Working the Web for Education
Link Like You Mean It!
Selecting Web Sites to Support Intentional Learning Outcomes
by Tom March
Web-based Educator and Director of Pty Ltd. • Southern Highlands, Australia
MultiMedia Schools • March/April 2000

Last issue’s column began a discussion on “Thinking Through Linking” and called into question the educational merit of referring to the Internet as “the Information Super Highway.” The purpose of that column was to stir a general reflection on how the Web works in schools. This month I continue to “think through” why we link to the Web, but descend from lofty concepts to nitty particulars. In other words, “Okay, so you’re on the Web and you want to create a learning activity on topic X for purpose Y—how do you know what kinds of links to choose?” Join us for a quick tour through ways you can choose links based on your activity’s intended learning outcome.
As one who’s spent a few years flailing in the whirlpool where the Web and education converge, my goal is to pass along anchor points to those with less idle time on their hands (ie, anyone working in a school ;-). Early in the WebQuest design process, I realized that the best links offered students a specific learning opportunity. Thus, as you’re gathering links to use in Web-based activities, consider the following purposes for which you might pick a specific link. Remember that linking’s only as good as the learning it inspires.

Multiple Copies
It’s a rare classroom or library that has enough copies of a poem, painting, article, book, map, software simulation, etc. So accessing multiple copies of something that a large group of students needs is one way the Web helps education. No longer do teachers have to wait in long lines at the photocopier, or librarians lament that 197 sophomores chose to write reports on gun control, or students discover ripped-out pages where they expected to find a Tyrannosaurus ripping into its dinner.

The Teachable Moment
As helpful as multiple copies can be to the logistical functioning of a school, the Web offers more. The best single comment I’ve heard to explain the benefits of the Web is “to increase the teachable moments” in a classroom. Finding apt links on the Web can excite students to further study, support individual interests, reveal concerned online communities, and connect students to real-world topics. Use the Web to develop the context surrounding the topic: how does it relate to the past? what similar situations exist in other countries? what are the opposing viewpoints or different interpretations? Likewise, topics bubbling into the classroom from popular culture are readily accessed. If students are abuzz about a recent natural disaster, find out more. If space exploration is in the news, view the actual footage. If Pokémon is all the craze, track the phenomenon from corporate and personal home pages. In addition, since the Web is more opinion than information, we inherit an inadvertently rich and authentic learning environment. Help students to discriminate among links on a topic: is the content presented in such a way that it highlights certain aspects and ignores others? What are similarities and differences among sites on the same topic? By looking at what’s included, what’s left out, and how it’s referenced, can students decipher the author’s perspective on the topic? These are the sparks that talented educators ignite on a daily basis. The Web simply increases the friction.

Premeditated Linking
Yet it’s not realistic to wait around for teachable moments to arise. Furthermore, state standards and curriculum frameworks increasingly define content and skills for students to master. Regardless of where you stand on the standards debate, until all students are self-initiated learners, and valid and reliable assessments are in place to provide feedback, we will set up classroom learning experiences. This means that sometimes we will approach the Web with premeditated objectives. In this case, we’ll want to find links that particularly support the type of learning we intend to help students achieve. Let’s look at five sorts of sites you might link to, with online examples for each.

Huge Sites for Open Exploration
If you want students to exercise their information literacy skills and to engage in long-term research, then it’s helpful to find “Huge” sites. These are the portals, directories, indexes, and mega sites found on many topics. Government agencies, museums, nonprofits, search engines, and, increasingly, teachers and librarians often develop them. Because you want students to access a wide range of materials from which to create meaning, finding both depth and breadth is ideal. Consequently, since students do most of the screening and evaluation of the sites’ content, our job is fairly easy. All we have to do is gather the links that provide an abundance and variety of information so that students can explore the topic based upon their own research goals. Using the strategy from the previous column entitled, “Wouldn’t You Rather Gather?,” such a collection of Huge sites can often be acquired within minutes.

Sample Huge Links
CIA World Fact Book—
The Library of Congress—
Rainforest Action Network—

Info-Rich Sites for Knowledge Acquisition
If the instructional goal now targets the acquisition of specific information, it makes sense to look for sites that are “Info Rich.” As examples, look for numeric data, primary sources, historical documents, firsthand accounts, images, maps, hobbyists’ pages, fanzines, online newspapers, current events postings, nonprofit organizations, databases of audio files, and directories of documentary videos. Unlike Huge sites where you can link to the site’s entry page or main menu, when you link to Info-Rich sites, point to specific pages within the sites. This way, learners go directly to the information you found so valuable. Finding good-quality, Info-Rich sites also suggests that the educator must screen the links for veracity. This takes time, but maximizes student efficiency.

Sample Info-Rich Links
General John A. Sutter—
U.S. National Debt Clock—
Online Ballet Dictionary—

“Emotive” Sites Increase Affective Connections
Sometimes no matter how much information is available on a subject, students show little interest. Part of the problem may be that the topic is seen as irrelevant. If increasing this affective connection is your instructional goal, then search for “Emotive” sites. These links appeal to the emotions in a variety of ways. Example links could be inspiring speeches, human-interest features, poignant photographs, compelling facts, favorite music, or multimedia exhibitions. These sites excite our imaginations or make us feel our humanity. Since knowledge acquisition is not the learning goal, allow students to discover personal connections and resist the temptation to pose cognitive tasks. This shifts the experience from the heart to the head and undermines the primary affective goal. Furthermore, once students are motivated, other learning goals are more readily achieved.

Sample Emotive Links
Ibo Landing, a folktale—
Powerful Days in Black and White—
Chinese Proverbs—

“Typical” Sites Support Conceptual Understanding
Educators strive to help students develop more sophisticated thinking, not just regurgitate another’s knowledge. One good way to achieve this instructional goal is to engage students in concept attainment strategies. In this model, learners are guided to discover the critical attributes of a specific concept (marsupials, folktales, “green” energy sources, French cuisine, terrorist acts versus acts of war, etc.). The purpose is for students to see and draw out the common critical attributes of that concept. Rather than read a definition and memorize it, learners explore examples and hypothesize key characteristics. Fortunately, the Web can provide sites that illustrate “Typical” examples of a concept. It’s often a large number of examples (and then non-examples) that make this strategy work. Such an abundance is rarely available from traditional resources. Educators who want to develop students’ conceptual understanding seek collections of exemplars, thumbnail images, recipes, photographs, quotations, etc. The point is that you will need enough examples (either grouped on one link or comprising a collection of links you gather) for students to see the critical attributes recurring in a variety of representations. By discussing the attributes with students, they will be able to refine the sophistication of their conceptual understanding.

Sample Typical Links
Oyez, Oyez, Oyez: U.S. Supreme Court Cases—
Thumbnails of Many Paintings by Jan Vermeer—
Oregon Trail Family Biographies and Diaries—

Perturbing Sites Spark Critical Thinking
As mentioned earlier in the discussion of Teachable Moments, the Web is the ideal medium to switch on critical thinking. Professor David Jonassen has said that the role of the teacher in the learning-centered classroom is to “perturb” students. Think about it. When students “lock-on” to an understanding, they’ve reached a plateau on a continuum of increasing sophistication. So when you suspect students can tolerate more gray mixed with the black and white, link to Perturbing sites to create the cognitive dissonance that prompts a more subtle understanding. Now, the Web’s inaccurate, disturbing, or fringe perspectives become valuable tools to sharpen student discrimination. Although wading into this murky water can threaten the squeamish, if we don’t take these steps in our classrooms, then we neglect our calling as educators. Our students will be on the Web during their lives. Curious adolescent (and younger?) Web surfers are sure to encounter these problematic sites. I’d rather be part of this authentic learning process than bow out when the growing gets rough.

The easiest way to recognize Perturbing sites is viscerally. As you collect sites on a topic, you’re bound to come across some that create a reaction in you. Perhaps you see a false, barely hidden agenda? Maybe the information challenges stereotypes or presents an under-dog’s perspective? When “Everyman’s” a publisher on the Web, we’re sure to get the outer fringes that the media filter out for our mass consumption. Also, don’t forget that the Web, with its banner ads and Big brother demographic tracking capabilities, deserves close scrutiny itself. Finding such Perturbing sites can take time, but it’s what makes the Web exciting, and the educator’s role essential.

Sample Perturbing Links &
How Hot [Radioactive] Are You?—
Conspiracy or Unnatural Disaster?—

The purpose of this column has been to focus attention on picking links intentionally. This is not to suggest that these are the only ways the Web can be used, but simply to highlight some lenses through which to view Web sites and thereby promote the achievement of specific learning goals. Next month we’ll look at how you might scaffold the links you collect into specific activity formats. Until then keep working the Web for Education.

Tom March develops Web-based activities, tools and strategies for teachers integrating the Net into classroom learning. Pty Ltd ( 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:

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