ED's Oasis: Teacher Support for Internet Use
To many teachers theInternet is like one of those old "Good News/Bad News" jokes: "Thegood news is you now have Internet in your classroom. The bad news isthat now you have to use the Internet in your classroom." In candidmoments, most teachers will admit that having access to the Internetis a mixed blessing: it leads to wonderful learning opportunities,but requires a great investment of time and energy.
Let's look in on a fewteachers and see what Internet access means to them. Anne, fresh outof college, just found out that she'll be teaching fourth grade inthe Fall. She's comfortable using the computer to write papers,balance her checkbook and e-mail her parents, but not at all sure howto use it for instruction. She's lucky, though -- there will be fourcomputers in her room-and a technology-experienced teacher right nextdoor.
Ben is a veteran highschool science teacher, who after many faithful years of service, ispretty clear on what works and what d'esn't. Last year's NetDayeffort and a reallocation of site and district funds have introduceda new element to his classroom -- telecommunications. Now what? Ben'snot sure whether this is a "d'es work" or a "d'esn't." He knows he's"supposed" to get the kids to use the computers, but he's not surewhere the Internet fits in his traditional schedule of labs,investigations, textwork and exams. Cindy, Dan and Eva are middleschool teachers who will be "teaming" for the first time. They'reresponsible for developing at least one unit that ties together theirprimary subjects: English, history and science. They wonder if theycan somehow use the Internet in a unified, thematic approach tocurriculum.
Finally, Frank is thedistrict technology specialist. He's responsible for coordinatingtechnology professional development workshops, and works with thedistrict's Ed Tech committee and various curriculum committees. WhileFrank has had a lot of experience with technology, he sometimes feelsisolated and could use some help in meeting the technology learningneeds of teachers and district personnel.
Hopefully, each of theseeducators receives support through needs-based staff developmentprograms, timely peer-coaching and responsive administrators. Buteven the most comprehensive program can't address every need at themoment it arises. Fortunately, a new resource is now available toteachers from Tallahassee to Seattle, before and after school. Andit's free! All a teacher has to do is log on the Internet and link toED's Oasis (http://www.EDsOasis.org).
What isED's Oasis?
ED's Oasis is amulti-function Web site funded by the AT Foundation, through the ATLearning Network program, and developed by a team of educators tohelp teachers use the Internet with their students. One of itsobjectives is to foster the growth of a professional learningcommunity by providing opportunities for colleagues to share theirexpertise, experiences and concerns through:
Real-time and asynchronousdiscussions;
Posted comments aboutclassroom use of specific educational Web resources; and
In-depth "Spotlight"profiles of Internet-using teachers.
A second objectiveaddressed on the site is to simplify the task of finding exemplaryWeb sites for classroom curriculum use, and a third is to helpteachers develop both a vision and a strategy for using the Internetto promote student learning.
Being immersed in ateaching environment and participating with teachers at state andnational conferences and workshops made it possible for me to observeteachers as they struggled to master various uses of the Internet. Asthey learned about telecommunications, I discovered a few principlesassociated with introducing the Internet into education:
- Learning to use technology and telecommunications is hard work.
- Anticipating having to use it sometimes generates uncomfortable feelings of stress, anxiety, self-doubt, resentment and fear.
- Common to all teachers, including those who are excited and optimistic about using the Internet, is a set of nagging questions: How will I know where to find good curriculum-supporting resources on the Internet? How should I modify classroom activities to make the best use of the Internet? How can I be sure all this effort and expense is worth it? Is using the Internet going to help my students?
ED's Oasis was created toaddress these questions, in the hope that teachers who were initiallyuncomfortable with the Internet become more confident and that allsite visitors develop into capable Instructional Internet users. Toaccomplish this objective, the site contains three main sections. Thefirst section focuses on a rating system, the second on role modelsand the third on resources -- a new version of the "3R's".
We live in a world ofrating systems, from movies to linens to appliances. We know at aglance which video is okay for pre-teens, which towels to use forvisiting in-laws and which toaster is suitable for a best friend'swedding shower. How are ratings determined? Are Siskel and Eberts'"Thumbs-up" or "Thumbs-down" gravity dependent? No, of coursenot.
Ratings are based onguidelines. Similarly, choosing "the best" Web sites to use withstudents involves the use of guidelines. ED's Oasis staff members usea set of criteria developed in collaboration with the CaliforniaInstructional Technology Clearinghouse (http://clearinghouse.k12.ca.us).The first eight of the 30 items evaluate the level of studentinteractivity possible at the site and answer the implicit question,"What can students do here?"
These guidelines focus onthe features of the Web that extend learning possibilities beyondthose available through print media, videos, CDs and software. In theevaluation process, educational Web sites which provide studentsopportunities to communicate, access timely information andcontribute are rated more highly than sites that don't.Highly-recommended sites allow students to send and receive messagesto and from geographically distant peers or subject matter experts,access information that is too new or too extensive to be availablein their textbooks or library, and/or share their original data,findings, stories and projects.
The next section of theguidelines evaluates the site's interface design, and determineswhether it is easily navigated, readable and responsive to usercontrol. The final sections examine the site's curricular andinstructional strength, its compliance with legal requirementsregarding bias and stereotype, the quality of its support materials,and its appeal to and support of diverse learners. Educators who linkto any site in the ED's Oasis "Treasure Zone" can be confident thatthe site is safe, information-rich, intellectually engaging andappropriate for classroom use.
While it's comforting toknow that linking to ED's Oasis is going to eliminate some of thosefrustrating search engine experiences -- for example, one of mystudents who wanted information about penguins for a science unit gotdistracted by a Web site devoted to the Batman movie's Penguincharacter. Finding an Internet treasure is only the first part of thetask. Knowing how to use it effectively with students iscritical.
Sometimes all we need tocarry a good start into a successful finish is coaching. ED's Oasisprovides "virtual coaching" in the Spotlight and Discussion areas.The Spotlight section features profiles of teachers from around thecountry who share their experiences, lesson ideas and classroommanagement strategies. Some have shared student work samples andassessment rubrics; others have submitted course outlines andhandouts.
Also included in theSpotlight section are remarks from students. One group comparedclasses which use the Internet to classes that don't and claimed thatusing telecommunications makes a class more "flexible, creative,challenging and fun." They feel like they're "in control" of theirwork, that they're getting a "head start" on their future careers. Afew students from another class wrote that their work with theSpotlight teacher changed their lives and opened up a new world ofpossibilities.
These affirmations notonly celebrate the individual teacher's success, but also provideanswers to the questions "Is using the Internet worth the effort?"and "D'es using the Internet help my students learn?" According tothe students themselves, the answer to both questions is "Yes!"Visitors to ED's Oasis are encouraged to strengthen the teachersupport safety net by coaching each other on the site in discussionsvia the listserv or bulletin board, by commenting on the Internetresources linked in the Treasure Zone, and by contributing storiesabout their classroom Internet use.
Finally, ED's Oasiscontains a "Teachers' Resources" area which houses:
- Links to Web sites containing education news items, lesson development tools and templates, and workshop ideas;
- Links to Web sites supporting the work of Library/Media center specialists;
- A collection of Internet workshop handouts; and
- Links to Web sites and reviews of software specifically selected to help teachers support girls' use of the Internet.
Puttingit to Use
So let us return to Anne,Ben, Cindy and the others. How can the ED's Oasis help them? Onceteachers have grown comfortable with using the Internet, the nextstep that's usually easiest to take is to use it as a visual displaywith the whole class. Anne, with help from her colleague next door,or through following the "New to the Net" guide on ED's Oasis, mightchoose to use a site like The Florida Aquarium (http://www.sptimes.com/aquarium/default.html),which contains beautiful images of the animals and habitats of theMangrove Forest, Coral Reefs and open water areas. There are links toin-depth information, and a few review-type activities which would befun to use with elementary-age students.
In addition, since Anne isalready comfortable using e-mail, she might benefit from using thelistserv, especially so she can send in a question from home as she'sthinking about how her day went. With luck, she'll receiveencouragement and tips from other fourth grade teachers. If she gets"stuck," she can always turn to the Help section, where both ATLearning Network's AskLN and Syracuse University's AskEric servicesare linked. Anyone can send an education-related question to theseservices at any time and receive an answer from a mentor teacherwithin two days.
Once Anne is morecomfortable both with her teaching assignment and with the technologytools, she might move on to a more interactive use of the Internet.If she needs a language arts unit to sharpen students' writingskills, and if her students would benefit from working with distantpartners, she could use the descriptions in the Treasure Zone tochoose the Monster Exchange (http://www.csnet.net/minds-eye/),a project which invites students to create a monster, describe itthen send the description to their partner class. The partnersattempt to recreate the monster by following the writtendescriptions. The "before" and "after" pictures are shared online forstudents to judge at a glance whether their writing was clear ornot.
Ben, who teaches atraditional biology class, would probably be drawn to the Sciencedepartment of the Treasure Zone, where he would discover the BiologyPlace (http://www.biology.com/).The accompanying description, prepared by ED's Oasis editorial staff,informs Ben that while there are opportunities to try new activitieson the site, it is one that can be used to augment his proventeaching strategies. He would read that this site can be used withthe whole class in a discussion of scientific current events andissues, small groups in lab data collections, and individual studentsfor remedial or extra-credit work.
Ben, and veteran scienceteachers like him, might also benefit from using a new site listed inthe Teachers' Resources area, IMSEnet, a Network of InstructionalMaterials for Science Educators, which features science-focusedonline chat (http://www.ncsu.edu/imse/).Cindy, Dan and Eva would naturally want to investigate theCross-Curricular department of the Treasure Zone as well as the"Spotlight on Effective Practice" area of ED's Oasis.
Designinginterdisciplinary units is challenging. If Cindy, Dan and Eva plan tofocus on a topic like "explorers" or a theme like "cycles" or"systems and interactions" they will be glad to discover the Blue Icesite from Online Class (http://www.usinternet.com/onlineclass/)and the posted comments about using it with sixth graders sent in bya teacher in Brooklyn. Blue Ice engages middle school students in astudy of Antarctica and incorporates strands about early and recentexplorers, and about the Antarctic ecosystem. Students analyze data;study the impact of weather on the animals; exchange e-mail messageswith scientists, artists and explorers; and read weekly episodes fromjournals of courageous explorers.
Cindy, Dan and Eva wouldprobably find the discussion boards helpful as they learn to useinterdisciplinary student-centered strategies in a teamed approach.After their first unit, they'd become the online helpers! Finally,Frank, the district's Ed Tech specialist, can use articles in theGuidelines section of ED's Oasis to help with technology planning ashe works with technology committees and as he prepares presentationsfor school board and community meetings.
Frank can use handouts inthe Teachers Resources section of the Treasure Zone in staffdevelopment workshops, and the site itself as a starting point forintroducing teachers to classroom use of the Internet. Mostimportant, he can reduce his sense of professional isolation throughinteracting with ED's Oasis colleagues. While it will never replace astaff development program, ED's Oasis can be a valuable component ofa well-balanced teacher-support system. Navigating the InformationSuperhighway never again needs to make the teacher feel like acharacter in a bad episode of "Lost in Cyberspace." The resources,guidelines, Web treasures, role model spotlights and collegialdiscussions provide both a haven and a beacon for educators. Inshort, ED's Oasis can help teachers make the Internet an integralpart of their classroom.
URL for ED'sOasis:
Terrie Gray taughtsecondary-level English and Science in California public schools formany years. She holds a Master's Degree in gifted education and iscompleting a doctorate in Education Technology at PepperdineUniversity. Gray was a 1993 California delegate to AT's Teachers andTechnology Institute and has served two terms on the board ofdirectors of the International Society for Technology in Education.She is currently on leave of absence from the classroom to directED's Oasis, an AT Learning Network project. E-mail:[email protected]
This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.