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November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

Making WEB Meaning

Students can triumph over the information overload of the Internet by contributing to virtual museums on their school's Web sites, using annotated Web curriculum lists, and conducting research in cooperative teams.

The once popular “surfing” metaphor is now pretty much discredited as the Internet reveals itself as the greatest yard sale of information in human history. Poorly organized and dominated by amateurs, hucksters, and marketing gurus, the net offers INFO-GLUT, INFO-GARBAGE, and INFO-TACTICS. Schools that plunge students into this INFO-SEA with nothing but mythical or metaphorical surfboards are courting disillusionment, chaos, and what beach folk call “Wipeout!” Good planning and staff development can convert the chaos into treasure.
Before schools invest millions of dollars to provide access to the World Wide Web (WWW), they would be wise to stop and ask “Why?”
  • Virtual museums
  • Curriculum pages
  • The research cycle

Virtual Museums

Because our schools are all connected to the Internet, it was a simple matter to create Web sites (home pages) at each school. We began by asking "Why bother?" in February of 1995.
A quick scan of several hundred school Web sites revealed little of consequence. We found pictures of principals and pictures of buildings. Here and there we found examples of student work. There were lists of Internet sites, but we found little substance, little content, and little utility.
The several dozen staff members—many of whom were library media specialists—who joined in these "virtual field trips" were quick to call for something better. Entranced by the vivid graphics and superb information provided by adult virtual museums such as the Web Museum (http://sunsite.unc.edu/louvre/) and the Franklin Institute (http://sln.fi.edu), they seized on virtual museums as a centerpiece for Web site development.
Our virtual museums are student-constructed collections of digitized artifacts that illuminate some major aspect of the curriculum. Ellis Island, for example, is one elementary school's virtual museum devoted to diversity, national origin, and immigration. Students (half of whom are first-generation Americans) share the stories of their families' voyages to America from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Greece, and Russia. Another museum, the Fairhaven Turn of the Century Museum, concentrates on local history. (See the next page for Fairhaven's home page.) The students include scanned photos and documents, as well as short video segments, to welcome visitors. For a full listing of Bellingham's museums, go to ; for a global listing of school museums, go to http://www.pacificrim.net/~mckenzie.


Students act as curators under the tutelage of teachers who help them learn the special coding necessary for Web page design (called HTML, or hypertext markup language), as well as the skills of gathering and interpreting artifacts and information. Virtual museums are a great way to engage students in "making meaning" while publishing globally. They challenge students to learn in a fully constructivist manner, building meaning into cyberspace.

Curriculum Pages

The second way we helped our students find good content was through building our own lists of curriculum-related sites—curriculum pages. In our Web searches, we found that many of the lists available did not point us to quality. The typical user had to visit dozens of sites and pass through many levels of menus before finding solid content relevant to the curriculum question at hand.
For example, only about 10 percent of Yahoo's (http://www.yahoo.com) lists of curriculum-related sites had rich content. Our "curriculum page" team saved dozens and potentially thousands of other teachers the trouble of visiting those "empty" sites by publishing our annotated selections on our Web site.
To examine examples of such lists, visit the Bellingham Public Schools at http://www.bham.wednet.edu.
Because Web lists rarely include annotations and because many of the people who name sites or build lists seem to know little about categorization or labels, it is difficult to identify from simple lists the sites worth visiting. The solution is to add annotations that warn and inform the explorer regarding the site's offerings. These annotations can include comments about whether the site has large graphics (which take a long time to access or download) and can provide a sketch of the content.
To protect explorers from unnecessary and wasteful passages through menu levels, our Web page designers and their student helpers used HTML coding to link the content at useful sites to our page. We would often bypass the introductory pages of these sites and go directly to the heart of the information.
Good curriculum resource lists also offer a healthy alternative for districts concerned about students coming into contact with controversial materials. Staff and students may visit sites on the list (and stay on them) without risk. Such guidance seems preferable to censorship and site-blocking software.

The Research Cycle

Our third strategy to enrich students' learning experiences involved new approaches to research. We learned quickly that old approaches to student research were inadequate to meet the essential learning goals set by the district and were ill-suited to the information-rich environment we had created with our 1,500-computer network. With all those computers and all those classrooms connected to great information on CD-ROMs and the Internet, we needed to reinvent our concept of research, upgrading the questioning and elevating the reasoning required while encouraging students to work in teams.
Our teachers now participate in a staff development course titled "Launching Student Investigations." This course is based on the Research Cycle, first published in Multimedia Schools (McKenzie 1995). We teach teams of students to move repeatedly through each step of the research cycle: questioning, planning, gathering, sorting and sifting, synthesizing, evaluating, and reporting. After several repetitions, these steps lead to insight. (For a detailed description of these phases, see a six-part series of articles published by Technology Connection [McKenzie, April 1995 through December 1995].)
Questioning. Most research done for school projects is topical. Students must "go find out about" Dolly Madison or Connecticut. These assignments turn students into simple "word movers." New technologies make word moving—cutting and pasting—even more ridiculous. We now emphasize research questions that require either problem solving or decision making. Examples: How might we restore the salmon harvest? Which New England city should our family move to?
Planning. The student teams now carve up the questions into subsidiary questions. They ask: Where might we find the best information? What sources are likely to provide the most insight with the most efficiency? Which resources are reliable? How will we sort, sift, and store our findings? (For example, should we use a database or a word processing file?)
Gathering. If the planning has been thoughtful and productive, the team swiftly and efficiently finds good information sites, gathering only relevant and useful information. Otherwise, teams might wander for many hours, scooping up hundreds of files that will later prove frustrating and valueless. Students must structure findings as they gather them. Putting this task off until later is dangerous when coping with INFO-GLUT. In addition, teams need to be aware that they should use the Internet only when that source is likely to provide the best information. In many cases, books and CD-ROMs will prove more efficient and useful.
Sorting and Sifting. The more complex the research question, the more important the sorting and sifting that provides the data to support the next stage—synthesizing. While the teams must select and sort during the previous stage—gathering—now it must systematically scan and organize the data to set aside what is most likely to contribute to insight. (McKenzie 1993, 1994).
Synthesizing. In a process akin to working jigsaw puzzles, students arrange and rearrange the information fragments until a pattern begins to emerge. Synthesis is fueled by the tension of a powerful research question.
Evaluating. At this point, the team asks whether more research is needed before proceeding to the reporting stage. For complex and demanding research questions, evaluation often requires several repetitions of the cycle. The time to report and share insights is determined by the quality of the information revealed during evaluation.
Reporting. As multimedia presentation software becomes readily available to our schools, our students are increasingly making more persuasive presentations. The research team, charged with making a decision or creating a solution, reports its findings and its recommendations to an audience of decision makers (simulated or real).
Two excellent additional print sources to expand the reader's understanding of information problem solving are Michael Eisenberg's Big Six model (Eisenberg and Berkowitz 1990) and Jacqueline and Marty Brooks' 1993 ASCD book, In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. An electronic source is the WWW page devoted to constructivist learning (http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/k12/livetext/webcurr.html).

On the Horizon

At Bellingham, our students are developing more information literacy as the information landscape shifts with powerful new technologies. For the same reason, the importance of library media specialists has been growing dramatically, particularly as research becomes central to student-centered, constructivist classrooms. The journey will probably take a full five years of staff development, team planning, and invention—but it is a journey well worth undertaking. The payoff for this investment is the graduation of a generation prepared to make their own meanings in an often confusing, rapidly changing world.

Brooks, M., and J. Brooks. (1993). In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Eisenberg, M., and R. Berkowitz. (1990). Information Problem-Solving: The Big Six Skills Approach to Library and Information Skills Instruction. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing.

McKenzie, J. (December 1993). "Grazing the Net: Raising a Generation of Range Free Students." From Now On 4, 4. World Wide Web: http://www.pacificrim.net/~mckenzie/grazing1.html.

McKenzie, J. (March 1994). "Culling the Net: A Lesson on the Dark Side." From Now On 4, 7. World Wide Web: http://www.pacificrim.net/~mckenzie/FNOMar94.html.

McKenzie, J. (May/June 1995). "BeforeNet and AfterNet." Multimedia Schools 2, 3: 6-8.

McKenzie, J. (April 1995-December 1995). "Planning a Voyage into Cyberspace." Technology Connection (Vol. 2, Nos. 2-7).

Jamie McKenzie has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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