Cyberspace and Washington - October 1997

Online families know that the two key places where education and the Internet intersect are at home and in school. Last month we focused on the home front. This month we'll take a look at how teachers are mining the rich resources of the 'Net in their classrooms, using e-mail and the Web.

Students are doing more than communicating via e-mail and surfing for research sources. For ninth-grade teacher Marel Rogers the Web is a tool for learning life lessons and developing character. If that sounds far-fetched, keep reading! And as eighth-grade science teacher Judy Whitcomb demonstrates, adolescents are doing original research with the Internet, piecing together with city planners, environmentalists, and other professionals around the country how to help a hypothetical town change its economic base in an environmentally sound way (Judy says pretty soon they'll do a "real town"). Other students are being given opportunities to do what educators call "authentic work," working with professional editors to "publish" their work in newspaper and other publishers' Web sites and, via the 'Net, to participate in the research of professors and grad students at universities.

Here's our table of contents for this issue:

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According to a brand-new report by FIND/SVP, a research group in New York, by 2000 nearly 15 million children will be using the Internet in school. (We're not sure how they define "children"; the US Census Bureau projects that there will be 78.8 million people under the age of 19 in the US by 2000, so - if birth through 18 is how FIND defines them - 15 million is significant, but still not quite 20%).

ETS (the Educational Testing Service) has some less recent but interesting figures about school connectivity: "64% of US schools had access to the Internet in '96, up from 35% in 1994 and 50% in 1995." Of course, that does not necessarily mean that students at those schools have access or that the 'Net is being taught or used in classrooms. "Only 14% of US classrooms have access to the Internet," the ETS study continued. This month we're zooming in on those represented in that last figure: people using the 'Net to great advantage in education. Of course we all need to be mindful that, as the study says, "students attending poor and high-minority schools are less likely to have Internet access than other students." Below you'll see Judy's high-minority, low-income school representing this group. (For more general data, see the ETS Policy Information Center's "Computers and Classrooms: The Status of Technology in US Schools".)

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Judy Whitcomb, eighth-grade science teacher
Judy teaches at Jordan Community School, a low-income pre-K-through-8 public school in Chicago. She's been using the 'Net for both student research and communication for 2-1/2 years and says she's totally committed to integrating technology into teaching.

What got Judy started was a National Science Foundation-funded project called "CoVis" (for "Collaborative Visualization") to study how technology could be utilized effectively in school curricula. "I was really concerned at first, because CoVis started out in pretty affluent high schools, and here I was a junior high teacher with kids who were equally competent but who didn't have equal access at home."

She was delighted with the results. The first benefit she mentioned was the "tele-mentoring" part of the program. Tele-mentors are experts at universities and in corporations and research organizations who make themselves available to students via e-mail (a graduate student at Northwestern University coordinated the program, matching projects and students to mentors). "That first group of tele-mentors was absolutely phenomenal," Judy said. "They were extremely sensitive to my students' lack of access and of strong backgrounds in science and still very strong in keeping kids focused and giving an expertise they couldn't get from me in a multitude of areas."

The first project she developed was about a fictitious town that was dying because its core industry, a steel mill, had been shut down. The opportunity arose, so the scenario went, to turn the steel mill into a paper mill, but there were environmental concerns. Judy organized the students into groups to study the environmental impact on soil and water and on townspeople's health. "What I know about environmental engineering you could put in half a peanut shell," Judy said. So, mentors to the rescue! Some of the mentors assigned to her groups were a city planner in California, an EPA planner in Maryland, and an employee of a geological society in southern Illinois. "Their interest [in the students] was phenomenal.

"And even though my scenario was not a real community," Judy added, "the information the kids went out and found about real communities that had paper mills was amazing. It was real information - not from a science book that's already outdated by the time it first crosses their desks....

"I was really happy because I found myself becoming more of a facillitator," she said, implying that the kids were becoming their own teachers. She offered an example: "A big argument came up in one group about whether the town could purify smoke emissions. The idea came from them; they said, 'We just have to do this experiment.' That's powerful," Judy said. During the last week of school that year, they were still hard at it. People would come into the classroom, Judy said, and could not believe how focused the students were right before school was out - "some kids were at the computer, some were building a model, some were doing book research."

In the summer of '96 nine of her students volunteered to do a summer project with other students around the country. Via the Internet, they collaborated to develop and conduct a survey on the 'Net of 1,000 students around the world about how technology affects teenagers. "Each classroom was responsible for a certain group of questions - they gave up their summer; it was very intense, and they did it for no credit, nothing." Judy said that some of them did get to go to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August, as a result of their work. "The DNC experience allowed kids from tremendously different backgrounds to work together," Judy added. "My kids, all minority, are from a low[-income] school with many 'at risk' factors. Children from Indiana [who participated] were from a very blue-collar, working-class school. The schools in Florida were from an upper-middle-class area. When the children were able to meet at the end of the summer at the DNC, these differences, which in another setting may have prohibited socialization, were non-existent."

Another benefit Judy cited was the confidence her students have gained. Some of them have come back to see her after going on to "some very competitive high schools" and told her how great it was that they already knew how to use computers really well. " 'We have research projects,' they said, 'and I already know how to do a research paper!' They went into these competitive environments feeling they belonged there. That's powerful," Judy said. "I believe in this."

Marel E. Rogers, high school teacher and library director
As library director at Kent School, a private boarding and day school in northwestern Connecticut, Marel teaches a General Studies course to ninth-graders that heavily incorporates the Internet. All of her students have either bought or been loaned a Toshiba laptop, and the entire school is now connected to the 'Net, including the dorms - at a cost of $1 million over the past year. Kent School is participating in the Microsoft-Toshiba Laptop Learning Program.

"General Studies is a horrible name," Marel says, but it gives her a good deal of latitude to teach ninth-graders study skills, organization, and discriminating thinking. Using computers and the Internet, "I give them the weapons they need to fight off all the strange things that can happen to them. I'm teaching them awareness of what's out there. The Web can really help them on that without their having to risk anything."

She teaches them a lot more than that, too. With a couple Internet projects under their belts last year (e.g., a gallery of ancient Greek art and their own home pages), "the students came in and said they wanted to do another 'Net project. We discovered there's a literary term called a 'framing plot' [basically, the frame around a group of stories, as with the Canterbury Tales or the Illiad]. So for spring term, we decided to do a framing plot on the Web." Each student had to find a particular occupation of the Middle Ages, for example, a scullery maid, and s/he had to become this person, narrating in the first person like the characters in the Canterbury Tales. They all went on pilgrimage and, on each student's Web page, s/he had to describe what the character wore and ate and what an average day was like. "Then they had to link to someone else's story [page] within the plot [Web site]," and it all amounted to "The Kenterbury Tales." "We had some fun with it," Marel said. It appears that Lord and Lady Cleavage's page was among her favorites.

We asked Marel how work like this benefits her students, and her answer was: "It's not so much what they're going to learn off the Web, but that they'll realize how much knowledge is available to them. Socrates said he was the most ignorant man in the world - all he could do was ask questions. I want them to realize that there's so much they don't know but can learn. That's what the Web can do so very gently that they really don't realize what's happening to them. The Web's a little like Sesame Street when you started out - you didn't know you were learning the alphabet."

Marel has some Web tips for students along these lines:
"Start out with your favorite things - a sports team, a music group, a friend who's moved to a different city, and go to those Web sites. You already know a lot about those subjects, and this will make you more discriminating." She explained that, in addition to all the excellent, well-researched Web sites, there's so much on the Web that is spurious, slightly inaccurate, or just made up that it's better to start with what you know well to learn to discern what is and isn't useful. Also, "Use a good search engine." And as for what the Web does best: "Use the Web to get information, to find out about something you're either curious about or very interested in."

More teacher stories
For other real-life examples of the Web's impact on teachers, students, schools, and their communities, don't miss the National School Network's 15 stories on the subject, written by teachers themselves. They describe projects using the 'Net to learn of local history, to connect with other communities around a state, to bridge generations, and to link students with state legislators - work that puts students in contexts outside of school (i.e., learning by walking in others' mocassins). The NSN, based in Cambridge, Mass., is a National Science Foundation-funded research project and network of more than 250 schools and education organizations.

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A question and a comment
Dear readers, a question: These teachers are finding that the Web provides rich learning experiences. Have you talked to educators who feel otherwise about classroom connectivity - or do you have any concerns about using the Internet in classrooms? If so, please e-mail us; we'd appreciate hearing your perspective.

Here's an observation from Jenny, a member of the SageNet team who has been involved in technology-in-education for some time: Reading about these teachers "takes me back to 1985. I was working at the Australian Caption Center on developing an educational area on a Prestel standard Videotex service offered by the national telephone company when it launched. We were working with pioneers of the technology for distance education and remedial teaching, all of whom had grant-sponsored programs. In 12 years we have reached the point where some classes are laptop-equipped and the Internet is a part of school life. Yet, if we believe the ETS, there is still a long way to go with only 14% of US classrooms wired. Still, 12 years ago we had already seen the motivational value of using online for kids. I remember a remedial teacher in a Queensland school who was enchanted with the interest and development of his students' writing abilities from using email. The more that changes, the less that changes, is the old saying."

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Families Online Summit
Meanwhile, back on the home front, the update we promised on the Families Online Summit - whose goal, we understand, is a "family-friendly Internet" that doesn't jeopardize free speech.

As we reported in Sage Extra! to our e-mail subscribers, the newly dubbed "Internet-Online Summit: Focus on Children" will now be held in December, with former FTC Commissioner (and mother of two 'Net-literate children) Christine Varney as its executive director. The postponement is probably good for reasons other than coordination with President Clinton's schedule; there are so many disparate players and agendas - e.g., some who want a new law enacted, some who just want to ease family concerns in order to grow their market - that consensus-building will be a complex process.

An all-day preparation meeting for the working groups will be held October 15. The groups include Industry (such as AOL and 'Net-screening software companies), Education/Parent/Family, Consumer Advocacy, Child Advocacy, and Law Enforcement. We'll talk to a participant in this month's meeting and get back to you on what progress was made.

A spokeswoman for the summit, Sydney Rubin, told us that three key objectives of all this work are education, technology, and law enforcement. That last item is worth watching because, Sydney said, law enforcement organizations have been observing Internet developments from the sidelines so far - not sure what actions to take. If efforts like the families summit can help them set up enforcement procedures appropriate to this new medium, then existing laws (such as those for stalking, obscenity, child pornography, and fraud) can be adapted and another Communications Decency Act-type law won't be needed - however people felt about CDA.

Here's a link to a July article on the summit in Money magazine.

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A few final URLs for education stats

Here are some pages in publisher Scholastic Inc.'s site where you'll find more information on the Internet and students:

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We'd love to get your thoughts on the Families Online Summit, and where you stand on law enforcement, screening software, and family education. Or if you'd like to tell us about your experiences with the Web and school, e-mail us. Thanks!

Next month: For something completely different (and seasonal), shopping on the 'Net - URLs for a young Web-user's Holiday Wish List.

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