From Promise to Practice: Enhancing Student Internet Learning
by Kathleen Fulton
Project Director, Web-Based Education Commission Washington, DC 
MultiMedia Schools • March/April 2001

[Editor's note: The U.S. Congress' Web-Based Education Commission issued its report and recommendations for improving learning in the Web environment in late December. In this special feature, the Commission's project director, Kathleen Fulton, discusses the report's findings to help MMS readers and all technology-using educators as they forge action plans for the future. The entire report can be downloaded at]

The bipartisan, congressional Web-Based Education Commission set out to discover how the Internet is being used to enhance learning opportunities for all students, from pre-kindergarten through high school, at post-secondary colleges and universities, and in corporate training.

In the course of our work, we heard from hundreds of educators, policymakers, Internet pioneers, education researchers, and ordinary citizens who shared their powerful visions and showed us the promise of the Internet:

We heard that the Internet enables education to occur in places where it normally does not, extends resources where there are few, expands the learning day, and opens the learning place. We experienced how it connects people, communities, and resources to support learning. We witnessed how the Internet adds graphics, sound, video, and interaction to give teachers and students multiple paths for understanding.

Now, as the 107th Congress and a new administration seek to find common ground and heal the wounds of partisan politics, we have the opportunity to make the visions we heard in testimony become common practice in our classrooms. As education professionals, our perspectives are unique, for we base them upon our daily experience, rather than upon speculation. By sharing highlights of the Commission's report, I hope to provide you with paths for participation, communication, and collaboration in moving from promise to practice.

The Commission identified seven areas in which we feel there is a strong need for action:

Here are the specific pivot points in which our collective participation can make the difference.

Broadband Access
Since the earliest days of educational Internet use, libraries and schools have played key roles in society's efforts at equity. Recent progress created by the E-Rate has allowed the majority of our schools and classrooms to access the Internet. The report notes that for households with incomes below $40,000, 31 percent of students have Internet access at home, versus 56 percent at school. However, the approach of high-speed broadband connectivity, along with the types of learning experiences it can provide, means that the digital divide after broadband will be wider and deeper than anything we've seen before.

This highlights the importance of Internet access in public places as an equalizing force for educational opportunity. But it also makes it clear that broadband access in the home is the necessary next step, enabling parents and teachers to communicate with each other, students to access top-of-the-line research materials and resources, and learners of all ages—including educators—to take online courses to enhance their own skills and expertise in an economy that demands continual growth.

The Commission reports, "Access must be convenient and affordable. It must offer a user the opportunity to find and download complex, content-rich resources. The technology that supports access must be where the learner is located and be available whenever he or she needs it. Access may take place in the school or college or adult literacy classroom, in the library or after-school center, in the community center or workplace, or in the home."

Already, many of us work in schools and libraries where the online resources we subscribe to are available to students and educators at home. Encouraging classroom teachers to integrate these materials and expand the opportunities for learning beyond the classroom day and place is a considerable challenge. The idea that not all students will have access outside our schools and libraries is often the final barrier that prevents adoption of strategies we know can work, but are reluctant to use, in the interest of fairness.

The report continues, "Those who work with the technology that supports access must have the skill and understanding to apply it well. If the user—whether teacher or learner, parent or administrator—does not know how to work with technology or where to go on the Internet to find material of value, that learner does not have real access to what the Internet offers."

Information literacy is the key for all of these users and is a unifying principle for the effective integration of technology in education. Technology-using educators and library media specialists are among the best prepared to help other teachers, parents, administrators, and school board members to develop these skills and to support the policies that will allow information literacy to take its rightful place as a foundation for 21st century learning. Indeed, information literacy weaves its way through most of the seven points raised by the Commission.

Another important aspect is making sure the Web sites we create are accessible to those with disabilities. The report notes, "The Internet is a double-edged sword for these learners—it can be a gateway to new opportunities or a barrier that challenges them even further. Among Americans of all ages, nearly 60 percent of those with a disability have never used a personal computer, compared with 25 percent of those without a disability." Considering that nearly a quarter of our population over the age of 16 has some form of disability, the potential for leaving people behind only increases.

Fortunately, the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has created Bobby, a Web-based tool that analyzes Web pages for their accessibility to people with disabilities. [See "Tech Coordinator's Corner" by Rob Reilly, MMS, September 2000, pp. 58-59 for a more complete discussion.] Making sure your Web pages comply can boost learning for everyone, as we put into practice research that reminds us, "There is no typical learner, just as there is not one path to learning." The guidelines encourage us to provide support and challenge through multiple means:

Professional Development
"Too little, too late, too lame" are pejoratives that too often apply to professional development offerings. The challenge of helping faculty learn to effectively integrate the benefits of technology within their teaching is not limited to K-12 schools. It is also a major challenge for post secondary institutions. This compounds the problem, since the new crop of teachers currently being prepared to take the place of the 2 million teachers who will leave the profession in the next few years are doing so largely without modeling of effective practice by their professors.

Effective use of technology goes hand-in-hand with new, more effective ways of teaching, yet far too many professional development offerings mirror the old "sage on the stage" information transmission model. In fact, this professional development is often called "training," when what is truly needed goes far beyond mastery of basic technology skills. The report states, "It means developing a vision built on the understanding that technology is a tool that can offer solutions to longstanding teaching and learning problems. It is more than knowing how to automate past practices. It is the growing understanding that comes with confidence to 'think with technology' in order to approach old problems in new ways."

Members of IT Teams are perfectly positioned to remedy this situation. As technology coordinators, school library/media specialists, and classroom teachers, each holds a key piece of the puzzle required to unlock the potential of technology for learning. Beyond the transmission of information, there must be communication and collaboration between educators on a scale that we've never seen before. Perhaps this is the true "silver lining" to the professional development clouds: By using technology to discuss improvements in teaching, change on a wide scale may become possible for the first time.

However, the challenge goes beyond what will be learned: It must also include the circumstances and contexts in which professional growth will be supported. When asked in a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) survey to name the greatest barrier to their use of computers and the Internet in the classroom, most teachers (82 percent) cited lack of "release time" (time outside classroom) to "learn, practice, or plan ways to use computers or the Internet."

The Commission report contrasts how education and the private sector meet these needs. "In the business world, training is tailored, focused, and just-in-time. In the education world, it is more often one-size-fits-all, generic, and just-in-case."

The report continues:

The overwhelming majority (90 percent) of all corporate and government training occurs on paid time. In public schools, teachers report just over a third (39 percent) of their professional development occurs on paid time. Professionals in other fields expect to be trained regularly. Motorola, long the standard for industry, provides every employee with at least 40 hours of training each year.

Equally significant, professionals in other fields are provided with follow-up support needed for that training to take root—including immediate access to the hardware and software on which they are trained, Internet connections, and easy access to support personnel and follow-up skill building.

As we work to increase the quantity and quality of professional development offerings in our individual schools and districts, these findings validate our proposals to key decision-makers. Aligning what's offered with what works best is vital in order to increase the benefit technology brings to learning.

Research and Development
There are two disconnects that conspire to slow our progress in putting promise into practice. The first is the paucity of research directed at enhancing performance in learning. Of the $313 billion invested in public K-12 education, a remarkably low .01 percent goes toward determining educational techniques that work. This disconnect is compounded by the distance between researchers and classroom practitioners (the very people reading this article!). Since classroom teachers believe that research is likely to be "abstract" or "ivory-tower," much-needed guidance remains underutilized in our classrooms.

The second disconnect is between what we've discovered is important to improve learning and what we actually measure in our classrooms. The report notes, "Perhaps the greatest barrier to innovative teaching is assessment that measures yesterday's learning goals. It is a classic dilemma: Tests do a good job of measuring basic skills, which, in turn, influence the teaching of these skills so students can score well on the tests. Testing works well so long as we are testing the right things."

While as individual teachers, library/media specialists, and technology coordinators we may feel that we have limited influence on the decisions that led to high-stakes testing or a host of other societal pressures that shape our professional lives, our insights and anecdotes are critical in guiding the public to develop policies and to support practices that have a possibility of providing the quality of education people increasingly demand.

The report argues, "We must establish a pedagogical base for the effective use of Internet learning. We need a vastly expanded, revitalized, and reconfigured educational research, development, and innovation program, one built on a deeper understanding of how people learn and how new tools support and assess learning gains."

What will it take to develop tests that truly reflect what students need to learn for the 21st century? It will take a concerted effort and large amounts of R & D funding along with the collaboration of educators and psychometricians, content specialists, and technologists. Above all, it will take a focus on the potential of technology to help us better measure the knowledge, competencies, and understandings we value in education.

Quality of Content
Content available for learning on the Web is variable. Some of it is excellent, much is mediocre. Both content developers and educators will have to address gaps in this market, find ways to build fragmented lesson plans into full courses, and assure the quality of learning in this new environment. Dazzling technology has no value unless it supports content that meets the needs of learners.

The publishing paradigm of the smokestack era led to the observation that "there is freedom of the press for anyone who has a printing press"; in the Internet age, everyone has the equivalent of a global printing press. The Internet turns "consumption" of electronic media into a breeder reactor scenario for knowledge building. Effective use of these materials results in additional fuel to power learning in the classroom.

Education consists of more than filling out multiple-choice standardized tests, or completing sets of worksheets. When educational technology is used to its full potential, the result is the building of new knowledge. This knowledge has value that may be an appropriate focus for copyright law. The uses of protected material in ways intended to produce new works that increase the range of high-quality materials for learning ought to be themselves protected as an extension of fair use that reflects the realities of teaching and learning in a digital age. As library/media specialists and classroom teachers, we are in a unique position to communicate our needs, our reactions to what is being offered to us by the private sector, and contribute to the knowledge-building activities that will result in high-quality content to fuel the education enterprise.

Regulations and E-Learning
The regulations that govern much of education today were written for an earlier model in which the teacher is the center of all instruction and all learners are expected to advance at the same rate, despite varying needs or abilities. Granting of credits, degrees, availability of funding, staffing, and educational services are governed by the time-fixed and place-based models of yesteryear. The Internet allows for a learner-centered environment, but our legal and regulatory framework has not adjusted to these changes.

Privacy and Protection
The Internet carries with it danger as well as promise. Advertising can interfere with the learning process and take advantage of a captive audience of students. Privacy can be endangered when data is collected from users of online materials. Students, especially young children, need protections from harmful or inappropriate intrusions in their learning environments.

Any program of protecting students online must be part of a systemic approach that includes assessment, standards, and engaging curriculum designed to develop lifelong learners. The media literacy, information literacy, and critical-thinking skills that will produce productive workers for the 21st century are the same skills that will make students safe, productive netizens. These skills are developed though a sequential K-12 program that spans the curriculum. It includes assessment of students and staff to determine where they are on the technology skills spectrum and the educational change path. It includes professional development that will lead teachers to move from information provider to learning facilitator, and students from vessels for teachers to fill with information to partners in an educational process in which they construct their own knowledge and learn alongside their teachers. [Editor's Note: See the September 2000 MMS feature on "WiredKids" for a more detailed discussion.]

Technology is expensive, and Web-based learning is no exception. Technology expenditures do not end with the wiring of a school or campus, the purchase of computers, or the establishment of a local area network. These costs represent just the beginning. [Editor's Note: For more on this topic, see Sara Fitzgerald's article "Taking the Total Cost of Ownership Concept to the Classroom" on page 52.]

Conclusion: We Are All Needed to Meet This Call
The people who can make this happen live in your community. You and your neighbors sent them to represent you in Congress, in your statehouse, and on your school board. Yet only when they have the benefit of what you see every day in your school, only when they see how the recommendations from this national report can translate to action at the local level, will we begin to see widespread transformation from promise to practice. Please share this information, augmented by your passion, ideas, and experiences, as widely as you can!

No Turning Back
The Commission has found:
  • The need for a new design in learning is there . Today's education is built on an agrarian model that worked in the years when we were a nation of farmers, foresters, and fishermen. Schooling changed to take on elements of the industrial revolution (factory-line classes, assembly-line curriculum, and teacher-foremen) that worked for the needs of the Industrial Age. New designs are needed to create the "knowledge workers" who will define the Information Age.
  • The market is there. Business is poised to support education with powerful Internet solutions. We know that education itself can be a strong market that drives the innovation of continuing products, tools, and applications to benefit learners across the spectrum.
  • The global economy is there. If this era of globalization has proven anything, it is that a growing world economy can create a strong and lasting demand for skilled knowledge workers and a technologically savvy workforce.

Educational Research Should Lead to Enhanced Learning Performance
We are at a critical moment of discovery in the quest to "unlock the mysteries of learning." As reported in recent National Academy of Sciences reports, learning sciences have made substantial progress in the past 30 years—more than most people realize. This expanding knowledge base about how we learn has important implications for improving education at all levels. And it is telling us something important: What goes on in schools is far from optimal for learning.

A Litany of Negatives
We know from this research that learning environments should be focused on knowledge, learners, social interactions, and assessment. But instead, learning environments in school often focus on the short-term recall of facts, rather than opportunities for deeper building of knowledge. These environments are organized around the top-down, teacher- and textbook-centered instruction, rather than the needs of the individual learner. This limits social interaction to occasional times with peers in the classroom, encouraging solo study rather than collaboration. And these environments allow current assessment to influence instruction in ways that may not match the goals of 21st century learning.


Communications to the author should be addressed to Kathleen Fulton, Project Director, Web-Based Education Commission, 1990 K St. NW, Washington, DC 20006-8533; phone: 202/219-7047; fax: 202/502-7576; e-mail

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