Vol 6|No 7|April|1997
by Douglas W. Green
Woodrow Wilson School
One Assignment - Two Environments
I am about to embark on a study involving paired classes of tenth grade high school students. Half of the classes will use only the Web to access sources for a research paper. The other half will use only the resources in the high school media center. As I reflect on this study, I find that I am sending the students into two very different environments to ostensibly complete the same task. Although some people may see the Internet as a virtual extension of the library, I see a sharper line drawn between the two domains.
The Canonical Warehouse
Most of the information available in a library is the product of experts in their fields. It has been selected by teaching and library staff in order to best meet the needs of students pursuing the pre-defined demands of the faculty. Many of the resources were obtained to meet the needs of yesterday's faculty. As such, it is an extension of the accepted canon of knowledge that is dispensed by teachers in traditional classroom settings. It is the body of knowledge and opinion valued by teachers and their teachers for generations.
The Electronic Street
In contrast, the information available via the Internet represents a rapidly expanding piece of the real world with all of its imperfections and diversity. The views and opinions of experts are joined by the more prosaic thoughts of anyone who cares to make a statement. Posting information for all to see is something that almost anyone can do. This means that the voices of young and old, expert and novice, mainstream and marginal, conservative and liberal, radical and reactionary, gay and straight, rich and homeless, X and Y (Feel free to fill in your own set of opposites that I have left out.) all contribute to the dynamic daily debate on any subject one can imagine.
Enter the Dialog
Many Web sites offer electronic mail addresses and encourage readers to communicate. This promotes a level of dialog between authors and readers that is seldom seen in the world of printed matter. While there is no guarantee that an author will respond to an e-mail message, a response is more probable, and it is far more likely that a reader will send a response. I have published over 300 articles in various journals and trade magazines since 1979. During that time I received about one call or letter per month regarding my published work. In contrast I have published only two articles in electronic journals. Each has resulted in numerous e-mail messages that I have answered. I have also found references to the articles in discussions and pointers to the articles from other Web pages.
How is the Journey Different? Enter Some New Voices.
While recently testing subjects for use in my research project with high school students, I found that issues of bias, commercialism, and nontraditional voices are things that students searching the Internet will have to face to a much greater extent.
The subjects we intend to use for proposed study, (see January issue of From Now On) are socially relevant and designed so that both the library and the Web will have sufficient sources so students can complete their work. In order to assure this, I have searched the Web to see what was available on the proposed topics. I used the Yahoo and AltaVista search engines and found abundant material on each subject. It was interesting to note that some of the material would probably not be available on library shelves. I found voices of high school students via their school newspapers, hobbyists, and even homeless people.
On some subjects the large majority of articles were biased towards one side of the argument. On some subjects, many of the sources were commercial in nature and offered advertisements for services to be rendered. Searches on sexual harassment, for example, generated lists of people who would train your organization on how to avoid this problem while searches on environmental pollution produced many advertisements for companies who would help you clean up any mess you could make.
Real World as a Hot Educational Commodity
Increasingly we hear educational leaders promote real world contexts for learning. In the jargon of the day, we might say that there is a need to emphasize situating cognitive experiences in authentic activities. Authentic activities are those that are either part of the world outside of the school walls or closely resemble real world activities. The concern is that in-school activities lack a real context or are decontextualized. Such activities do not allow for the transfer of learning from the classroom to the world outside.
While it is difficult and costly to bring large sections of the real physical world to the classroom or take students away from the school building, you can promote real world contact when you turn students lose on the Internet. Your students will see a part of the real world, but you may be surprised at what they discover if you let them take unguided tours. While studying terrorism they might contact a real terrorist. While studying child abuse they might contact a pedophile.
While there are some Web pages that are not fit for student consumption, news groups and chat rooms present a greater risk in my view. News groups cover just about any kind of deviant behavior you can think of and some that you probably would never imagine. In a chat room, you have no idea who you are talking to. If you would not allow a child to talk to strangers on the street, should you let them chat with strangers on the Internet?
Finding the Canon on the Web
Many schools are designing home pages that allow students to tour the world with some guidance. Such pages contain links to sites that teachers have visited and found useful. This is analogous to an organized field trip as opposed to letting students play in the street without supervision. It also may serve, however, to restrict students to knowledge that teachers think is appropriate. In a sense, it is possible to canonize the part of the Web that teachers select.
While this may have its place in schools, teachers need to realize that as the volume of knowledge increases, it is not possible to throw a rope around everything that is meaningful, useful, or appropriate. In the case of pedophiles, it is an easy call for schools to condemn this behavior and to strive to protect students as they search the Internet. Some other topics may also fall into this category but as you start to screen out portions of the real Web world, you also run into First Amendment issues of free speech.
A More Level Playing Field
The concept of a level playing field is constantly brought up in educational circles. Educators are constantly trying to assist poor and disabled children so they can participate more fully with their more affluent and more able classmates. While the Internet is not panacea for this problem, there are indications that it is making a difference for some. Charlie Harris from the United Kingdom has found that Internet access has been a great help to people who have certain physical disabilities. http://www.emap.com/Internet/features/disabled.htm
I think it is important for educators to realize how the Web reflects and indeed is part of the real world and not simply view it as an extension of the library. They need to prepare students to hear different voices and to make decisions about what is useful and what to stay away from. Is it appropriate to honor the voices of other high school students they find on the web or a homeless person writing from a public library? It may be, depending on the nature of the assignment and as long as they properly cite the source so that the opinion of a novice does not come across in their writing as an expert in disguise.
Doug Green - email@example.com
59 Crestmont Road
Binghamton, NY 13905
© 1997, Doug Green, All Rights Reserved.
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