Surf’s Up

January 01, 1998 9 min read

By Jeff Meade

Cruising on the Internet has educational value, but schools and teachers who build Web sites may be in for the best ride.

Dawn is breaking over the Pacific Ocean, a few hundred miles off the coast of California. A six-meter buoy, shaped like a flatiron and moored to the sea floor almost three miles below, smoothly rides the eight-foot waves like a robotic surfer. The water temperature, measured by sensitive instruments aboard the buoy, registers 64 degrees. The air is cooler, about 50, with winds out of the south at nearly 12 knots.

Later in the day, teams of high school students will log onto the Internet, collecting and analyzing these readings and similar real-time data from weather buoys strung along the equator. Their goal: to determine the likely effect of the El Niño weather pattern on winter rainfall in the San Diego area.

It’s an ambitious project, the creation of Keith Nuthall, for several years a high school science teacher in the Poway Unified School District and now its instructional technology specialist. “Science is all about prediction and building a model,” Nuthall says. “We have these buoys all along the equator putting out real-time data. If you pick the right buoy, it may give you data all the way back to 1982. The cool thing about that is, kids can go back to 1982-83, the last big El Niño year, plotting the air and water temperatures from November through March, and create a graph. They can compare the old numbers to current data gathered from the buoys. Then they have to write speculation papers for the local weatherman, the district, the local disaster-preparedness person. And the best thing about it is, students will get to see whether their predictions were right.”

Thanks to Nuthall, people around the world will also get to see whether the students’ predictions hold up. Building on the template of two San Diego State University researchers, Nuthall created a site on the World Wide Web to publish the curriculum for this unit as well as his students’ analyses of El Niño. Called “El Niño or El No-no,” the site took him just a few days to build. But like many of the best sites devised by educators, it goes a long way to breaking down traditional barriers to learning and expanding the horizon of the classroom.

Indeed, imaginative, interactive teacher-generated Web sites such as El Niño may represent educators’ best use of the Internet, the chatty worldwide community of computers. There are many others, like Mrs. Hull’s Home Page, a collection of colorful drawings and poems by a kindergarten class in Austin, Texas. Or the one offering rain forest puppet show scripts from 1st and 2nd graders at Oak View Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia. To the teacher who wonders where to turn when the well of ideas runs dry, these are sites for sore eyes.

Deconstruct the hype about the Internet and you quickly realize that it is simply a powerful tool for communication. Technology enthusiasts tout the Net as a window on the world and gush over the prospect of children in Kansas staring into a computer screen and seeing the Great Sphinx or an African rain forest. But such talk overlooks what may be the Internet’s most valuable function: giving outsiders a look at what goes on in the classroom. By building a Web site, educators are in effect issuing an invitation for people to stop by and take a look.

Deconstruct the hype about the Internet and you quickly realize that it is simply a powerful tool for communication.

A few districts, schools, and teachers have recognized this too-little-utilized feature of the Internet and seized the chance to give parents, other educators, and even government officials and scientific experts a chance to peek into the classroom and help shape students’ learning. Keith Nuthall’s district maintains a site—a collection of electronic “pages” filled with information and graphic images—on the World Wide Web at the address Once there, you can use your computer’s mouse to click on links to other Poway resources, such as school news and the district phone directory. There are also links to specific school home pages, such as Poway High School’s, where you can scan the school newspaper, check out the football schedule, or sneak a peek at student projects. You can even listen to the school’s alma mater—sung to the tune of “Aura Lee” or Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender"—performed by the PHS Classical Vocal Ensemble.

Some district and school sites offer even more substance, like detailed lesson plans, homework help, campus maps, or even a history of the local community. Others, however, provide little more than a photo of the administration building and the name of the president of the school board. Like other home pages on the Web, school sites are often rife with ancient, useless information. “For many schools, there’s a huge rush of activity to get the site launched,” observes Jamieson McKenzie, a Bellingham, Washington, technology consultant and former director of libraries, media, and technology for the Bellingham schools. “Then, there’s what I call the ‘collapse stage.’ Seven months later, they’re still running the same sports schedule from last spring.”

The best of the bunch never lose sight of Job One—students. “Different schools and districts do different things,” says Kevin Crotchett, a teacher at Jackson Middle School in Portland, Oregon, and author of A Teacher’s Project Guide to the Internet. “The sites that are truly useful are the ones that tell the surrounding communities about the schools, the staff, the curriculum. People get used to thinking of the Web as global communication, and they forget it also can be local communication.”

Of course, many schools—probably most—aren’t communicating on the Web at all. “Most schools are still in the learning curve,” says Elijah Collard, vice president of marketing for Computers for Education. They’re held back, he believes, by the fact that so few classrooms and schools are connected to the Internet. It’s hard to appreciate what you’ve never seen.

Still, statistics maintained by Web66, a University of Minnesota-based Internet school registry [“Sites To See And Books To Read,” in this issue], suggest phenomenal growth in K-12 Web sites. Counting built-from-scratch sites, Web66 estimates that there are a little more than 9,000 school sites on the Internet. That’s up—way up—from the roughly 250 sites it registered in 1995.

Although it’s impossible to know exactly how many teacher-built sites are on the Internet, experts say they’re seeing more and more. Like the sites established by schools, these pages are diverse. Many are simple, one-page presentations that feature color photos of the teacher along with a brief personal bio, a favorite quote or a statement of philosophy, and links to favorite Web sites. Some function something like an interactive personal ad: “Professional elementary educator, likes whole language, Starbucks’ eggnog lattes, and walks along the beach.” One Alaska teacher’s home page even includes a picture of a cozy dome home he’s trying to sell.

Other sites are billed as giant teachers’ resource rooms. These typically feature sample lesson plans, lists of student activities, and bulletin boards or chat rooms where teachers swap ideas. Here, veteran educators share war stories and coach novices who may live thousands of miles away.

Good teachers have always found ways to bridge the gap between the classroom and the outside world.

Slicing through the teaching profession’s curtain of isolation is a goal of Teachers.Net, says Tony Bott, an elementary teacher and co-creator of the site. One of its most popular features is the chat room, where teachers chew the virtual fat. Bott recalls one teacher who recently posted a note saying she was losing her eyesight. “She’d been teaching for about 20 years, and she wasn’t sure what she was going to do,” Bott says. “She didn’t want to retire, and she was asking for help and advice. In less than four hours, the responses started rolling in from teachers everywhere. We received over 50 messages for her in less than a day.”

Some teachers are taking yet another approach, building Web pages that target the outside world rather than the education world. Part of Kevin Crotchett’s classroom site is intended to give his students’ parents an entree to his class. “In my Web site, I have what I call the parents’ corner as a means of communication with 28 sets of parents,” says Crotchett. “That’s where I post the classroom newsletter, giving parents updates on upcoming events. I also post my weekly homework forecast in advance. Parents tell me that’s what they most appreciate, since their kids often seem not to know what their homework is.” Crotchett’s students also publish their class projects on-line, giving them a wide and appreciative audience. “It’s just another forum for publishing student material and presenting student work,” he says. “Sometimes, it gives other educators ideas, too.”

Web sites that invite outsiders into the classroom offer some unusual teaching opportunities. Take, for example, Cyber English, a site created by Ted Nellen, a teacher at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in New York. Not one for understatement, Nellen calls Internet access “the next logical step in the instruction of English.” All of Nellen’s students publish their poems, short stories, essays, and other literary works on their own Web pages and collect e-mail comments and criticism from readers the world over. “Publishing is power,” Nellen says. Only on the Internet can his students have such a wide-ranging audience, he adds. “It opens up the world to them.”

Of course, good teachers have always found ways to bridge the gap between the classroom and the outside world. Building a Web site simply provides a medium in which this crossover communication can take place more efficiently. Nellen’s site gives his students the chance to receive critiques of their work that may mean more to them than a teacher’s red-ink scribbling in the margins. Anyone can read what the students write, and some people aren’t shy about writing back to praise a particular poem or fault an essay’s grammar and spelling.

Not every visitor to a classroom site is going to add to the students’ learning. But Internet travelers include a vast assortment of experts who can contribute mightily to a project if they run across it on the information highway. After Keith Nuthall set up his El Niño site, he heard from a government meteorologist who, like the students, studies statistical information drawn from equatorial buoys. Eventually, the meteorologist became so interested in the project that he wrote a brief commentary for the site.

All of which proves that while there’s nothing about the Internet, per se, that improves education, building and maintaining a Web site can enhance teaching. “There’s a relationship between student-centered programs and Web sites that are full of vitality,” says consultant Jamieson McKenzie. “If you have a predisposition toward child-centered research, having rich information sources coming into the classroom changes the classroom.”