The initial skirmishes in the electronic information wars have been completed. It now should be apparent to most that internetworking and the internet (TCP/IP) standards have won. Even attempts by giants such as Microsoft and Compuserve to develop and hold proprietary information systems have been lost to the wider internet movement. Now that the internet has established itself in major institutions and in growing numbers in homes, the question whether schools should access and use the internet is moot. The internet is a fact just as newspapers, video, computers, and television.
The question being asked is what will schools get from the internet. With the proliferation of internet, specifically World Wide Web (WWW), sites, there is a large question around the value of the information that is available on the free internet. The term ‘free internet’ was given meaning in a recent presentation by Jamie MacKenzie (http://www.fromnowon.org) where he distinguished between sources that the Bellingham School District paid to access using internet tools and the general WWW. The value of the free internet is minimal in many education situations because of the difficulty for students to easily find relevant information using the search tools generally available. In most case preresearch is necessary so that the internet information can be retrieved expeditiously. This may be done by the student but in many cases this will be job of the teacher. This is a keen problem in schools that have limited bandwidth internet connections. In these cases the limited access has to be shared by many giving little time to develop information by exploration and discovery.
The ability of teachers to develop starting point pages on the internet that their students can go to and have direct access to relevant information is one answer to how to use the internet. By making the starting points part of the internet, students can access it from school or home. In many schools, home internet access is the only place for students to do indepth research. This also frees up the school resource for use by students that don’t have home access. With the initial starting points there will be need for elaboration and guidance. With one very small step, the school and the teacher move from internet users to internet content providers. This aspect of the internet could be more powerful for schools than any of the information currently available on the free internet.
Schools are in a unique position in their communities. In urban areas elementary and secondary school names are the major landmarks of what used to be an autonomous community. In newer areas, the positioning of schools define the community that will grow up round them. This ability of a school to define a community need not be limited to symbology of name. In the development on any aspect of human communications their have been standard bearers that show the potential of the genre. The rhetoric of Plato, the poetry of Keats, the oratory of Churchill, the films of Kapra, or the electronic journalism of Cronkite have served to define the role of the method.
Schools can be the standard bearers of their communities into the information age. For the most part schools operate independent of the profit motivations of business interests and lack the political aspects of governments. Public schools still represent a cross section of interests, biases, economic levels, and political ideas. While no institution can be bias-free, schools have the potential for equal representation.
Schools can bring to the internet aspects of the community from mundane tourist information to profound questions of public interest. The ease of this role is apparent if we consider that this is what we do already. In classrooms everywhere, questions are asked and answered about art, science, geography, economics, and history. The value in the past has only extended to the classroom wall or the fridge door at home. Whether it is the health of the local salmon stream or the history of a local heritage building, the ability to display the work of students and teachers in a broader forum is a valuable information source for our communities. This has to be done with a mind to the privacy and property of the creators of this information but in most cases these are easy to accomplish with the correct level of forethought.
This brings us to the point where schools will not simply use the internet but be major contributors to it. This will happen for four very good reasons. It makes sense for the school because it shows people in a concrete way what happens on a daily basis behind the walls of their local school. It makes sense for the community because it develops interest and gives identity on a large scale. It makes sense for the students because it helps show them and others that what they do has value beyond the mark at the bottom of the page. It makes sense for teachers because it moves them along the road to creating meaning for their students.
So if the first skirmish of the information age is over have no fear, there will be more. The best we can say, in the spirit of past standard bearers of human discourse; “It is not the beginning of the end but it may, in fact, be the end of the beginning”
Bill Kempthorne (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Physics Teacher at Chilliwack Senior Secondary (http://www.chill.org) in Chilliwack, B.C.