population Censuses and National Statistics (England and Wales), 1991 Census
  7. Office of Population Censuses and National Statistics (England and Wales), 1991 Census
  8. Cole, George, Envision, 1996 Issue One (NCET), page 19
  9. Cole, George, Envision, 1996 Issue One (NCET), page 19