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Wiring Schools to Net Alarms British Teachers

Plan to link schools to Internet by 2002 raises concern over effect on learning.

All pupils in Britain's 32,000 schools are to be connected via the Internet to a "national grid for learning" by 2002, Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised.

US Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates will act as adviser to the ambitious project.

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But the planned creation of a "virtual teacher center" connected to schools throughout Britain, announced Oct. 7, has been greeted with skepticism by teachers' unions and by a senior member of the royal family, who warned of the danger of children being "enslaved by computers."

Under Mr. Blair's plan, a prototype grid is to open in January. Schools will begin hooking up to it in large numbers by next September. In addition, by 2002 every one of the nation's 7 million schoolchildren will have his or her own e-mail address.

One-third of British homes already have a personal computer, compared with 28 percent in the United States, and 20 percent in Germany, according to a report by Italian-based Olivetti personal computers.

Britain also has proportionately more schools with computers than any other nation, and more pupils with access to them.

Secondary schools have an average of 85 computers each - 1 for every 8.5 pupils.

This is double the provision in Germany, and better than Japan, France, and Italy.

Currently, however, only 6,000 schools in Britain are connected to the Internet, and surveys have shown that more than a third of the country's 500,000 teachers are uncomfortable using computers.

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But David Blunkett, Blair's secretary of state for education, is promising a crash training program backed by a budget of 100 million ($160 million)

"In addition, money from the National Lottery will be available to pay for computer training for teachers," Mr. Blunkett says.

British Telecom has agreed to provide cut-price telephone charges for schools using the grid. The price per pupil will be about 1 a year, according to an estimate by Oftel, Britain's telecommunications watchdog.

At the meeting last week with Prime Minister Blair, Mr. Gates said he was "very excited to have Microsoft involved in helping some of the strategic thinking behind making technology an integral aspect of British life."

Gates did not offer cash support for the project. However, he has announced a separate donation of 12.5 million ($20 million) for a computer science center at Cambridge University.

Along with other information technology companies, Microsoft appears to be calculating that the Blair project will stimulate widespread sales as parents decide to buy computers and software to help their children study at home.

While welcoming the initiative, the London Times warned in an Oct. 8 editorial, "Mr. Blair would be unwise to become too close to Mr. Gates."

The Times continued, "Now that Windows software is close to being an industry standard, there is a well founded anxiety that Mr. Gates has an unhealthy amount of control over the most widespread and important technology in the world."

Though reportedly disappointed that Gates failed to back the project with cash, the prime minister said getting his "support and expertise" was "a real boost to our drive to make sure British children get the very best in their schools."

Teachers' unions have reacted coolly to news that within five years all schools will be on the Internet, and that all teachers must become computer-literate by then.

Eamonn O'Kane, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, said teachers would be cautious.

"The fear of some teachers is that a sustained emphasis on information technology and computers could undermine the basic skills of numeracy and literacy," Mr .O'Kane said.

He received support from Princess Anne, Queen Elizabeth's daughter, who plays an active role in helping educational projects.

"Some people say children can learn everything they need to know from a machine," she told a recent conference of school teachers.

The princess continued, "Face-to-face discussions between teachers and pupils will never be replaced by anything information technology can offer."

Education Secretary Blunkett responded that the Blair plan was "not a substitute for the tried and tested methods which form the foundations of the government's literacy and numeracy drive, but a key complement to it."

According to Blunkett's officials, connection to the Internet will enable schoolteachers and pupils to remain up to date on such matters as the requirements of Britain's national educational curriculum and on examination standards, making rapid access to educational material available.

Gates added, "Nobody is suggesting that technology is a substitute for teachers getting the kids together and giving them feedback."

"Technology is just a tool in the hands of the teacher," he said.

Other Nations plan to link up Schools

* President Clinton has established a volunteer effort to connect every classroom and library in the United States to the Internet by 2000.

* Germany's Ministry of Education and Science, in a joint project with Deutsche Telekom, has lauched an effort to link up 10,000 secondary schools by 2000. Germany is also experimenting with teaching university-level courses via the Internet.

* Singapore's government has proposed creation of "thinking schools," which would rely on computers to nurture a culture of continual learning.

* The Philippines has plans to equip 10,000 public schools with electronic libraries over the next three years.

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