No more surfing. Now we're mining the Net

The Web is changing the way we teach, says Vivi Lachs after a tour of the US

Doug Player, superintendent and chief education officer of the West Vancouver School District is talking about the change he sees the Internet making to schools. "It's going to change the way teachers teach and that's what important about it".

His assurance that change is needed in the wake of the technology is something I heard repeated across cities I visited earlier this year in the United States and Canada. In some places the Internet has been a catalyst for thinking about change in classroom design, teaching style and curriculum. In other places, changes already under way have been reinforced by technology.

In Union City, New Jersey, classrooms were being converted from lecture style to groups of tables. In River-Oaks Elementary School, Toronto, Montgomery Blair High School, Maryland, and Davidson Middle School, California, pupils were accessing information from the Web as a regular part of their lessons. In Claremont High school, British Columbia, the principal, John Pringle, maintained "You can't talk about education without technology." Doug Player stressed that those schools in West Vancouver using a chalk-and-talk style of teaching may have to think again. "Rather than teachers lecturing," he argues, "children will be producing. Teachers are going to have to learn to be on the side."

The Apple Classroom of Tomorrow project (ACOT), based in Cupertino in northern California, is attempting to help teachers through this change. It is working in a number of schools in the US, and indeed in Europe (there is an ACOT school in Scotland, pictured above). Cupertino's Portal Elementary School is a showcase school. Each classroom has between four and six computers with Internet in an attempt to integrate the Net into regular teaching. The teachers are committed to using the technology to reinforce their co-operative approach to learning. Caroline Embrey at Portal talked about how children can get large chunks of dense information from the World Wide Web - her job as teacher is to help them decide what is important and what is not. "My paradigm has shifted a lot in teaching them how to approach questions with a structure for learning or the information doesn't mean anything.

"It's about inquiry and resourcefulness," she continued, "People who are resourceful do well. It's not about who has the most or who is the brightest. "

Near the school is a teachers' development centre where staff from all over the US are trained by observing lessons, talking to pupils and teachers, getting some hands-on experience and thinking about how they can move technology forward in their own schools.

ManYee DeSandies, from Alvarado elementary school in Union City, California, has made a Web site for her school with links to areas of curriculum use. "It is so important," she claims, "because it puts a parameter. It's a good kind of limitation so that the Net doesn't overwhelm you. The next step is mining, not surfing the Internet. Mining has a purpose, otherwise it's just eye-candy. "

Electronic mail was also used in the schools I visited. Caroline Embrey, at Portal, was adamant that this raises questions about why we want to contact others: "Technology as a tool for communication is very powerful, so what do you want to communicate?"

ManYee DeSandies was working on a project about Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Pupils researched and read stories, drew aeroplanes, a time-line and pictures. They followed the movements of Linda Finch, who was doing a similar trip and was in e-mail contact with schools, giving details of her flight. Tarina, age eight e-mailed Linda. "My mom said she might bring me to the take-off. I'm the little girl in braids, so look out for me okay".

Kenny, aged eight, wrote a letter of encouragement, "Dear Linda, Good luck. I hope you don't disappear like Amelia Earhart."

A number of schools used the school Web site as a daily means of communication to a wider audience. The site might be updated with projects, even homework details. cole Pauline Johnson in Vancouver is a French immersion school. The principal had taken a group on a school trip to Quebec. He took pictures of what the pupils were doing each day using his digital camera and each evening posted them on the school Web site. Parents could go to their computer each evening and see their children at work, "It's like they haven't really gone anywhere - you can see them every night on the Web," said one delighted parent.

ManYee DeSandies' pupils also publish stories on the Web which give users the option of responding. One day Kate, eight, got an e-mail from Irian Jaya, Indonesia. It read, "Dear Kate, I read your story to my second grade class and here are their responses." No one in the class knew where Irian Jaya was so they set about researching it. One e-mail came back saying that people on her island did eat hamburgers but "the closest MacDonalds is 3,000 miles away in Bali".

Many British schools are connected to Web sites, most of which include pupils' work. Welford and Wickham primary school in Berkshire has pupils' home pages which include self-portraits, biographies, poems about Hallowe'en and prose pieces about their school inspection.

Castle Community School in Kent has its Year 8 science project on-line for open access. Howard of Effingham school, Surrey, has its pupils describing their first day at school. Not only have these pupils "published", but they may also get a response. This is the beginning of interactive school Web sites. I look forward to more in the future. As we become used to using the Internet and appreciate its capability for communication and information it will, as Doug Player said, change the way we teach.


Alvarado Cyber Explorers

Castle Community School

WelfordWickham School

Howard of Effingham School

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