The Mother Of All Networks

By Peter West — January 01, 1993 20 min read

When Iraqi SCUD missiles fell over Israel at the height of the Gulf War, 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. And they watched in fascination as the answers scrolled in from Israeli students.

This was not the first time the students 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 attempted political coup in the former Soviet Union. And they have conversed on a variety of topics with scientists as far away as Amsterdam and as close as Kalamazoo. 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 commonly 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,” says teacher Holly Towne, 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.”

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. But in schools that are, educators are teaching with one foot in the classroom of the future.

The genesis of the Internet can be traced to the Arpanet, an experimental U.S. Defense Department network designed in the early 1970s to survive such large-scale disasters as a nuclear attack. The system was driven by a set of rules or standards known as “protocols,” which allows computers to communicate with others on a network.

In the late 1980s, 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 National Science Foundation’s system of supercomputers over telephone lines from remote locations.

The NSF 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 NSFnet, 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 work force, the number of Internet users outside of academia has grown. Ed Krol, a computer specialist at the University of Illinois and author of The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog (O’Reilly & Associates, $24.95), says the number of Internet users has increased a thousand-fold during the last seven years. Others estimate that as many as 1 million people worldwide now use the network on any given day to access the 5,000 smaller networks that are connected by the system.

Although the majority of 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” didn’t 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 don’t understand how it works and lack the necessary computer equipment.

In his book, 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 telephone systems within the United States and foreign 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 NSFnet, 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.

But the analogy with the telephone system is incomplete.

While the Internet is managed by an independent contractor for the NSF, 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.”

It has only been in recent years—with help from the NSF, other federal agencies, universities, and regional computer networks—that some schools have acquired the technology and know-how to tap into the vast storehouse of information on the Internet. Although the information is largely free for the taking, the cost of setting up a school with the telephone and computers needed to access the network directly is still more than many school officials are willing to pay.

Schools don’t necessarily need the expensive, ultra-sophisticated, high-speed access to the Internet enjoyed by universities. New approaches, based on “off-shelf” modems and software, allow districts and schools to establish connections through a local college or university Internet node and to distribute the information to classrooms over a local computer network. Although not as technically sophisticated, such systems can bring the cost of Internet access down into the thousands of dollars per school. Use among schools may become more common as access is made even easier through public libraries and such information services as CompuServe and Prodigy.

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, coordinator for education technology at the laboratory’s office of science education and external relations, says the unusual electronic experiment under way at Vine Middle School is only one very 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, Wooten says, have access to computers but don’t know how to use them for anything other than word processing. Under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy, 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, Wooten’s project has taught some 450 students and teachers in a number of area schools to use the electronic mail and research capacities of the Internet.

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,” Wooten says.

By providing the technical access to the Internet and by showing teachers how to navigate through the quirky and complicated maze of information on the network, 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, teacher Holly Towne says. On the Internet, she explains, people can’t 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.”

Many advocates of the Internet currently 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 see 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 Wooten and Towne.

Wooten sides with the “super library” advocates, believing this approach will have the greatest long-term payoff. 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 says, give her mostly poor students contact with people they wouldn’t otherwise get.

“We’re using it in the way that I think is going to revolutionize education,” she says. “Whenever I give a kid a computer, I look their mamma and daddy in the face and I say, `Look, we’re opening up the world here.’”

But at a time when many researchers who have used the Internet since its inception are arguing that the vastly increased use of the system may stretch the NSFnet’s technological capacity to the breaking point, advocates of K-12 use of the Internet question whether electronic mail—which can, in many cases, be sent just as easily over commercial computer bulletin-board systems—may not be a wasteful use of such an advanced system.

At the NSF, 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 NSF 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,” says 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 databases.

Students studying weather and climate in an environmental science class, for instance, 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,” Swartz says. “That’s really empowering for the students.”

In rare cases, students using the system 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., 12th grader Michael Montemerlo decided that he needed the advice of a working scientist for a research project. Logging on to the Internet with equipment that Jefferson’s students won in a national competition, he began an electronic “conversation” over the network 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, for example, Karl Kurz, a technology educator at Machias (Maine) High School, used it to help establish a VHF radio link with the Russian cosmonaut who was trapped aboard the Soviet space station Mir following the collapse of the Soviet government. Through a contact at the University of Maine at Machias, 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 Kurz’s students and the orbiting castaway opened new educational vistas for them and put the students into headlines around the world. “We wouldn’t have been able to do that without the information and the services available on the Internet,” Kurz says.

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 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,” says Connie Stout, the TEA’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.”

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 National Science Foundation.

“One of the major obstacles to the development of really modern science curricula is the fact that the `installed base’ of equipment is, at best, a generation behind the `state of the art,’ says Beverly Hunter, the NSF’s program director for the application of advanced technologies. “With the networks, you have access to any machine on the planet—at least theoretically.”

So the NSF 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 vision articulated by Hunter.

The Poudre School District R-1 in Fort Collins, which is home to Rocky Mountain High, is one of only a small number of school systems nationwide that has widespread access to the Internet in all of its media centers. Two years ago, when representatives of IBM and Colorado State University first suggested establishing an Internet link in the district, “they particularly wanted to target the math and science areas,” says 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,” Buchanan says. He notes that the technology was expected to help achieve four district goals: improving teacher training and career 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, Buchanan says, “has probably become our most important use, although we didn’t envision it as such.”

Among other things, students have called up campaign position papers and speeches issued during the 1992 election, and they have held electronic conversations with an Internet user in war-torn Yugoslavia.

Buchanan asserts that the very nature of the network fosters critical thinking. “There is so much information available by way of the network that the students have to do the task of analyzing what is useful information and what is junk,” he says. “Kids have to do the job of deciding `Is this opinion?’ `Why does this person have this opinion?’ `How valid is this opinion?’

Wooten of the Oak Ridge laboratory says he expects similar changes will take place in schools that participate in the OREN project. “We talk a lot about using computers in the classroom, but, in large part, we do not use them to change the way teaching is done,” he says. “Most of the time, the computer becomes a replacement for the textbook or for the blackboard.”

He hopes that, as teachers and students become more comfortable with the applications of the Internet, they will begin to probe the full potential of the computers in their classrooms.

Hunter of the NSF believes that the real power of the Internet will come into play only when students are able to take control of their own learning and harness the great capabilities the network offers. “Kids can be doing real science; they can be doing original research,” Hunter insists. “But, in order to do that, they have to have access to the networks. They couldn’t even think about it without access to the networks.”

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 this great library. They have much of the world’s knowledge at their fingertips but can’t quite get at it.

“One of the things that has kept the K-12 out of this area was the difficulty navigating around the Internet,” says Poudre School District’s Buchanan. He helped solve that problem in his schools by developing a locally oriented menu system. Students and staff with very 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 K12 use of the network by creating curriculum guides based on Internet resources. The Boulder Valley School District, in cooperation with the University of Colorado at Boulder, local businesses, and regional networks, has been given an NSF 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, says Libby Black, 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 adds, “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.”

As the number of students using the Internet has increased, access to formerly open networks on the system has been restricted by some who are not anxious to share all the available information with the pool of potential younger users.

One reason for their reluctance is that some of the material accessible through the Internet is not appropriate for K-12 students. Buchanan notes that educators have concerns about giving students access to a system that not only includes such resources as Great Beginnings, an electronic newsletter on the care of infants, but also the Queer Resources Directory and several “adult” bulletin boards.

The concerns are similar to those raised by people who worry what children might turn up when they are given the freedom to browse in a library. But the interactive nature of many “chat channels,” as well as the unrestricted access to adult materials that would never be tolerated in a school library, makes the situation far more controversial.

Some educators fear that even if only a handful of young people abuse the Internet, the bad publicity generated might halt progress toward more universal access for the schools.

A number of organizations have begun to address the problem and have developed policy statements specifically for school users. “We’ve taken a pro-active stance,” Buchanan says. “We’re informing parents that certain things may be inappropriate.” The Poudre school system now requires the parents of all students who may use the network to sign a terms-and-conditions document.

Donald Hyatt, who manages computer programs at Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia, says students there are simply taught the appropriate ethical behavior for using such networks. “We try to set a strong professional atmosphere,” he says.

Holly Towne of Vine Middle School, on the other hand, deals with transgressors individually—and personally. “We had one girl joining a channel that was a sexual channel,” Towne says. “I said, `Look, do you want this to be frontpage news?’ The Wednesday afternoon chat channel, she adds, “is protected and locked; nobody can come on unless we say they can come on.”

Connie Stout of the Texas network says her state has established a policy that allows student access to the Internet only under the direct supervision of a teacher. But, she adds: “We’re a large state. We have 3.3 million students. We can’t look at what’s out there and validate every one of those students.”

Although more and more teachers are gaining access to the Internet through state networks, local demonstration projects, and individual initiatives, universal access for schools is still a distant goal. And that, according to Hunter of the NSF, may be all right until the technology becomes easier for educators to use. While it is important for precollegiate education that teachers should one day be able to tap into the Internet’s resources, she says, not every teacher should seek to become a proficient user immediately.

“Our position is that a lot more research and development needs to be done before one would advocate that all teachers become involved in this,” she says. “I think what we want is for the leading-edge teachers to be inventors, testing ideas.”

As one of those “leading-edge teachers,” Towne 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,” Towne says, “to get the kids to understand that there is more to life than what they see in the street.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as The Mother Of All Networks