A Window on the World: Few Schools Travel Electronic 'Highway'
When Iraqi SCUD missiles fell over Israel during the Persian Gulf war two years ago, students at Vine Middle School in Knoxville, Tenn., shared firsthand the horror of the attack with young people in the Middle East.
As part of a regularly scheduled Wednesday-afternoon electronic "chat session,'' 6th and 8th graders at the school tapped out questions about the rapidly developing military situation on a computer keyboard.
Their queries appeared as text on screens in Israel by way of the Internet, a vast international "network of computer networks'' that links thousands of users in more than 40 countries worldwide. The students watched in fascination as the answers scrolled in from Israeli students.
This was not the first time the stu
dents at Vine had pulled the "real world'' into their classrooms. Using a channel on the system called the Internet Relay Chat, they communicated with Russian youngsters following the failed 1991 coup in the Soviet Union. And they have conversed on a variety of topics with scientists as far away as Amsterdam and as close as Kalamazoo, Mich. Some of those scientists subsequently visited the school to provide demonstrations for their electronic pen pals.
The students at the predominantly black Vine Middle School may not have much experience with the high-tech gadgetry more often found in affluent suburban districts, but the school is on the leading edge in its educational use of the Internet.
"We're a Chapter 1 school, smack dab in the middle of the inner city,'' said Holly Towne, the teacher who helped establish the school's Internet link with the nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "But we're rubbing shoulders with the elite, with the highest intellects in the world.''
The Network's Origin
Most public schools in the United States are not in a position to take advantage of the enormous potential of the Internet as a real-world learning resource. Many lack even the minimal equipment necessary to access the system, and most teachers, even computer-literate ones, are not familiar with the network.
But in those schools that have tapped the network's potential, teachers report reaping great rewards from the system's staggering array of computer data bases, satellite images, and electronic mailboxes.
The genesis of the Internet can be traced to the Arpanet, an experimental U.S. Defense Department network designed in the early 1970's to survive such large-scale disasters as a nuclear attack. The system was driven by a set of rules or standards known as "protocols'' that allow computers to communicate with others on a network.
In the late 1980's, the National Science Foundation developed a prototype network, based on the lessons learned from the Arpanet experiment. The objective was to enable university researchers to gain access to the foundation's system of supercomputers over telephone lines from remote locations.
The N.S.F. eventually supported the development of an electronic network to link colleges and universities nationwide to the supercomputer sites and to each other. Known as the N.S.F.net, this new, high-speed network made information much more accessible to potential users and became the backbone for the Internet, serving computer users in the same way that the interstate highway system serves motorists: by providing a speedy, consistent way to get from one place to another.
As students who were exposed to the network during their college careers have entered the workforce, the number of Internet users outside academia has grown. The number of Internet users has increased a thousand-fold during the last seven years, according to Ed Krol, a computer specialist at the University of Illinois and the author of The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog.
Others estimate that as many as a million people worldwide now use the network on any given day to access the 5,000 smaller networks that are connected by the system.
Little Precollege Involvement
Although a majority of U.S. colleges and universities are connected in some way to the Internet, only a scattering of precollegiate schools have joined them--in part because most teachers have never heard of the network.
A survey conducted by New York's Bank Street College of Education, for example, found that as many as one-third of the teachers who considered themselves "computer-using educators'' did not know whether their school had access to the Internet. And most were unaware that they could access it through state or local computer networks they were already using.
But even teachers who do know about the Internet have difficulty using it, mainly because they do not understand how it works and they lack the necessary computer equipment.
The question of access to the Internet will have far-reaching effects, observers believe. Congress is now overseeing development of the Internet's high-speed successor, called the National Research and Education Network. Unless precollege students learn to use the current system, experts believe they likely will be locked out of the newer, even more powerful version.
"The decisions being made are going to be life-affecting for the whole population,'' said John Yrchick, a technology specialist with the National Education Association, who served as a liaison to a committee that helped draft a policy statement for the union on educational telecommunications.
"But almost no one in education is grappling with them,'' he added.
He pointed out, for example, that federal legislation that would have eased K-12 access to the N.R.E.N. was largely ignored by the education lobby on Capitol Hill and died in the most recent session of Congress.
Mr. Yrchick and others hope that the bill will be revived and that precollegiate telecommunications will receive high-profile support in the Clinton Administration, largely because Vice President-elect Al Gore was a prime sponsor of the measure that created the N.R.E.N.
Far From 'User Friendly'
In his book, Mr. Krol uses the analogy of the telephone system to explain how the Internet operates. He likens the local and regional, independently operated computer networks that make up the Internet to the local and regional phone systems within the United States and other countries.
Just as all of the telephone companies have agreed on a protocol that allows them to transfer a long-distance call from one region to another, so the Internet, through the N.S.F.net, allows regional computer networks to communicate with one another around the globe.
In the same way that anyone with a telephone can call anyone else in the world without knowing exactly how the telephone works, anyone who is properly equipped and trained can gain access to the many networks that make up the Internet, Mr. Krol says.
But the analogy with the telephone system is incomplete.
While the Internet is managed by an independent contractor for the N.S.F., and a separate, voluntary organization called the Internet Society helps promote its use, there is no central clearinghouse--no Yellow Pages--to which potential users can turn for information about the network or how to use it. And while efforts are under way to make accessing and navigating the Internet easier than it now is, the system is far from "user friendly.''
Students at Vine Middle School are able to use the Internet through an initiative called the Oak Ridge Educational Network, or OREN. One of a variety of educational outreach programs sponsored by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, OREN aims to provide teachers with the necessary training to use the network effectively and with individual computer accounts that allow them to access an Internet node over a toll-free telephone line. This line lets the schools log on to the Internet and exchange electronic messages with any other computer on the worldwide network.
John Wooten, the coordinator for education technology at the laboratory's office of science education and external relations, said the unusual electronic experiment under way at Vine Middle School is only one high-profile OREN project, but one that he hopes will encourage other teachers to look afresh at the use of computers in the classroom.
Too many teachers, Mr. Wooten said, have access to computers but do not know how to use them for anything other than word processing. Under the auspices of the U.S. Energy Department, he created OREN to encourage them to use the computers to tap into the tremendous potential of the Internet.
And he has had some success. So far, the project has taught some 450 students and teachers in a number of area schools to use the network's electronic mail and research capacities.
Although they had no computer experience a year ago when the project began, some of the more advanced student users taking part in the project have used the Internet to retrieve data on wetlands compiled by federal agencies and to get position papers on the abortion issue drafted by the Clinton Presidential campaign and posted on the Internet.
"They're becoming very excited, very motivated about things they couldn't care less about before,'' Mr. Wooten said.
By providing the technical access to the Internet and by showing teachers how to navigate the quirky and complicated maze of information on the network, Mr. Wooten hopes to open the wider world of scientific knowledge and research to students in rural Tennessee, where adult illiteracy is common.
The ability to communicate with the academic elite of many nations has had an immeasurably positive impact on the students at Vine Middle School, Ms. Towne said. On the Internet, she explained, people cannot tell "whether you're rich or poor or how well dressed you are. I would do this wherever I was, but it's just doubly meaningful here.''
Dispute Over Best Use
Many advocates of the Internet disagree on how schools should use the network to best promote learning. Some believe schools should use it as a library--the largest, most complex library in the world. Others cx24p8 el-61lsee the electronic-mail capacity of the network, which allows students to converse with international experts and peers, as its greatest educational asset. It is a debate that divides Mr. Wooten and Ms. Towne.
Mr. Wooten sides with the "super library'' advocates, believing this approach will have the greatest long-term payoff. Ms. Towne, on the other hand, thinks her students get more from their Wednesday-afternoon chat sessions with scientific experts and faraway peers than they ever would using the network as a tool for research assignments. These sessions, she said, give her mostly poor students contact with people they would not otherwise get.
"We're using it in the way that I think is going to revolutionize education,'' she said. "Whenever I give a kid a computer, I look their mama and daddy in the face and I say, 'Look, we're opening up the world here.'''
But many supporters of Internet use in the K-12 world argue that using the system for electronic mail--which can often be sent just as easily over commercial computer-bulletin-board systems--is a waste of a very advanced system. Moreover, researchers who have used the system since its inception worry that the vastly increased use might stretch the N.S.F.net's technological capacity to the breaking point.
At the N.S.F., supporters of wide use of the Internet endorse both options and take them a step further, arguing that the most meaningful application of the network would be to create electronically linked "learning communities'' across the nation and around the world that work cooperatively to achieve a curricular goal. The N.S.F. is already supporting at least one such endeavor, the Global Laboratory Project, through which students worldwide share ecological data on the network.
Currently, however, most of the teachers using Internet do so in isolation, without much guidance or organized cooperation. Even so, they are putting the networking capabilities to work in some remarkable ways.
Students at Rocky Mountain
High School in Fort Collins, Colo., for example, have access to the Internet through an agreement with Colorado State University and use it primarily to exchange electronic-mail messages with students across the United States and abroad.
"We feel that doing E-mail is a communications skill that everybody needs to learn,'' said David Swartz, a science teacher and technology specialist at the school. The Internet has also become an important feature of Rocky Mountain's science curriculum by providing access to satellite images and other federal data bases.
Students studying weather and climate in an environmental-science class, for example, can download images from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Weather Service satellites to study weather patterns and track the progress of storms and hurricanes.
"You can bring back the images that literally may be as little as 20 minutes old, so you can watch the storms as they develop,'' Ms. Swartz said. "That's really empowering for the students.''
In rare cases, students using the system even develop a professional relationship with researchers in the field.
At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a school for gifted students in Fairfax County, Va., Michael Montemerlo decided that he needed the advice of a working scientist for his 12th-grade research project.
Logging on to the Internet with equipment that Jefferson's students won in a national competition, he began an electronic "conversation'' with Peter Cheeseman, a scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, who is a specialist in a complex method of classifying data.
Some teachers are using the Internet for more unusual communication projects.
Last spring, Karl Kurz, a technology educator at Machias (Me.) High School, used it to help establish a VHF radio link with the Russian cosmonaut who was stranded aboard the space station Mir following the collapse of the Soviet government.
Through a contact at the University of Maine at Machias, Mr. Kurz managed to download a satellite-tracking software program that allowed him to predict the brief window of opportunity when the station's orbit would place it within hailing distance of his radio equipment.
The subsequent exchanges between Mr. Kurz's students and the orbiting castaway opened new educational vistas for them and made headlines around the world.
"We wouldn't have been able to do that without the information and the services available on the Internet,'' Mr. Kurz said.
Putting Teachers On-Line
To help get more teachers on the Internet bandwagon, a handful of states--Colorado, Texas, and Virginia among them--are beginning to make an effort to link schools to the network.
In 1991, the Texas Education Agency and the University of Texas system jointly launched the Texas Educational Network, or TENET, a statewide system that provides teachers with access to the Internet for a $5 annual fee. So far, 16,000 of the state's 250,000 teachers and administrators have become regular users, many taking advantage of the Internet for research and electronic mail.
To ease the confusion that is common among novices when searching for information on the extraordinarily complex network, the agency developed a simplified menu system to guide users to the available offerings. The menu includes a list of areas that might have specific classroom applications, including such resources as NASA's Spacelink, which provides curriculum guides and information about space missions.
"There's really a great deal of information,'' said Connie Stout, the T.E.A.'s director of the TENET. "And what teachers are finding is that the data that they gather and bring in cause student interest and learning to increase.''
Ms. Stout also emphasizes the importance of her network in enhancing teacher professionalism. She encourages teachers to use the Internet to combat the isolation of the classroom by exchanging electronic-mail messages with colleagues around the state and across the country.
Certainly one of the primary uses of the Internet by teachers has been to improve mathematics and science education, a goal shared by the N.S.F.
Math, Science Targeted
To that end, the science foundation is supporting a nationwide series of "test bed'' sites that are developing ways to incorporate the Internet into the curriculum and is making grants to districts that are developing innovative uses of the network.
And some districts already have taken steps on their own to realize the N.S.F.'s vision.
The Poudre School District R-1 in Fort Collins, Colo., which is home to Rocky Mountain High, is one of only a small number of school systems nationwide that have widespread access to the Internet in all of their media centers. Two years ago, when representatives of the International Business Machines Corporation and Colorado State University first suggested establishing an Internet link in the district, "they particularly wanted to target the math and science areas,'' said Larry Buchanan, Poudre's educational-technology specialist.
That link has already allowed students to tap into the supercomputers at the National Climate Research Center as part of a science class on climate change.
"They're running their program just the way a university researcher would,'' Mr. Buchanan said. He noted that the technology was expected to help achieve four district goals: improving teacher training and ca-reer exploration, teaching students the value of graphic representation of data, fostering a research and information exchange, and helping students become critical thinkers.
But as teachers and students have used the Internet with greater frequency, their ability to conduct research on topics across the curriculum, Mr. Buchanan said, "has probably become our most important use, although we didn't envision it as such.''
Among other uses, students have called up position papers and speeches issued during the 1992 election campaign, and they have held electronic conversations with an Internet user in the war-torn former Yugoslavia.
But teachers and students generally are unequipped to use the resources of the Internet efficiently without considerable training and support. Without that support, most teachers are likely to remain locked out.
Even technically skilled and highly motivated educators must confront a discouraging problem: It is very hard for uninitiated Internet users to find their way around the enormous library. They have much of the world's knowledge at their fingertips but cannot quite get at it.
"One of the things that has kept K-12 out of this area was the difficulty navigating around the Internet,'' said Mr. Buchanan of the Poudre district. He helped solve that problem in his schools by developing a locally oriented menu system. Students and staff members with little knowledge of the Internet can find the information they want by using the menus or by taking advantage of new, simpler Internet menus developed by network users at the University of Minnesota.
Others are trying to foster K-12 use of the network by creating curriculum guides based on Internet resources. The Boulder Valley, Colo., school district, together with the University of Colorado at Boulder, local businesses, and regional networks, has been given an N.S.F. grant to develop curricula based on information available on the Internet.
"One of the problems with bringing teachers on line is that there isn't any curriculum out there'' for them to use once they connect with the system, said Libby Black, the director of the Boulder Valley Internet Project, who is overseeing the development of the unit. By developing curriculum packages specific to the resources available on the Internet, she added, "teachers don't have to spend hours and hours poking around. The technology is not good enough yet for people who are novices to put up with.''
For her part, Ms. Towne of Vine Middle School believes that, regardless of all the other sophisticated services the Internet offers, the simple link the network provides to the outside world justifies the effort she has made to learn how to use it.
For her students, who live in a poor neighborhood that offers little opportunity for advancement, the Internet chat sessions provide a much-needed electronic beam of hope.
"This is a heck of a good way,'' she said, "to get the kids to understand that there is more to life than what they see in the street.''