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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

Voices from Networked Classrooms

Using the Internet and other technology can positively influence students' overall achievement in school. The motivation factor alone increases engagement rate, a goal of most classroom teachers.

In 1994, the Glenview, Illinois, Public School District, a K–8 district north of Chicago, created three technology-rich educational environments (TREEs) that use alternative methods of teaching and learning through networked communication technologies. Each environment consists of three teachers and about 75 students (ages 9-12) who work collaboratively in a flexible space the size of three classrooms. The students are heterogeneously grouped and include a range of learning abilities and cultural backgrounds, representative of the district. In the TREE classes, teachers place great value on students' voice in their learning; and teachers and students work together to design individual problem-based projects that reflect students' interests. Keeping in mind the district curriculum requirements, teachers negotiate with the students the depth and breadth of their ideas, as well as the nature and quality of their final exhibitions. Teachers also offer mini-workshops and interest groups to supplement the students' learning.

Intensive Computer Environment—Networked

Each TREE group has enough computers to provide one for every three students. We acquired the computers through a recent reallocation of district funds, which places a priority on technology-rich environments and training. All students and teachers have direct access to the Internet, as well as software packages such as Hyperstudio, Inspiration, ClarisWorks, MicroWorlds, and PageMill. The computers are also connected on a local area network.
Teachers facilitate students' learning and keep track of their progress on curriculum outcomes, using personal digital assistants (small, hand-held, computerized notebooks). Students work individually and in groups, which are flexible across interests, needs, and ages. The success of the TREE groups depends on the availability of the extended learning community that the networked technologies and, in particular, the Internet provide.
After our first year, we found that TREE students had significantly higher achievement scores in inferential comprehension and writing skills than those of other students in the school. But what might be making the difference? Some suggestions emerge from the students' voices as they share with us how they are using the network, what they see as the pros and cons, and the challenges that we face in creating expanded learning communities. Four 5th and 6th grade students—Patrick, Heidi, Anthony, and Sean—have provided their perspectives on using the Internet, particularly the World Wide Web, in their studies (see boxes).

How do we use the Internet?

We use the World Wide Web and a variety of browsers and search engines to gather information and find experts. For example, when we read The Hobbit, we found a college professor who was interested in J.R.R. Tolkien. He answered our questions, and he gave us a place to link our Hobbit home page.

In another example, the Sports Interest Group needed to find the price of tickets, refreshments, and souvenirs for baseball games in different places around the United States. On the Web, they found the price of tickets, but not the prices of refreshments or souvenirs. Then the group found a number that they could call to get the information they needed.

The Web is also used to share information. A lot of students publish their final projects on the Web. Students who participate in mini-lessons and interest groups, such as the World Class Writers, publish home pages on the Web.

—Heidi Fieselmann, grade 5–6

Challenges we face on the Internet

Our patience has been challenged by the technology. It is not always easy to locate information or experts on the Web. For example, when too much information is loaded, the computer might “freeze” on us. We might have to restart the computer and start over from the beginning. Sometimes we can just wait, and usually the computer behaves.

We have learned to be clear with our questions, as well as to not give up and think of the Web as a maze. It is one of the neatest things to finally reach experts and for them to give us advice and treat us as a colleague, even if we're only 10 years old.

Sometimes we must go back to the old-fashioned way of learning. The network at various points “goes down.” We have learned to be flexible and adjust our schedule to continue with our work. The Web isn't always a helpful source—and may lead us to inappropriate information. For example, if we do a search on batteries, someone on the Web might want to sell us batteries. If this happens, we might have to go to a book instead of the Web. Despite the challenge, the World Wide Web allows us to go beyond our classroom and school.

—Patrick Baldwin, grade 5–6

Benefits of using the Internet

Searching the Web for information is more fun than checking out books and reading them at a table in a noisy room. Instead, we go to a computer and look through pages of information on the Web. We also can access sound recordings and mini-videos, such as a recording of a dolphin's sounds or a video of the discovery of the bow of the Titanic. The audiovisual applications often are more helpful and a lot more fun than books alone.

The Web enhances the quality of our work. For example, for a project on the theory of relativity, we will probably have problems trying to understand a college physics book. On the Web, we can find a FAQ (frequently asked questions) page or an expert to answer difficult questions.

I have noticed that the Net can make us think differently about our projects. Instead of just reporting on the sinking of the Titanic, I searched the Web and found other options, such as learning how you might redesign the ship so it wouldn't sink, or writing a story from the point of view of a child. When we use the Web, it seems that anything is possible.

The Net can also give us current, accurate information for reports. For example, if a dolphin is killed by an unknown disease, there will probably be a home page put up in 24–48 hours. It could take months or even years to publish a book on the incident.

—Sean Robberson, grade 5–6

A cautionary note on the Internet

There are dangers on the Net—not dangers like stumbling on the Government's secret files on UFO's and having men in black coats at your front door the next day, but dangers like children finding things that should only be seen or read by adults. For example, chat rooms are a big problem. Chat rooms are places where people interact with others. Some children can find chat rooms on home pages that have something to do with television shows. Some students who use these areas inappropriately have been harassed and greeted by harsh language. In addition to chat rooms, adult magazines, inappropriate photos, and dating rooms can be found with little trouble. These avenues are certainly not appropriate for students.

—Anthony Pesce, grade 5–6

Challenges and Benefits of Networking

Challenges to Internet use—for both students and teachers—include dealing with possible abuse and inappropriate use of the Net, as well as planning for flexible use of technology. First, we have taken several steps to establish safeguards to protect students from inappropriate uses of the Net. In addition to requiring all students and their parents to sign an Appropriate Use form, we do not provide access to many chat rooms, adult sites, and dating rooms. Our network systems manager is also vigilant in monitoring what students download and save. Moreover, we developed a document that establishes the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of everyone using the Net; and all students in the TREE sign it. (A copy of this document may be obtained from the authors.)
A second challenge is to create a learning environment that provides students and teachers flexibility in instructional practices and timely access to computers, phones, and the Internet. We use many kinds of activities and grouping arrangements to allow students maximum computer time. Of course, the initial challenge is to obtain the funding for all this hardware and software. Being able to show advances in students' achievement is essential in obtaining funds from any source or in acquiring a commitment of staff time.
The TREEs project has allowed us to use alternative methods of teaching, has opened our minds to the voices of our students, and has provided an environment that is enabled by technology. Our students have access to the world and, indeed, find school a great place to learn.

Jean Brownlee-Conyers has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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