Students living in the far reaches of North America are plugging into the Internet and overcoming their rural isolation by joining students thousands of miles away for online class projects. These students are learning about other cultures, communicating with scientists and participating in research projects with other schools through a program coordinated by Canadian federal and provincial governments.

The Ministry of Industry Canada is investing the equivalent of about U.S. $38 million in a series of network access programs, including School Net. School Net is a program designed to "facilitate getting all schools and libraries online by 1998," said Elise Boisjoly, School Net director. The federal role is mainly to act as a catalyst for provincial governments, with private-sector partnerships, to hook public institutions to the Internet and provide some educational content, she said. "We work with teachers at the grass roots to build their own information on the Internet," she explained.

The Canadian educational system is similar to that in the U.S., with most school authority residing at the provincial and local level. But there are some things the federal government can do, like creating frameworks and helping bring the private sector into partnerships with school districts. The ministry works with telecommunications companies to wire schools and secure reduced rates for Internet access. This is especially significant in huge rural areas of the country because telecommunications costs can be prohibitive. Internet service in much of the Northwest Territories is a long-distance call away, making online connections much more expensive than in an urban area.

"Cost is a major issue," said Boisjoly. "There have been a lot of [budget] cuts in the provinces," she said, adding that many school districts don't have the money to connect to and use the Internet.

COMFORT ZONES

Another issue is getting teachers comfortable with the technology. Teachers, like much of society, are relative newcomers to the Internet. To teach the teachers, School Net has trained some instructors to go to schools and mentor teachers in using technology with students. These support teachers report to a School Net board -- made up of teachers, administrators, higher education representatives and federal officials -- which monitors and guides the national program.

The federal government also began providing a Web page last September for providing teachers with ideas and guidance on using the Internet as a classroom tool.

"There is a lot of information on the Internet, and some of it is valuable," said Boisjoly. "The key is finding that information rapidly." School Net continues to compile a database of information resources for teachers to use in class, such as addresses of educational sites. There are also sections on the database for teachers to conference on various subjects.

School Net is bilingual, with teachers communicating in their choice of French or English. Canada is working with France on agreements to get more content for the country's Francophone population, as most Internet information is in English.

"We try to build a database to be searched and to share ideas with other teachers," Boisjoly said. "It could become a database for teachers on any subject they want."

CRITICAL THINKING

While an important part of School Net is getting school buildings wired, an equally important part is bringing the Internet into the curriculum, rather than allowing online access to be a diversion from traditional lessons.

Teachers are coming up with some interesting projects to fill modern educational needs. One example is a weekly treasure hunt used by students to practice research skills on the Internet. Students search the Internet for answers to questions, such as who discovered X-rays and when. Staff members at a Quebec high school post new questions each week and acknowledge students who correctly answered the previous question.