Teaching on the Internet
"We have to make sure that the opportunities of the Information Age belong to all our children. Every young American must have access to these technologies."
In his 1998 MIT commencement address, President Clinton highlighted the urgency of "ending the digital divide," emphasizing how equal access to the Internet is a critical factor for the future success all students. But once schools are all wired and kids have access to the information superhighway, how will they use the Internet? Can cyberspace help them become better students?
We asked three teachers how they used the Internet in their classrooms. And if these examples are any indication, the Net may be just as valid as a textbook when it comes to learning.
So which state has the more expensive potato: Idaho or Michigan? If you lived in Arimo, Idaho, and you were a student in Mary Lou Oslund's class, you'd know the answer. Her students collaborated on an `Internet' grocery list project with a high school in Michigan, and compared the price differences between the two states.
Given that their high school is located in the middle of farm country, students in Arimo were surprised when they found out that Idaho has the more expensive spud. So much for home-field advantage!
But that Internet project was small potatoes compared to the next challenge. Oslund's class joined 200 different communities worldwide that tested for nasty pollutants in their towns and then posted their data for comparison on the Internet. With instructions from the sponsor, Berkeley Labs, students put together their own pollution testing devices. How do you make a pollution tester? Well, you'd need a vacuum cleaner, a plastic cup, some Kleenex, and some mesh wire. But that's the easy part. Students volunteered to `vacuum' the air every day for three weeks, and then test the wire mesh for the color of the pollutant dust.
How did Arimo do? Their outdoor air quality was pretty good compared to less rural towns. But the students found their environment was not pollution free. One snowy day, students vacuumed the air inside their own their classroom and were shocked to find that it was polluted!
No word yet on where the smog detectives will vacuum next, but one thing's for sure, their adventure in cyberspace was anything but a time-waster. "The Internet allows students who are very isolated to see a bigger world," says Oslund. "It also teaches kids the responsibility of working on a project with a larger group of people. It was the students themselves who were responsible for posting their pollution findings on the lab's website. They took it very seriously."
What's the difference between `a lot' and `not too much'? That's a math concept that some kids have difficulty explaining. Kristine Lynes, who teaches fourth grade at Mast Way Elementary School in Lee, New Hampshire, has found a way to make math easier. She uses The National Geographic Kids Network, where students work in small collaborative groups to investigate math questions. The kids in her class then share their findings via the Internet with twelve different math classes from around the world as part of a larger research team. One of the first problems each class is asked is "How much traffic goes by your school?" When the participating students struggle to define "a lot" or "not too much," the need for a quantifiable way to measure traffic becomes clear. So the students collect data on something they can measure -- in this case, counting the number of cars that pass by their school in ten minutes. After gathering their data, each of the 12 classes on the research team posts their information on the National Geographic Network and uses it to create diagrams, charts, and graphs.
According to Lynes, "My kids thought they had `a lot' of traffic in their New Hampshire town and then they saw the traffic rates from the kids in New York City and they thought "oh, maybe that's a lot." For her students, using data collected by members of the research team makes the charts and graphs more meaningful. As one of her students said, "When we hear or read about something from far away we say `big whoop,' but when it's from someone on the project, then it really means something."
Surfing to Japan
Sixth graders in Redondo Beach, California, surfed all the way to Japan! When Teacher David Notari's class got on the Internet, the learning really started. To begin, the Madison Elementary students emailed a school in Japan and got a feel for what it would be like to grow up there. The teachers would translate the messages for their students, and send new ones. No question was overlooked, including the eating habits of Japanese and American kids. Most of Notari's kids still aren't into raw fish, but they do know that hamburger patties are just as popular in Japan.
Emailing messages around the world was a piece of cake compared to the next project. Notari had each student in his class choose a mammal and research it on laserdisks provided by Pioneer. If a particular mammal was endangered--whales, for example--students were asked to tell the story of the Eskimos who hunted them, and present both sides of the issue using research from the Internet. With still images and video produced by students (who even played the parts of some animals), the mammal CD-ROM was a very advanced project for a sixth grade class. But it worked so well that Pioneer bought the rights and will use the program internationally to demonstrate the educational possibilities of multimedia. So who said the computer was just for fun and games?
Finally, Notari had the students create a Web page. For months, they researched the history of the school and city, interviewing teachers, parents, and people from the community. "In the hands of a teacher who cares," says Notari, "you can have a very successful experience on the Internet." He says that students are often insulated from the wider realities of the world and tend to have blinders on. The Net helps them open doors to a Japanese classroom, or the watery home of endangered whales. When the `wow' factor of the technology subsides, students find that it's the learning that truly inspires.
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