I was supposed to be getting excited, but it felt more like déjà vu. A central office supervisor had gathered a select group into the principal’s office to tell us about a school-to-work program that was going to bring “cutting-edge technology” to the kids in my struggling urban high school.
The turf of this particular curriculum supervisor was business education. Lately, business courses had been drying up like social programs in the federal budget as more kids were tracked to basic skills classes, and fewer had room for business electives. Although I teach English and journalism, not business, I was invited as one of the few teachers in the building with some computer skills.
The meeting followed a session with one of the district’s scarce computer experts who had dazzled us with the internet’s possibilities. He showed us how to download a version of the NewYork Timeseach morning, including the crossword puzzle; how to copy graphics and logos from almost any publication, search library catalogs in London, and government archives in Washington, D.C. Occasionally the jargon left some heads spinning: “web browsers” and “graphics convertors,” “jpegs” and “gifs,” “ftp” and “html.” But everyone knew the World Wide Web was hot, and wanted to see what the shouting was about.
At the meeting afterward the supervisor revealed the plans. A few teachers were going to be trained to make web pages. Then they’d teach students. And the students were going to get sponsors (advertisers?) from the business community for their web pages. This, presumably, would link their school work to the business world. And the students’ work was going to be put on the World Wide Web, just like the NewYorkTimes. I rolled my eyes, like some kids in my classes do when I tell them I’ve got an assignment they’re going to love.
Unfortunately, the project was all too typical of the wrong-headed approach most schools have towards new technology. Teaching html – “hypertext markup language,” the text language of web publishing – makes little sense for most students. Most people will never need to create web sites. What they need is an opportunity to learn how to get information off the web, how to use it for research, exploration, and communication, not for publishing web billboards.
The computer skills that everyone needs are how to use applications like word processing, data bases, and search engines, not how to write software or create web pages. Sure, highly-motivated kids should have a chance to learn web publishing if they want to. But teaching most kids to use computers by teaching them programming or html is like teaching them how to be critical TV viewers by taking off the back of the set and explaining circuit boards. It’s the wrong approach, and it will leave behind a lot of kids who won’t master the technical details. Moreover, teachers rarely get enough training to use new technologies effectively, let alone teach them well. A lot of the computer equipment schools already have is poorly used due to lack of staff training and inadequate curriculum applications.
If your school has had a recent bout of “on-line fever,” this may sound familiar. Appropriate curriculum uses, access to equipment, and training are all key issues, but classroom teachers (let alone parents or students) are hardly ever involved in the formative discussions about who gets what. Instead we see all-toofamiliar scenarios: top-down directives from administrators, often with limited technical knowledge themselves, sometimes trying to impress higher-ups, or who’ve been dazzled by educational technology consultants. Technology agendas in schools are frequently set by grant funders, business partners, and potential employers (real and imagined) and shaped by assorted in-house turf battles (e.g., “This lab came from ESL funds and can only be used for. . .”) The result is inefficient use of scarce resources and new categories of technological haves and have nots.
The new communications technology does have considerable potential to improve teaching and learning. But to realize even part of it, classroom teachers and their advocates will have to acquire the knowledge, skills, and strategies required to reshape plans now largely being made without us.
Whether you’re looking to integrate on-line access into your curriculum, sitting at your home computer trying to add on-line resources to your personal repertoire of educational tools, or still trying to figure out what this cyberstuff is all about, everyone involved with schools is affected by the overhyped “communications revolution.” So, with this issue, RethinkingSchoolsis initiating a column on web resources and related issues for educators. The idea is to provide some helpful user info, tips on resources, and occasional discussions of the issues these new technologies raise for schools–all filtered through RethinkingSchools’ particular concern for promoting excellence and equity in classrooms.
A good place to start, no matter what you’re looking for, is with “search engines.” These are the various services that provide some roadmaps and tools to navigate the millions of individual sites that make up the web. The variety of online resources is so overwhelming, it’s almost mandatory to have some sort of guide.
Whatever service you use to get onto the web, you should be able to make your way to one of the many search engines. If you’re using Netscape, the most popular “web browser,” a button on the opening screen allows you to click “Net Search.” This will take you to a directory of rapidly growing services that offer searchable databases of web sites. The placement and availability of these services is already a matter of multi-million dollar deals, though they all do similar things.
If you type “education” into the search box of one of these services, like “Infoseek,” the first thing you’re likely to get is a lesson in the commercialization of cyberspace. You’ll see ads for things like the “Internet Shopping Network” (“One small click for great deals”) and assorted promotional contests. Like the annoying corporate logos that clutter everything from clothes to the corners of your TV screen, these ads reflect the opening of the internet to commercial development. Like the decision 50 years ago to turn the public airwaves over to the private, profit-driven development of the emerging broadcast media, this is a bad, if predictable, decision that will have largely negative social consequences (see RS Vol. 10 #2). In any event, the signs of growing commercialization are worth noting, especially when working with students.
Once you get past the ads, most search services will give you two useful things (along with some “cool graphics”). The first are more search tools for defining and narrowing your request. The second is a sprawling list of “links” or web sites you can “visit” with a click of the mouse. You’ll find everything from on-line penpal projects to student writing, descriptions of school-wide reform projects, educational policy discussions, and computer help. Each site, in turn, has its own clickable “links” to other sites, or you can return to the original list and start out again. It won’t take long to see why it’s called “browsing,” or why you can use up large parts of your day “surfing the web.” (Some people will tell you to “get a life;” others will swear they’ve found a bubbling, engaging one they never knew existed.)
While Infoseek is a good place to start, the education list it generates on first try is pretty random. Another service worth trying is “Yahoo,” one of the oldest services known for its diverse listings. Type in “education” at Yahoo’s opening search box and you’ll get an impressive alphabetized index of hundreds of education entries. By scrolling down the titles, I found a long list of high school papers, both official and underground, which I used with my journalism students. (See box.) Another Yahoo list showed 25 education “indices,” each with their own particular focus, some narrow (Teacher Education) some quite broad (Ed Resources on the Internet).
Alta Vista is another service growing in popularity. It’s relatively fast, and has excellent search tools and help screens for constructing inquiries. [Alta Vista has some attractive graphics, as do other sites, but new users should know that they have the option of not loading the graphics. (In Netscape, this is on the options menu). Not loading the graphics will speed things up without any loss of information. At any time, you can turn the graphics option back on and “re-load” to see the images.]
Magellan’s search service ties its listings to annotated “reviews” which more fully describe each location. While many sites are simultaneously listed by different search engines, it was Magellan’s reviews that prompted me to check out two excellent, though quite different, sites–the Urban Education Web, which allows you to search Eric abstracts or read policy analysis, and Web 66 (an “info superhighway” version of the legendary interstate route). Geared to classroom teachers, Web 66 offers everything from multicultural curriculum materials to computer help.
There are other search engines: the Open Text Index, Web Crawler, and Lycos among them. Lycos, in particular, has gotten some glowing reviews in the computer press, but I’ve found it almost impossible to connect to or painfully slow. In fact, one problem you can get with any search service is a busy signal or a “connection refused” message. As use grows faster than capacity, problems connecting or slow connections are increasingly familiar. One solution is to be sure you have a handy list of addresses (URLs or universal resource locators) for different search services. (See box.) You can also sample all these services with Netscape by clicking the “Net Search” button.
Of course, even with a car and some good maps, it’s not always easy to decide where to go. “Trips” worth taking and “neighborhoods” worth exploring will be a regular feature of future columns.