The Internet: Opening Doors for Education

by Jeff Carmona These days, it seems like everyone's talking about the Internet. Developed in the late 1960s by the U.S. Department of Defense, this worldwide network of networks has not enjoyed widespread publicity until the past few years, when countless news stories have touted its ability to deliver up-to-the-minute information and bring people of common interests together. While most media attention has focused on consumers, educators are potentially the greatest beneficiaries of this technology. Despite all the hype, student access to the Internet remains limited, especially within elementary and secondary schools. One recent survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that only 35% of public schools are linked up to the Net, with only 3% of classrooms connected according to the OTA. This article explains how educational institutions can access the Internet and use its services, such as the World Wide Web, to enhance daily learning in the classroom. Serious readers should turn to one of the many books or Net-specific magazines for more details before going online. Getting Hooked Contrary to popular belief, Internet access is not free or automatic. Instead, schools must purchase a connection from a so-called Internet Service Provider (ISP) in their area. The least expensive type of connection is a dial-up account, which allows a personal computer to tap into the Net via a local modem and standard phone line. Access is also available through commercial online services, such as America Online and CompuServe. Another option is SLIP (Serial Line IP) or PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol) service, which support full Internet connection over telephone lines via a high-speed modem. Of the two, PPP is gaining the most ground. No additional hardware is required, but end users will need TCP/IP (Internet Protocol) software. Schools may also buy or rent a SLIP/PPP router, which enables local area networks to connect to the Net through a shared modem. Two routers with built-in modems and TCP/IP software are Rockwell International's NetHopper and Telebit's InternetBlazer. In some areas, phone companies offer ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) lines, which carry data and voice simultaneously, at reduced rates for educational sites. In California, for example, Pacific Bell will install up to four free ISDN lines at public schools, libraries and community colleges in its service territory. Larger institutions with greater network traffic may lease a dedicated line from their telephone company for high-speed connections up to 1.544 Mbps (known as T1). The price of the link is usually a fixed monthly fee based on the desired speed. Among the considerations when selecting an Internet access provider are network reliability, quality of user support and availability of a local or toll-free 800 phone number. Both Netcom and SprintLink operate a network connecting points of presence in major cities nationwide, allowing for local access with no connect time charges. PSI's InterRamp provides a PPP dialup account that can be used from a stationary location or on the road. The firm has certified solutions for PC, Macintosh and Sun platforms, complete with a POP3 electronic mailbox. Other companies serve particular regions of the country, such as Hooked in Northern California and International Discount Telecommunications (IDT) in New York/New Jersey. A growing number of service providers, including EarthLink Network and CERFnet, offer toll-free Internet access from anywhere in the U.S. Due to steep hourly charges, this service best suits those who need occasional access to the Internet while traveling. Communication Tools Locating appropriate resources on the Internet requires some forethought on where to go as well as an understanding of what tools can be used to get there. The most common application on the Net is electronic mail. There are many e-mail packages on the market, including shareware and public domain software. Most allow users to create, send, read file, delete, forward, print or reply to messages as well as attach files with them. Commercial packages like QUALCOMM's Eudora or Claris' Emailer add features such as color coding and sorting of messages by date or source (plus technical support) generally not included with free programs. For topic-specific discussions, educators may subscribe to so-called mailing lists, which automatically deliver messages to personal mailboxes, or browse through newsgroups (online bulletin boards) that reside on an outside server. Before joining in the discussion, however, it would be wise to learn Netiquette, a set of rules governing proper behavior on the Internet. Remote Access (Telnet, FTP) Some of the first tools built by architects of the Internet were for remote access. Telnet, for instance, lets authorized users log on to a remote computer and access its resources as if directly connected. A common application is searching the online card catalogs at hundreds of colleges and public libraries. File Transfer Protocol (FTP) transfers files to and from Internet hosts. Files can be any size and contain text, graphics, audio or video. Many systems on the Net have file libraries, also known as archives, that are open to the public via anonymous FTP. A program called Archie removes much of the guesswork from searches by maintaining a database of over 1,500 FTP sites, automatically updated once a month. Similarly, the Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS) locate information by performing full-text searches on a large collection of documents simultaneously. Some newer network tools have driven the phenomenal growth of the Internet by combining user-friendly graphical environments with powerful yet seamless browsing capabilities. From Gopher to the Web One browsing tool, Gopher, arranges electronic information into an online menu systems, organized by subject. Selecting an entry in the menu can take you to other gopher sites anywhere on the Internet. The advantage is that users need not know the specific addresses of computers they are accessing. Gopher sites cover nearly every subject under the sun, including many disciplines of interest to academia. LEGI-SLATE, a commercial Gopher service, provides information on Congressional bills and federal regulations. It includes detailed histories of legislation and points to related government documents and news articles. No doubt the biggest craze in the Internet community these days revolves around the World Wide Web (WWW or Web for short). Because Web pages exploit hypermedia—linked text or pictures—users can click on highlighted text, and be immediately led to another part of the document, a separate document on the same computer or a document on an entirely different server. To access the Web, one needs "browser" software, which retrieves data from servers and presents it in a graphical interface. Ever since the successful debut of Mosaic, a freeware browser, in 1993, over a dozen similar products have hit the market. Most browsers include other tools such as FTP, Gopher, news reader, e-mail and Archie. NaviSoft's Internet Works, for example, provides a single GUI interface to all common Internet services. A first-of-its-kind feature is its support for OLE 2.0. allowing for links between Windows documents and live Internet data. The most widely used browser, Netscape Navigator performs multiple simultaneous downloads and caches pages to enhance performance. The program, which is free for academic use, also boasts advanced security schemes. Other noteworthy browsers are Spyglass' Enhanced Mosaic, ConnectSoft's Internet Connection, Spry's Mosaic in a Box and NCSA Mosaic. A new browser/programming language that promises to change the look and feel of the Web comes from Sun Microsystems. Dubbed Hot Java, it allows webmasters to design pages with animated graphics and live tickers or scoreboards. Also, with VRML (virtual reality markup language) "chat rooms" resemble real rooms. Home Page Highlights So what's on the Web anyway? For one thing, hundreds of technology companies now operate Web sites, or "Home Pages," providing product descriptions, technical support, software demos and more. For example, at Compaq's site (www.compaq.com), visitors can download the latest drivers or compare the features of their various machines. Other Web sites are expressly tailored for education. This fall, JDL Technologies debuts K-12WORLD, a "Web community" for K-12 educators that will serve as a focal point for free access to the Internet's resources. Of note, K-12WORLD was designed and will be maintained by staff and students from a national consortium of U.S. school districts. For those new to the Net, an excellent place to begin a search is Yahoo (www.yahoo.com), which provides thousands of subject-sorted links to Web pages. Be warned that, like any medium, the Internet also contains plenty of "junk." Users will need some practice to avoid wasting time at sites with little or no valuable content. Schools that wish to jump into the fray with their own Home Page may enlist the help of SchoolSite, which provides an optional template including sections such as Student Newspaper, School Events, Parent/Alumni News and Homework Reference. The firm charges a monthly fee to host schools' Home Pages on its server, with additional charges for pictures, audio or video clips. Larger institutions may consider purchasing their own Web server to form a complete solution for accessing the Internet and publishing information online. Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics are just two vendors offering UNIX-based servers. Apple recently unveiled its PowerMac-based Internet Server Solution, which ships with a suite of software components for establishing a presence on the Web, including Adobe Acrobat Pro, FileMaker Pro and an HTML editor. IBM has Internet server bundles as well, including the PowerPC-driven RS/6000. BBN's Internet server, meanwhile, sports a "FrontDoor manager," which facilitates the creation of new personal accounts, e-mail lists and bulletin boards. For those who already own the necessary hardware, two low-cost server software packages are O'Reilly & Associates' WebSite and Beame & Whiteside's Web'd. Finally, an innovative product that helps prepare text for online publication is AnchorPage from ICONOVEX. This Windows program extracts significant phrases and concepts from documents, automatically inserts hypertext anchors, and produces Synopsis views of the document. More Structured Approaches A number of firms help educators sort through the massive amount of information online to retrieve desired materials. Vizion from SIRSI contains a customizable database of worthwhile Net destinations. Users click on icons to connect to a site, without having to worry about confusing addresses or log-in procedures. Forging a link between classroom instruction and the Internet, Jostens' A+dvantage Worldware enables educators to manage and distribute Internet information across networked microcomputers, and integrate it with curriculum objectives. Other systems go further by filtering the Net for teachers and students. Quality Computers' theLINQ (Learning and Instruction Network) is a hardware/software bundle and online service that, besides providing complete Internet access, delivers educational content directly to schools in an organized, point-and-click environment. Staff at theLINQ "surf" the Net everyday to collect information that matches criteria selected by subscribing schools. Also for K-12 schools, American Cybercasting's Educational Structures program serves as an up-to-date curriculum component for most subject areas. It includes over 70 commercial print publications in hypertext format as well as Internet resources organized for a school or district. An onsite demonstration can be arranged. Countless news stories in recent months have warned about the prevalence of "cyberporn." Although greatly exaggerated by the media, the risk is real. Among the benefits of the aforementioned products is that they protect students from intentionally or accidentally accessing indecent materials on the Net. Another package aimed specifically at blocking sexually explicit material is SurfWatch. When installed on individual Macs or PCs, the program works by prohibiting access to hundreds of Internet sites known to contain pornography or profanity. An optional subscription program updates the list with new sites.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.

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