SOMEONE just zipped by in the passing lane of the information highway. Was that a 10-year-old at the wheel?
Could be. Consider KIDLINK, a project whose goal is to create a global computer discussion among as many 10-to-15-year-olds as possible. According to KIDLINK Project Director Odd de Presno, an estimated 20,000 children have logged onto the project from 60 countries.
Interest in moving on-line is soaring in schools. In Massachusetts, on-line time on Mass LearnNet doubled from February to March, according to Beth Lowd, site coordinator for the Cambridge-based Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Telecommunications.
In Rochester, N.Y., Kids-On-Line, a newsletter for students and teachers, is receiving 60 to 70 subscription requests a day.
``The world of knowledge that we have to give our students access to today can't be contained between the covers of a textbook or the four walls of a school,'' says Ronald Kohler, computer coordinator for the Somerville, Mass., public schools.
``If we want Somerville students to compete in this society, they need access to the world of information that lies beyond the walls of their schools.''
KIDLINK coordinators hope that participants will acquire a more global and long-term perspective on issues. They will share experiences and discover other opinions and ideas. And they will learn to solve problems in a more cooperative manner.
Here is one message posted on KIDLINK by an Israeli youth during the 1991 Gulf war:
It's not so nice to be a kid under air attacks. Thinking of the poor kids in Baghdad, who suffer ten times more than me, I just hate Saddam for me and for them too!
I hope one day I could meet some kids from Iraq, in peace, and we would all share our bad memories from this war.
Mr. de Presno, a Norwegian author of computer books, co-founded KIDLINK in 1990. Its services - including discussion groups for teachers, coordinated international student projects, and a ``kid cafe'' - are free.
To participate, students have to answer four questions: Who am I? What do I want to be when I grow up? How do I want the world to be better when I grow up? What can I do now to make this happen?
After answering the questions, students can request KeyPals (electronic pen pals), participate in discussion groups and forums on topics like dress codes or architecture, contribute computer art, or just talk to other kids their age around the world. Some postings are serious, while others discuss school (``boring homework,'' ``weird teachers''), sports, and music.
``The most popular side of KIDLINK is based on `e-mail' [electronic mail] exchange, simply because it allows us to set up communications across all continents very easily,'' writes de Presno in an e-mail letter. By using a ``store and forward'' feature, ``You can write me when I sleep, and you may be sleeping when I type this.''
Diane Eisner, a sixth- and seventh-grade teacher in Lexington, Mass., public schools, says programs like KIDLINK inspire children to write because they have a ``real audience at the other end.''
In Ms. Eisner's sixth-grade class, students sit intently at computers, writing letters to KeyPals. Student Karen Billmers says it's better than sending a letter through the mail ``because it goes really fast, it goes in minutes.''
``I'm so excited,'' says Courtney Charlton, another student. She is responding to a girl in Texas who also is upset about crime, wants to be a prosecutor, and is interested in animals and the environment. ``I've found someone just like me. It is so weird. She shared every single one of my interests.''
KIDLINK does not limit itself to communication through e-mail. Jim Kuhl, who teaches middle school in Central Square, N.Y., will guide students in using amateur ham radio to follow the solar eclipse tomorrow.
Participants will combine radios and interactive relay chat (like a telephone conference call, but via computer) to follow the eclipse from Mexico through the United States and Canada and over to Europe.
KIDLINK has begun forums in Portuguese, Spanish, Scandinavian, and Japanese (Kanji). Mr. De Presno hopes KIDLINK will move into Italian, Russian, and other languages next year.
Though KIDLINK has no subscription fee, running the project is not cheap, nor is the hardware that schools need to participate. The nonprofit KIDLINK Society in Saltrod, Norway, has an annual budget of less than $1,000. Volunteers, school systems, and some sponsors finance the activities.
North Dakota State University in Fargo, for example, donates its computer network support, which is valued at more than $9,000.
Schools must pay for the hardware needed to access a program like KIDLINK, a fact that worries some educators because of the disparity between what wealthier and poorer school districts can afford. A classroom needs at least one computer, a modem, and a phone line, plus the funds to pay for access to various electronic networks.
In Somerville, Mass., a working-class suburb of Boston, the lack of phone lines has created the biggest stumbling block to moving on-line, Mr. Kohler says.
Like most US school districts, Somerville built most of its schools long before it realized that every classroom would need such technology. The city recently spent $20,000 to bring phone lines into every high school classroom and at least one classroom at each grade school.
* To access KIDLINK, send an e-mail message to: LISTSERV @vm1.NoDak.EDU. In the text of the message, type: GET KIDLINK GENERAL.
Kids-On-Line magazine is $20 for six issues: 153 Northwood Dr., Rochester, NY, 14612.