Some Thoughts on the
Use of the Internet in Schools

This fall, thousands of teachers have returned to schools across the country that have been "wired" for Internet access. Federal, state and local governments have spent millions of dollars to provide these teachers with the opportunity to connect to the Internet through newly installed local networks. Hopes are high that access to the Internet will change the process of education and enhance student learning.

Before plunging into the ocean of information found on the World Wide Web, teachers and administrators need to plan for success. This takes time, money and a perspective on what positive educational experiences they plan to make available to students. This article is designed to help educators develop a perspective on the use of the Internet in K-12 education and to provide starting points for teachers interested in using the Internet with their students.

Obstacles to Success

Educators in many schools still face obstacles to success as they attempt to incorporate the Internet into their classrooms and their curriculum. A variety of problems arise in schools that can frustrate teachers and waste student time.

Expense

Maintaining access to the Internet is expensive. Schools with newly installed networks are discovering that wiring schools represents only a small portion of the cost of Internet access. There may not be enough computers to go around. A single computer in a classroom is not going to provide adequate Internet access for a class of twenty five students. Many schools own computers that are just too old. Older computers are not satisfactory web browsers. They are too slow and lack the memory required by modern web browsers. These older computers either need major upgrades or replacement. New equipment becomes obsolete within a few years and few schools plan or budget a systematic replacement of these machines.

Technical Support

Most web browsing software is free, but technical support in the classroom is not. Modern computers are easier to use, but they are not television sets. Schools can't just plug them in and expect that they will work perfectly every time a student sits down to do work. Computers are complex systems with complicated operating systems. These machines require trained technicians to configure them and troubleshoot the variety of problems that occur in everyday usage. Properly trained technicians and network administrators are expensive and hard to come by. Technicians who can also work with students and teachers are even more rare. Many schools install complex networks, but fail to provide the funds to administer and maintain them.

Professional Development

Professional development is another huge expense that many school districts fail to adequately fund. Teachers need training on how to use the Internet, develop curriculum and manage Internet access in the classroom. One or two afternoon in-service training sessions can't possibly provide teachers with the skills they will need to begin to integrate the use of the Internet into their classrooms. Few districts are prepared to provide expensive and intensive training for all staff members and there is little or no time in the regular school schedule to conduct these sessions. Teachers need plenty of training to effectively use the Internet in their classrooms because there is a lot to learn. The World Wide Web has evolved into the most popular and user friendly component of the Internet, but it still represents a challenge to all but the most experienced web explorer.

Conducting Internet Research

Finding useful Internet sites that have a direct connection to the curriculum is rarely a simple task. The World Wide Web is not a library. It has no central card catalog organized by topic, subject or author. Search engines are available, but they often provide students and teachers with sites of questionable educational value or sites totally unrelated to the topic being researched. Students and teachers can search for hours on the web without finding relevant information. Quality educational sites are abundant, but they are not always easy to find. Teachers' schedules rarely provide them with time to locate them anyway.

Reliability of the information found on the Internet is often an issue. Anyone can post information on the web and lots of people do. Fancy graphics and creative web design can make any information look official, even if it isn't. Reputable sites do exist, but may be indistinguishable from the others.

Another problem is that the Internet is constantly changing. Web sites come and go. Familiar and useful websites suddenly disappear or move to different addresses. Web sites are frequently redesigned and new "features" are added. Many of these new features require additional hardware and software that the user may or may not have. These features (audio, video, animation) often overburden the capacity of the school network, slowing access for other school users. They also create a need for a faster and more expensive school Internet connection.

Technical Difficulties

The unpredictable performance of the Internet is another factor that can lead to frustration. The popularity of the Internet has helped to create Internet traffic jams that can seriously effect the performance of the web. Access to a web site can suddenly slow to a crawl or stop completely. The teacher is left trying to figure out the problem. Is the problem on the Internet, the local network, or the workstation? Most teachers do not have the time, tools or training to find out. In the meantime, a promising lesson has come to an abrupt and unplanned halt.

Instant Access to Objectionable Material

To complicate matters even more, an abundance of objectionable web sites are available at the click of a mouse button. These sites contain materials that can seriously disrupt even the most orderly classrooms and lessons. Teachers attempting to conduct Internet-based lessons can suddenly find themselves dealing with a student or students who accidentally encounter one of these sites. Learning comes to a halt while the teacher deals with the situation and attempts to refocus the lesson. Students interested in intentionally sabotaging a lesson can do so with ease. Filtering software can help to solve some of these problems, but it doesn't always work. Using filtering software also creates issues around censorship while further complicating technical support issues by adding an additional layer of hardware or software that must be administered.

Advertising

Advertising on the Internet is a major issue that schools must face. The Internet brings a barrage of advertising into the classroom. Over the past five years, the Internet has evolved from a world wide academic network connecting colleges and universities around the world into a vast commercial network. Businesses have taken over large areas of the Internet. Individuals, small businesses, and global corporations are using the Internet to support their present customers and to find new ones. Advertising dominates large portions of the World Wide Web and is almost impossible to avoid. Enticing banner ads are ubiquitous. Students using search engines like AltaVista and Lycos to conduct research will find ads displayed on almost every page of these and many other popular web sites. Ads distract students from the content that is the focus of the lesson. Cleverly constructed ads entice students to click on links that lead to web pages far removed from the original web site. The focus of the lesson is disrupted and no learning takes place. Ironically, the school is helping businesses to pay for this distraction by providing the network and workstations the advertisers are using to reach the students.

The Promise

As I have indicated, there are many obstacles to the effective use of the Internet in the newly wired classrooms in schools across America, but there are still many reasons why a teacher should take advantage of the Internet.

Teachers have discovered that the Internet provides them with an almost limitless amount of up-to-date information. Ready access to millions of pages of data represents a major breakthrough for educators. The data is delivered to the computer in a matter of seconds and the information comes in many different forms. A computer with access to the World Wide Web can deliver text, audio, video and still images from servers located around the world. Internet access changes even the most resource poor classrooms into information rich environments. Web sites like the World Factbook, the National Gallery of Art, NASA, the Missouri Botanical Gardens and the United States Census Bureau provide classrooms with rich resources for learning. In addition, it is possible to save all of this information on the hard drive of the teacher's workstation. This information can be easily retrieved at a later date without the need to log onto the Internet.

One of the major benefits of the Internet is that it allows individuals to access up to date information. It is possible to access news reports hours or even minutes after an event occurs. Web sites like the Weather Channel and WWLP's Hurricane Tracking Center are constantly updated to provide visitors with current information. For example, students involved in a hurricane tracking project can find a number of web sites that will provide the current position, strength and heading of an active storm. Students can access these sites several times a day or week to construct maps that show the path of the storm and to predict where the storm may be headed next. The drama of tracking a tropical depression that evolves into a level four hurricane can have children on the edge of their seats. The empathy they develop for other students in the path of the storm can be as important as their growth in scientific knowledge.

The Internet is a very interactive communications medium. Users decide which sites they will visit and which links they will follow. By design, the structure of a web site encourages visitors to delve deeper and deeper into the site, allowing them to navigate through the information at their own pace. Links on one web site often lead the user to other web sites containing even more data. A single mouse click allows a user to jump from one Internet server to another.

Students and teachers using the Internet are able to exchange information with people around the world inexpensively and at any time of day. The Internet gives them the ability to connect to peers around the globe. Large numbers of educators and their students are using the Internet to collaborate globally with other teachers, scientists, researchers, students and other individuals. Communication through email or various chat programs can be almost instantaneous. Instant communication makes it much easier for students to get different viewpoints or perspectives on topics and is a way to expose students to different populations and cultures. Teachers interested in collaboration find that they can gain support and ideas from other teachers around the world. Shared scientific research sites like The Globe Program can reduce the isolation of the teacher by providing an avenue for collaboration with others.

The Internet provides teachers and students with the ability to easily publish work for a world wide audience. Schools with Internet access can create their own web sites featuring the work of students and staff. For the first time in history, the average person can inexpensively publish work in a form that anyone else with an Internet connection can access. Students and teachers become the producers as well as the consumers of information. Publishing on the web provides a strong motivation for students to develop their communication skills.

Over the past three years, the World Wide Web has become ubiquitous. It is almost impossible to read a newspaper, listen to the radio, or watch television without encountering some reference to the Internet. Website addresses appear at the end of news reports, television programs, talk shows and commercials. Viewers and listeners are urged to visit associated web sites where they can obtain even more information about a particular product or topic. New computers provide even the most novice computer user with instant access to the Internet, and each year millions of new users are obtaining Internet access at home. The Internet has become part of main stream American culture. It will certainly become an even more important component of life in the 21st century.

Successful Practices

A number of teachers around the country have been using the Internet in their classrooms for many years. These pioneer Internet-using educators have had the opportunity to experiment with a number of techniques and creative teaching methods that tap into the educational potential of the Internet. Educators who are just beginning to explore the possibility of using the Internet in the curriculum can benefit from the experience of these teachers.

Some educators and organizations have established web sites that offer useful resources for Internet novices as well as experienced online educators interested in integrating the Internet into their curriculum. These sites contain useful tips designed to help teachers take advantage of the information found on the Internet, project ideas, project groups and organized lists of curriculum based web sites grouped by topic. These comprehensive collections of links are excellent places to find relevant and appropriate curriculum materials on the World Wide Web. Look for these collections at such sites as: Blue Web'N, Kathy Shrock's Guide for Educators and Education World.

There is no escaping the fact that the teacher needs to put a considerable amount of time into researching and bookmarking appropriate web sites that their students will visit. Finding curriculum sites in advance saves hours of wasted class time. Students can go directly to the bookmarked sites; there is no time wasted stumbling through search engines looking for web sites that may or may not be relevant to the subject being researched. Some teachers create their own web pages that contain relevant curriculum links that their students can access in the classroom and at home. Students with Internet access at home can visit the school web site and their teacher's link page. Research can continue at home without interruption.

Veteran Internet-using teachers have learned that instructors need to carefully structure lessons that involve the use of the Internet. Students using the Internet need to approach the task with a purpose. Allowing students to mindlessly surf the web is a waste of precious instructional time and increases the possibility that students will encounter a web site containing inappropriate or objectionable material. By contrast, well planned lessons that include outlines, questions sheets and note-taking activities help students to collect enormous amounts of information. The manner in which the teacher organizes the research is critical to the success of the lesson.

As mentioned previously, publishing student work is an excellent use of the Internet. Students can create web sites that allow them to share their knowledge with others. Other learners can then visit the web site and learn from the students that created the sites. An exciting way to get started having students create websites is to participate in one of the many Internet contests that occur annually. The contests are designed to encourage groups of students to create interactive web sites that serve as educational resources for the world. The Global Schoolhouse is a teacher resource site that serves as a clearinghouse for these well-run and popular Internet competitions. Teachers can visit the GSN site to browse through a variety of activities and contests designed to help teachers tap into the power of the Internet.

Two particularly well-run web projects are ThinkQuest and International Schools Cyberfair. Both of these Internet competitions are well organized, educationally sound and open ended enough to be adapted to almost any classroom. The projects encourage teams of students to create web sites that will add to the knowledge base of the Internet. In the process of creating these sites, the students develop their technology skills while learning a tremendous amount about the topic they are presenting. Participation in these Internet contests is a wonderful way for teacher and students to begin to publish work on the web.

Be careful. Teachers interested in integrating the benefits of the Internet into their curriculum should proceed cautiously and methodically. Avoid getting caught up in all of the Internet hype and trying to do everything at once. Set small goals and take steps to reach those goals. Teachers need to develop a basic foundation of personal computer skills before they attempt some of the more advanced Internet-related activities. A teacher who has personally never used the Internet is not in a position to begin creating web pages with students on the first day of class. With a little experience however, he or she can take small, controlled steps to visit curriculm-related sites with their students. Once there, they will expand their knowledge of Monet, Helen Keller, Mars or tessellations.

The Internet has and will continue to change the way teachers and students go about the business of education. Educators who are willing to take the time to explore this new technology will find that it offers an almost unlimited amount of opportunity for learning. Creative teachers from around the world are banding together to utilize the educational resources of the Internet and we are looking for others to participate. Come on and join us!

Michael Lipinski
Erving Elementary School
Erving, MA
October 1, 1998
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