The Internet has evolved to more than just surfing cyberspace - it's used for banking, selling, e-mail, and can broadcast sound and video.
And although the Internet has been in Universities for years, it's only recently begun to appear in South African schools on a significant scale.
But as more and more teachers begin to understand the true value of the Internet as a teaching tool, things are about to change.
Schoolnet is a South African educational poject with the objective of driving more online connectivity in the nation's schools:
"In Touch" sent field reporter Greg Mellvil-Smith back to school to find out how wired our schools actually are: "SchoolNet South Africa has set out to draw together a number of resources from government departments and other organizations, to bring learning programs into the classroom, no matter how remote they may be," says Greg.
If that is the dream, how is it progressing? And will SchoolNet eventually replace the teacher in the classroom?
SchoolNet South Africa looks at building infrastructure, and to do that, it focuses on four areas:
"Certainly we see various technologies being used more extensively within the classroom," says Denis Brandjes of Schoolnet S.A, "but as for technology being the only means of instruction, we cannot see that happening. Technology should complement what is happening in the class, not replace it."
LEARNERS TALK ABOUT GETTING ONLINE
Here are some of the comments from students of the Gauteng region.
" When I was in Pretoria, I was able to communicate with fellow students, and I also used e-mail. With our International Student Project, I was able to make contact with people in Sydney, Australia and Durban, South Africa."
"We've learned a lot about America, and they've also learned a lot about us," . "It allows us to learn about other peoples' cultures. I've got a pen pal in Portugal and I've learnt a lot about their culture."
DOES THE WEB AT SCHOOL EXPOSE CHILDREN TO PORNO-SITES?
"Obviously a computer room at a school should be regarded as a place where work happens," says Prof Cronje of the university of Pretoria. "The environment in a school computer room should be conducive to doing work, rather than relaxation.
"Yes, children will relax when using computers because they are used to playing computer games, but at school there should be a different ethos. A computer lab should be percieved as a place where works happens, so if it's designed as a work environment, you would concentrate on doing the sort of thing learners need to do with computers: database working, spread sheets, accessing information from the Internet - not just for the sake of information, but what they are doing with it.
"And if you give children enough constructive things to do with that information - get them to build their own website, and have the joy of publishing their own site, you will marginalise the issue of pornography. Focus children on what the Information Superhighway is all about: information processing and information management."
But is this a good enough answer? Shouldn't children be protected from the Internet rather than be expected to use it responsibly?
"You don't take a telephone out of the home because you might just get an obscene phone call, and nor do you remove electricity because you might just get shocked," says Prof Cronje' of the University of Pretoria.
"You've got to think of the Internet in the same way. There's no way that you can child proof these machines. Children will have access to cyberspace. We need to manage that access, but think about the positive side: children from all over the globe can communicate with each other, instantly, at any time.
"Take an example: National Geographic is running a project where children are actually taking measurements of temperature, and e-mailing the data to the National Geographic site (http://www.nationalgeographic.com), where it's processed and given it back to the children. In that way a whole lot of children are participating in global warming projects, and doing really meaningful stuff."
INTEKOM - AN ISP COMMITTED TO SCHOOLNET
"Various organizations that started online school projects three to five years ago, are now merging into SchoolNet S.A," says Intekom's Faruk Waja.
"Organizations like Pretnet (http://www.pta.school.za/) and Gauteng Schools Network (http://www.jhb.school.za/) are now merging into one resource which will constitute a knowledge-backbone for South Africa's education information highway.
"One of the easiest ways to find information on the Internet is to log on to a Search Engine, (try http://www.aardvark.co.za ) and type in a keyword or a phrase, and that will allow you to get acess to a host of resources currently available on the Web. A lot are international, but we are begining to see more local educational content on the web, and more organisations are producing things like school textbooks online, and the abiliity to draw online data from libraries where you can get information on a very easy accessible format, and at the fraction of the cost."
FUNDING SUPPORT FOR DISADVANTAGED SCHOOLS
Telkom, the national telecommunications utility, realises the importance of connectivity, and has established a trust to assist schools to get wired:
"The Telkom fondation comprises two trusts," says Gina Wessie, Manager of the Telkom Foundation, "One of the trusts is an educational trust, which concentrates on maths, science and technology. Our major aim is to develop and empower children, and ensure that the education system of our children is improved to the maximum .
"Because of our relationship with our equity partners, we will have two thousand computers and schools supplied over the next period. At the end of the millennium, we will have at least another three thousand schools supplied."
But all this of course is pie-in-the-sky unless the telecommunications infrasructure exists to deliver the Internet to all parts of the country - even the most remote.
The good news is that Telkom is rapidly expanding its telecommunicatins network, using new wireless technologies like DECT and LEO links. Riding on that backbone, Schoolnet will expand its network, bringing quality education and interactivity to hundreds of thousands of learners, leapfrogging them out of isolation, into the ditigal age.
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