Working the Web for Education
Thinking Through Linking: 
Finding Education’s Name for the Web
by Tom March
Web-based Educator and Director of ozline.com Pty Ltd. • Southern Highlands, Australia
MultiMedia Schools • January/February 2000

This is the first in a two-part series that will outline conceptual (Part 1) and practical (Part 2) implications of “Thinking Through Linking.” The title carries an intended double meaning:

Those who design Web-based activities should “think through” their goals for using Internet links. The Internet in all its facets holds such a wealth of possibilities that it is important to choose links that support the given learning goal.

“Thinking links” should be developed in the minds of learners using the pages. Students should be exposed to learning experiences that connect to prior knowledge, resonate with personal meaning, create links to other content areas, extend their cognitive schema, and prompt the construction of new meaning. [It’s nice if they push in their chairs and say “Thanks” when they leave class, too. ;-)]

The Information Super Highway
In the early days of the Web, Al Gore began referring to the Internet as “The Information Super Highway.” The phrase served an important purpose by overtly comparing the Internet to the interstate roadway system, thus making it clear that large initial investments were required to similarly festoon the country in a digital communications infrastructure. The analogy captured the spirit of laying a groundwork that, though expensive, would also change the way we live and work for decades to come. As an ex-patriot living in Australia, each time I return to the U.S., I appreciate the very real contributions government and corporate initiatives in the United States have made to help realize the dream of a ubiquitous communications environment. Thus the phrase served the purpose of mobilizing interest and energy by defining a clear vision.
 

The Infobahn Fallacy
Yet, when considering the reality of the Internet from an educator’s standpoint, I contend that the phrase “Information Super Highway” is more a detour than a right direction. I say this for a couple reasons. First, for anyone who’s experienced the World Wide Wait, the image conjured by the Internet is more Parking Lot than Super Highway. Selling the Net as a high-speed experience can falsely raise expectations. Just watch a computer lab full of students sucking from the same congested bandwidth and you’ll see that touting speed and quick delivery can backfire. Still, I’m a believer. We’re in the very early days with inevitable improvements in connectivity arriving at the exponential pace we’ve come to expect of high-tech innovations. Of course the next trick is getting this to happen pervasively and globally.

More dangerous to education than a false promise of speed are the ideas conveyed by the phrase “Information Super Highway.” To me it suggests a fluid and effortless stream of reliable data with underlying benefits to progress and cross-boundary commerce. Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge that progress and commerce, while not every educator’s primary focus, are reasonable goals for public institutions. My disagreement comes with “fluid and effortless stream of reliable data.” A dictionary definition of “information” looks something like “the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence.” This sounds pretty good. Don’t we, as educators, yearn to send convoys of students racing down this road? So if the Internet is the on-ramp to knowledge and intelligence, who cares what we call it? The problem is that any savvy Web surfer looking through an array of links on a topic quickly perceives that much of what’s on the Web has little to do with information’s usual synonyms: “data, facts, news, intelligence.” Because anyone can publish on the Web, it’s full of humanity’s hidden agendas, in-group propaganda, and passionate causes. I’ve made this case before in “Why WebQuests?” (http://www.ozline.com/webquests/intro.html), but to summarize:

Viewed through the eyes of traditional education, who would want a learning resource that presents the world in all its chaos, offers more opinions than facts, and requires a subtle intelligence to sort the gems from the junk? Viewed from a more student-centered, active-learning perspective, what better resource could you imagine!

In fact, because some librarians and media specialists put a lot of energy into designing schemes for evaluating Web sites (and then going on to do so), I often ruffle feathers when I suggest that this might be a mistake. Given the negotiability of truth in our era of deconstruction, information explosion, and global perspectives, I wouldn’t want to set myself up as any sentry before the dominion of reliable data. It seems wiser—and a more authentic educational practice—to mentor students as they engage in a process of constructing meaning based on prior knowledge, personal experience, non-Web research, and a wide sampling of those related ideas available through the Internet. That’s why I say that far from an Information Super Highway, the Internet is more of an Opinion Gridlock. The challenge lies in helping learners map the content and cacophony of the Web onto their own semantic networks. Left to they own, couldn’t learners become just so much “node kill” on the Info Super Highway? Thus, if we in education allow the Web to be portrayed as an Information Super Highway, I believe we send a message to the larger community that the Net is one more quick fix toward wisdom. Not only is this untrue, it delays that most important work of helping students find their way out of the Opinion Gridlock and into….
 

Finding Education’s Name for the Net
Let’s play a game. We’ll begin with an understanding: The Web by any other name would still be as complex and indescribable. Isn’t this true for all things comprehensive, organic, and evolving, like shades of love, political leanings, ideal diets? But let’s have some fun and see what we could call the Web based on how it’s used by educators and students today. The main purpose is not to coin another inevitably flawed phrase, but to reflect on ways the Internet might be used in education.
 

The Ultimate Refrigerator
Clearly one way teachers and proud parents around the world use the Web is as the ultimate place to post their children’s work. In conjunction with a responsive viewing audience, publication can motivate superior effort and achievement and provide an entrée into a global community of learners. Educators who have had success with this approach might want to share the strategies that leveraged the most learning from a posting. Either way, the Web is what we make it with our contributions; so early publication adds content that might also be more appropriate for younger audiences. Which brings us to….
 

The Giant CD-ROM in the Sky
As teachers and home-schooled students around the world look to support individualized learning, the Net provides access to resources, activities, and tools never before available. As search engines and topic-specific directories become friendlier, and we all carve out our useful corners of the Net, locating relevant content seems to be a more time-effective endeavor. Yet, as mentioned in the earlier article “Discovering Your Topic,” looking for traditional content seems to underuse the contextual and tangential value afforded by Web access. Certainly constructivist learning goals are more easily pursued with the number of perspectives comprising the Net, but a powerful benefit of the Net comes from its inhabitants. Or does it…?


Digital Mall Talk
As a teacher I used to ask incoming students for an inventory of their interests. My goal was to learn about their passions or hobbies so that we might tap into them to vitalize our class activities. About 8 years ago I had a watershed experience: In the blank line following “My favorite hobby is:” a 10th grade girl wrote, “Talking on the phone.” Now when I go into schools to work with teachers or librarians, I inevitably see students jostling for computers to check their Hotmail accounts or to check who’s in their favorite chat room. Obviously, the Internet has raised the plane of passing notes to new levels. Even as “mall talk” distracts from substantial learning goals, shouldn’t we look for ways to tap into the human yearning to connect with an in-group? Maybe this leads us to….
Join the Discussion!
How do you and your students use the Internet? What name could you give this practice? Because MULTIMEDIA SCHOOLS magazine also supports a interactive Web site, you’re invited to enter a discussion on Net-nomenclature and how what we call the Web relates to educational practices. To comment on these names and any other better phrases you’d like to suggest, point your browsers to http://www.infotoday.com/MMSchools and click on the link for Working the Web for Education. See you online.


A Global Crossroads
More than anything else, I suppose I view the Internet as a place where humanity gathers and individuals must choose. Through the Net’s permutations as conduits for publication, research, and community, I’m struck by the way the Web reflects humanity. One place to see this on digital parade is the Magellan Voyeur (http://voyeur.mckinley.com), where you can see real-time searches conducted by people using this engine. The juxtaposition of what human beings are (literally) searching for is displayed and refreshed every 15 seconds. Although what’s posted is never the same, the collection of search strings frequently resembles something akin to haiku poetry reflected in a fun-house mirror: “Miata accessories,” “best interest rates,” “Pokémon games,” “Breast cancer + support groups.” I mention the Voyeur site because it symbolizes that the Web is many things to many people, but for each of us it represents a space where we can access and choose what we need, want, and desire. To keep school meaningful in a disintermediated world, I say we keep this global crossroads fixed squarely in the center of our classrooms amidst our students’ innate hunger for authenticity.
 
 
 

Tom March develops Web-based activities, tools and strategies for teachers integrating the Net into classroom learning. Ozline.com Pty Ltd (http://www.ozline.com) designs Web sites for clients in the U.S. and Australia. To contact the author, call, fax or e-mail  him; phone: 612 4872 321; fax: 612 4872 321; e-mail: tom@ozline.com.
 

[Information Today Inc.]
Information Today Home Page
[MultiMedia Schools]
Home Page
[Current Issue]
Current Issue
[Current Issue]
Top

Copyright © 2000, Information Today Inc. All rights reserved.
Feedback