Linking Students to the Infosphere
A driving principle of the recent Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 is that "schools and classrooms...should have access to advanced telecommunications services." In light of all the media attention focused on the Internet and school connectivity, this call sounds reasonable and worthwhile. But exactly what are "advanced telecommunications services" and how will they impact education?
Over the last decade, the dominant mode of telecommunications in schools has been e-mail exchanges between classes. Even though messages were limited to non-graphical ASCII text, the ability for one class to easily and cheaply communicate with either another or many throughout the world was so powerful that educators developed a number of successful learning projects around e-mail. Yet today, e-mail hardly qualifies as advanced telecommunications. At the core of advanced connectivity lies access to the Internet's sophisticated capabilities.
Providing universal Internet access to schools in a way that benefits daily instruction demands a considerable investment in hardware and infrastructure. School administrators can no longer isolate computers in computer labs, but must make them accessible to all venues of learning on a school's premises, and these machines must be capable of handling both multimedia and large files. They must consider computer upgrades, Internet providers, ongoing technical support and even school-wide local area networks. Many schools need to be rewired, which often involves costly retrofitting. Teachers must learn how to operate the hardware as well as how to integrate connectivity into their practices. Furthermore, educators should infuse networked learning into school culture.
After all the wires have been laid, the computers connected and turned on, and the teachers trained, will the students be ready for Internet access? The Internet is unfamiliar terrain that can be challenging to traverse, and there are accepted standards of online behavior, as there are in daily life. Just as students must know the rules of the road when they drive, so must they acquire information literacy and ethics in order to navigate the Internet usefully and responsibly.
Clearly, advanced classroom connectivity requires a greater and more enduring commitment than many may have anticipated. No one, not even policy-makers, know for sure how many tens of billions of dollars this effort will cost or, for that matter, exactly where all the money will come from.
At a time when education is already besieged by other needs, can we justify spending billions of dollars to link classrooms for advanced telecommunication services? "When we've got leaky roofs, filling a room with technology seems stupid," asserted a lobbyist for the California School Board Association. Should a school use its meager resources to fix its leaky roof or purchase new computers and connect them to the Internet?
The New Information Environment
Physically, the Internet is a vast array of interconnected networks (about 60,000 as of July, 1995) that use the same TCP/IP protocol and evolved from ARPANET. The networks themselves are comprised of many millions of computers interconnected via phone lines, satellite links, fiber-optic cable, etc.
The Internet is a truly unique human creation, and it defies facile description. Consequently, despite the current publicity, the Internet is poorly understood by the public. In order to convey a sense of this vast digital grid, observers have relied on a number of metaphors. These metaphors, however, address only certain features of the online domain. We should ask whether or not these terms sufficiently communicate to policy-makers the sweeping potential that the Internet offers.
A popular metaphor is "cyberspace," which its creator, writer William Gibson, defined as a "consensual hallucination of visually realized data achieved through plugging into a global computer network" (see also: ee.oulu.fi/~thefinn/gibson /gibson/html). This metaphor united our perceptions of cybernetics and physical or outer space. The public has been informed that cyberspace is populated by virtual communities, online discussion groups, "town meetings" and even "electronic pubs." Although intriguing, cyberspace is an exotic phrase that perhaps best serves science fiction, from whence it came. It conjures up a world apart and different from our physical world, one that is unfettered, largely uncharted and perhaps not entirely safe.
The "information superhighway" suggests infrastructure in which information travels over electronic highways, much as cars and trucks negotiate interstate highways. It invokes images of speeding trucks hauling large loads of data in heavy traffic, not of a friendly place where parents would want their children to play.
The "electronic marketplace" implies a domain for transactions of goods and services. This metaphor, however, raises such issues as commercialization, security and fraud. Connectivity offers far more than digital shopping malls.
One interesting description is the "Information Age," for it describes not the Internet itself, which is hardware, but its currency - information. The term characterizes the enormous growth of information sources and the convergence of all mass media into one omnipresent, all-inclusive electronic medium. At the core of the Information Age, uniting all information and data resources, will be computer-mediated communications (CMC). Information Age implies a time for a revolution in the information environment.
Bring state-of-the-art meteorology to your class groundhog.sprl.umich.edu/
The Weather Underground Project of the University of Michigan broadcasts its series on "Disaster in the Classroom" to illustrate to teachers and students in K-12 the Internet resources that explore natural disasters, particularly those on weather and climate. One of the shows, for example, explores the ozone hole over the Antarctic. The resources are presented along with brief explanations of the content, including material needed to interpret the images and information.
The Biosphere & the Infosphere
For an appropriate analogy to grasp the new information environment as a cohesive and integrated flow of knowledge, let us consider the concept of the "biosphere," a term coined in the beginning of this century by Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky to describe the "envelope of life" as an interdependent planetary web. The concept, in effect, summarized all that was known in the natural sciences and asserted the unity of life and the space it inhabited.
Similarly, the information environment needs a metaphor that implies the growing unity, interdependence and accessibility of information produced by humankind and to this end, this paper proposes the infosphere.
The infosphere summarizes advances in nearly all human endeavors. Technologically, the infosphere traces back to the telegraph and radio, the first computers and monitors, and the Internet and the World Wide Web. Yet with its far-reaching global impact, the infosphere is also the product of political and cultural change. Sputnik, manned lunar landings, and the first photograph of the entire Earth -- a fragile blue orb in space -- encouraged all people to think globally. The collapse of the Berlin Wall broke down many political barriers to the infosphere, and the widespread adaptation of telecommunications technologies by science and commerce nurtured the infosphere at its birth.
Each prior advance in communications - paper and ink, the telegraph, the radio, the telephone and television - deeply changed society. The infosphere encompasses all these media as well as such new ones as computer-mediated communication, computer simulations and virtual reality. Its impact on society promises to be profound. Already, this new communications environment is becoming increasingly dynamic as more and more users not only access the plethora of online data, but contribute to it as well. For educators, this revolutionary flow of information forces a rethinking of traditional learning paradigms.
This paper attempts to identify the features of the infosphere that have proved to be of educational value. It outlines the basic trends in their adaptation into instructional practice and concludes with the rationales educators use in making their choices.
What the Infosphere Offers Classrooms
Due to the latest developments in Internet technologies, especially for the World Wide Web, we are seeing an explosive growth of the infosphere. As is often the case in the early stages of rapidly growing systems, the infosphere appears chaotic, unstructured and even somewhat frightening. This is reflected in the current debates over restricted access and censorship issues. In light of parental concerns and the high costs to establish classroom connectivity, a question must be asked: is there anything useful besides sending e-mail and accessing databases that can help teachers teach and students learn? Do we have any evidence that bringing classrooms to the infosphere can justify the great effort that doing so will take?
Examination of available online resources and classroom usage reveals five general educational functionalities of the infosphere. They are presented below in ascending order of pedagogical sophistication and potential impact on student learning and school change.
The folllowing message was sent to the Internet community from New Zealand:
The Mt. Ruapehu Volcano in the center of the North Island in New Zealand became currently active; it is being monitored live. Check out what the grand mountain is doing for yourself with pictures that are updated by the minute.
Web address: www.actrix.gen.nz/ruapehu/
Don't stand close to the edge.
Tele-access is the use of online resources in learning, including online libraries, databases, museums, satellite data and other classrooms. The latest space shuttle photos (shuttle.nasa.gov/), paintings inspired by Shakespeare plays (www.cc.emory.edu/ ENGLISH/classes/Shakespeare_Illustrated/ Shakespeare.html), pending Congressional legislation (www.access.gpo.gov), or foreign language resources for 40 languages (www.cc.utah.edu/~coj6886/jltc.html) are available to students via the Internet.
In order to complete an assignment, for example, a student might have to access information on Thomas, the U.S. Congress' Web site (thomas.loc.gov/) or download images and maps of the Civil War (www.magibox.net/~civilwar/gallery.html).
When students conduct online searches, they are tapping into information that is real-world oriented and nearly unlimited. Rather than digesting precanned answers, they are constructing their own knowledge and they can do so with equal facility at home and in class.
2. Virtual publishing
For the first time in history, the ability to publish no longer depends upon owning a printing press. Once the province of scholars and large companies, publishing is now an option for classrooms by means of virtual publishing on the World Wide Web. Virtual publishing can authenticate learning by setting students' scholarship in the real world. Students derive a sense of self-worth when they can claim ownership of work that reaches an audience beyond the classroom, and they tend to invest more effort into work that is to be widely distributed.
In the Writers in Electronic Residence project, students publish their p'etry for feedback from their peers throughout the world. On the networks supported by Global Schoolhouse (gsn.org/) and International Education and Resource Network (I*EARN) (www.iern.org/iearn) students from different countries publish results of their collaborative projects, including news magazines, literary journals, environmental and human- rights newsletters.
Virtual publishing is hardly limited to text documents. Students can include graphics, video, sound and animation in their publications, as well as the hypertext links of digital books. Soon, students will even be able to tele-broadcast live sounds, film and video to each other.
Tele-presence enables students to experience events at remote sites. Students near an ecological disaster or in the path of a hurricane can serve as eyewitnesses for their peers by issuing first-hand accounts, or students can collect data from remote probes, whether the probes be on school grounds or on the moon.
When used with video technologies, CMC allows students to actually see and hear events as they happen remotely. Classes can journey on real expeditions, participate in real experiments and, in effect, "look over the shoulders" of working scientists.
For example, students in The JASON Project remotely explored the ocean floor from their classrooms through a robot operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov/JASON/ HTML/JASON.html). In the "Live from Antarctica" project (quest.arc.nasa.gov/ livefrom/livefr), students accessed scientists' diaries and field journals to learn how they "lived, worked and played" at the South Pole.
With telecommunications, mentoring becomes a rich and viable teaching option. Many sites on the Internet, such as professional groups and bulletin boards, are responsive to student inquiries. By serving as mentors, scientists and scholars can answer questions and provide classrooms with resources beyond textbooks and the individual teacher's expertise.
A retired engineer, for example, could mentor students at a Harlem high school or an MIT graduate student in mathematics could work with students in Montana.
An example of tele-mentoring is the online Ask-A-Geologist program sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior (walrus.wr.usgs.gov/ docks/ask-a-) in which students ask questions of professional geologists. In its first year, the project answered over 3,000 questions.
Though generally associated with teacher development and adult education,[7,8] tele-courses are a variation of tele-mentoring and are currently in development for K-12 students. Tele-courses can expand schools' educational opportunities and are a potentially powerful strategy for advanced, remedial and home instruction. Exposing them to experts, scholars and people of achievement, tele-mentoring provides students with positive role models. Such relationships can reward not only students but the mentors as well.
In their totality, the various functionalities of the infosphere enable students to share all forms of information in a variety of ways. Tele-sharing often begins with simple e-mail chats between "keypals." It advances to "one-to-many" and "many-to-many" communications, and then blossoms into the sharing of resources, ideas, experiences, data and findings.
This transition from simple communications to cooperative learning offers relevancy and the analytical challenge of comparative studies. Further, it calls upon students to engage in deeper social interactions. Such learning implies an equality among participants rather than the traditional vertically structured, teacher-student relationship.
In Project Investigate, developed by TERC in cooperation with the National Geographic Society, networked students proposed interesting ideas for investigation. If an idea was accepted by other students, the proposing student became the research director for the project while the others provided support and collected data. The project leader, in turn, might have worked for other students by contributing data to their projects.
The Kids as Global Scientists project (stripe.colorado.edu/~kgshtml/Home.html) combines downloading and examining weather data (tele-access) with questioning scientists about their findings (tele-mentoring).
Presently, the most ambitious tele-cooperative project is Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) (www.globe.gov), which was initiated by the office of the Vice President of the United States, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department and the Department of Education. The program forges a partnership between students worldwide and leading scientists to monitor key environmental parameters. Students transmit their findings to a globe database, a rich resource for comparative analyses for environmental scientists and students' learning.
From Online Cooperation to Tele-Collaboration
Tele-collaboration is one of the most sophisticated deployments of classroom telecommunications. It advances online cooperation to distributed problem-solving, collaborative design and cross-classroom, collaborative inquiry. Although collaborative problem-solving offers the most beneficial educational opportunities, Harris noted that "educational problem-solving projects are, as yet, the least common kind of Internet-based activity that involves precollege students."
Though tele-collaborations are a relatively new implementation of classroom telecommunications, teachers have initiated an increasing number of interesting online projects. These teachers developed promising ideas, posted them on networks to recruit collaborators and eventually implemented them.
One of the first large-scale tele-collaborative projects was The InterCultural Learning Network, which started as a collaboration between classes in Alaska and San Diego to produce a newspaper called The Computer Chronicles. It culminated in an expanded network in which K-12 teachers, students and college faculty in the United States, Mexico, Japan and Israel engaged in joint newspaper-writing activities. Students from different cultures used each other "as resources for learning more about themselves and the social, cultural, and physical world." In the Global River Environmental Education Network (igc.apc.org/green/) students involved in water-quality study collaboratively explore specific watersheds.
Tele-collaboration g'es beyond the sharing of data. In The Global Laboratory Project (hub.terc.edu/gl/global-lab.html), an international, telecommunication-based project developed by TERC with support from the NSF, students investigated local and global environments. After sharing their findings on a project-wide database, students collaboratively identified environmental phenomena, discussed research plans, and together conducted distributed investigations using the same protocols, methodologies, standards and tools. One of the students' discoveries was a dramatic rise of carbon dioxide levels in their classrooms over the course of a school day. One class even managed to persuade its school's administration to replace the ventilation system.
Though tele-collaborative projects require careful preparations in order to standardize and synchronize activities among participating classrooms, they increase the authenticity and relevancy of environments and offer important benefits for all disciplines. They enable classes to conduct distributed research and experiments, thus replicating the processes of scientists and scholars. Participating students must follow uniform procedures, yet the diversity of the data enables them to place their findings into regional, national and global contexts.
Table 1 proposes how functionalities offered by the emerging infosphere can change the organization of instructional settings, teachers' role, and the flow of information, not only to students but, remarkably, from them as well.
Patterns of Classroom Implementations
How do these educational functionalities of the infosphere find their way into classrooms? An accurate picture is difficult to come by because the more advanced functionalities require high-quality connectivity, which are in short supply among many schools. Whereas some schools enjoy powerful computers and high-bandwidth connectivity to the Internet in every classroom, others have obsolete computers relegated to computer labs. In addition, there are great discrepancies in teachers' expertise and experiences; some navigate the Internet effortlessly while others struggle to get online during lunch.
Though presently there is only limited research into how advanced online functionalities are adapted into classrooms, the following patterns have become discernible.
The U.S. Department of Commerce (1995) reports: "As computers and advanced telecommunications are now essential tools in the workplace, it will become increasingly important that individuals obtain the necessary training and education to become computer literate and to be able to navigate' information networks.... It is estimated that 60 percent of the new jobs in the year 2010 will require skills possessed by only 22 percent of workers today."
From Extracurricular Use to Curricular Augmentation
Often, telecommunication-based activities are introduced into school life first in extracurricular activities, then, after an exploratory trial period in which teachers gain experience in instructional telecomputing, they are brought into formal classroom courses.
The easiest way to introduce telecommunications into formal courses is through a practice called telecommunications-augmented curricula in which teachers supplement their existing curriculum with online activities. A science class could augment its astronomy curriculum by downloading the latest images from the Hubble telescope or a sociology class could supplement its studies by accessing population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. A literature class could discuss a book with its author or virtually publish its p'etry.
Teachers need not revamp either their curricula or their teaching practices to augment courses with telecommunications. Although the overall teaching strategy remains conventional - teacher- and textbook-centered -- students now have routine access to online resources and are exposed to an array of additional sources of information and opinions that demand their critical thinking.
Augmentation to Added-on Telecommunication-based Curricular Inserts
Teachers who successfully augmented their curricula with various online functionalities take the next step by inserting specially designed telecommunication-based curriculum modules into traditional courses. Worldwide, thousands of elementary school teachers insert modules from NGS Kids Network, jointly developed by TERC and the National Geographic Society, into their traditional instructions. Middle and high school teachers involved in the Global Lab project use specially-designed tele-collaborative curriculum units as inserts into regular earth science, biology, physics, chemistry and environmental science courses. Teachers implement the Global Lab units generally one day a week on a part-time basis.
There are diverse reasons for this transitional implementation pattern. Insufficient or inadequate access to the Internet may limit the levels of connectivity that teachers can offer. Also, there is a dearth of full-course curricula designed to fully implement advanced telecommunications features. In addition, many teachers lack the training, experience or confidence to abandon conventional teaching practices in favor of new and unfamiliar ones.
"From kindergarten onward, students should conduct their investigations... For even the youngest students, investigations should start with student questions... Year by year the investigations should become more ambitious and more sophisticated."
American Association for the Advancement of Science, (1993), Benchmarks for Science Literacy, Oxford University Press: NY
Telecommunication Features Fully Integrated into Curricula
In telecommunications-integrated curricula, the infosphere becomes integral to classroom instruction. The curricula are designed to fully exploit its advanced functionalities and information flows both to and from students. Learning becomes less dependent on the centrality of teachers, and the teacher's role transforms from the traditional "sage on the stage" to the "guide on the side."
Clearly, teachers find using CMC in daily instruction more challenging than merely downloading files or sending e-mail for extracurricular activities. Full integration requires that schools, in addition to giving students sufficient telecommunications access, must redefine their pedagogical goals, restructure curricular offerings, provide teachers with training and support materials, and obtain tools for students' collaborative data collections. Often teacher-inspired grassroot efforts lack the resources to provide the support and curricular framework that telecommunication-based curricula demands.
The NSF, federal and state governmental agencies, and non-profit research groups have developed a number of large-scale test-bed and demonstration projects[17, 18] to encourage and support schools' efforts to advance their classroom implementations.
The Testbed for Telecollaboration (teaparty.terc.edu), organized through TERC and funded by the NSF, explores the impact of telecommunications technology on teaching and learning. Numerous studies describe how progressive integration of CMC into curricula transforms traditional, teacher- and textbook-centered classrooms into real world-oriented student communities of practice.[19, 20, 21, 22, 23]
New Learning Environment Begets a New Learning Paradigm
A common rationale for linking classrooms is to prepare students for future work. Indeed, we see increasing demand for "knowledge workers" versed in telecommunications, but the workplace of the near future will not demand the mechanical skills of turning on a computer and modem; as technologies advance, getting online may be no more difficult than using a telephone.
The emerging infosphere is changing how we work and how we find, access, analyze, process and exchange information. These information access and management skills, as well as the ability to critically evaluate information, are what students will need to ensure their competitiveness in the workplace of tomorrow.
Yet linking students to the infosphere will do more than prepare them to compete in 21st century economies. Educators are increasingly relying on telecommunications to comply with new reform standards. The literature reveals many common rationales for using the infosphere to meet advanced pedagogical goals. The ones most frequently cited are:
- Bringing real-world relevance into the classroom. Ironically, schooling, which is said to prepare students for life in the real world, is tremendously isolated. Learning is compartmentalized behind closed doors. Telecommunications expand the learning context by bringing the real world into the classroom. Students and teachers can establish interactive connections with anybody or any source, making learning more relevant to their lives, interests and concerns.
- Helping students perceive knowledge as constructed. When linked to the infosphere, students can access an astounding array of data and human resources, and this turns learning into a dynamic process. They can develop a more accurate view of the scientific community. They can actively participate in their learning and engage in open-ended construction of new knowledge.
- Providing students with an effective model of lifelong learning. When students research vast arrays of multimedia information, apply credibility tests to assess what they find and learn telecommunication techniques such as the "art" of World Wide Web publishing, they will develop skills they can rely on for the rest of their lives.
- Bolstering social, communication and critical-thinking skills. Students can enhance their communication, social and collaborative skills as they interact and learn with other classrooms or online mentors. They also will ply their critical-thinking skills when called upon to collaboratively solve problems and perform analyses via telecommunications.
- Meeting emerging standards for inquiry-based learning. Though there is a widespread call for project-based learning, even innovative teachers struggle to implement student investigations. CMC can powerfully enhance inquiry-based learning by enabling teachers either to join ongoing projects or to develop their own.
- Increasing the authenticity of the learning environment. By directing students to access such resources as rare historical archives, eyewitness reports or digital museums, teachers increase the authenticity of the learning environment. Telecommunications create enhanced pedagogical settings in which students can communicate, cooperate, conduct distributed experiments and build upon each other's knowledge. In this context, students are learning in the real world like adults.
- Putting a human face on learning. Using online resources, teachers put a human face on many aspects of learning, whether it be communicating with other classrooms or with experts who serve as mentors.
- Finding role models for students. By electronically bringing professionals, scholars, explorers, educators, writers, p'ets and scientists into classrooms, teachers expose students to positive role models.
- Equity. The infosphere offers a vast palette of learning resources that would be beyond the means of even the wealthiest schools to obtain any other way. When online, all schools are on an equal footing in their ability to access the same resources.
In summary, the impact of today's telecommunications revolution on schools g'es vastly beyond replacing the old blackboard with a shiny whiteboard. The infosphere is revolutionizing the very nature and dynamics of the conventional classroom experience; this new learning environment, by design, emphasizes students' autonomy and independence.
Classroom learning will become student-driven, interactive, experiential and collaborative -- all goals long-cherished by many educators but never before attainable. Students will no longer passively receive information but will manage and synthesize it and even contribute to the infosphere.
They become not only takers, but "givers," or creators, of information. Giving can include reporting events, sharing observations and findings, contributing ideas for future projects and conducting peer review. This level of interaction will herald new types of student communities of practice. In this innovative paradigm, students' ability to contribute to the infosphere will be integral to their learning.
Furthermore, education will not be confined to dedicated locales known as schools during specific periods of an individual's life, a model that dates back to the ancient Sumerians; learning will be lifelong and always accessible.
For the first time, we can truly prepare generations of students for the future. And also for the first time, students will benefit from the newest technologies rather than be the last to use them. Students can follow the latest advances in all learning domains as they occur, rather than read about them a decade later in textbooks.
Providing every student with high-quality access to the infosphere will undoubtedly meet with resistance because of the costs and issues involved. Yet one is reminded of the words of Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock and Third Wave: "If education has any function, any justification, it is to prepare young people for the future."
It is true that some roofs leak, but educators, policy-makers, parents and everyone else with a stake in the well-being of society must realize that the new millennium promises advances greater than ever imagined. The groundwork for these opportunities must be laid in our schools today. n
The author wishes to acknowledge Harvey Z. Yazijian for his editorial support in this paper's preparation.
This paper in part is based on materials prepared by the author for his textbook on educational telecommunications coauthored with Lynn Schrum. It will be published by Allyn & Bacon in January, 1997.
Boris Berenfeld, a Russian-born educator, biophysicist and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, piloted one of the first telecommunications links between Soviet and American schools. Since 1990, Berenfeld has been a senior scientist for TERC; he is Co-Principal Investigator for the GLOBE program and co-founder and Principal Investigator of the Global Laboratory project. He is also a member of T.H.E. Journal's Editorial Board. E-mail: email@example.com
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This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.