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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 9|No 5|January|2000




No Free Lunch
on the Internet

©1999, Jamie McKenzie
First published as a column
in November, 1999 eSchool News

by Jamie McKenzie
about the author

"There’s no free lunch."
"That’s for sure."

A cluster of teachers pokes through bag lunches while trading tales of recent adventures and mishaps on the Internet. Their school is fully networked so that each teacher can count on a full week of COWs (8 networked computers on wheels) supporting classroom writing and investigations each month.

"Five years ago, they promised us we’d have the whole world at our fingertips . . . the best libraries, the best museums and all the cultural treasures of the world. Our students would have free access to the best books, paintings and photographs . . . all just a mouseclick away."

The room is filled with chuckles and a chorus of disbelief.

"That’ll be the day! If we didn’t have Frank in the library buying us good information to put on our network, we’d be in pretty tough shape."

"And the print collection," chimes in another voice. "I’m seeing books in a whole new light since they brought us the Internet. I appreciate books more than ever. They’re actually organized!"

Around the globe, schools are supplementing their Internet connections with paid information resources. They are finding they must purchase professionally developed subscriptions, services, resources and reference materials. Teachers and students are quick to demand professional information once they have tasted the wide open spaces of the Internet and found them too often parched and disappointing.

As schools in Sydney, Chicago, Rutland and Stockholm wire classrooms, many teachers have been disillusioned by the information available on the "free" Internet. Despite early promises of a great electronic highway linking all classrooms to fabulous free resources, the Internet’s impact on classrooms has been severely limited by issues of accuracy, reliability, organization and value.

Much of the free information is shaped by pop culture, advertising, amateurism and special interests. Advertising and commercial messages have flooded classrooms along with a torrent of content frequently shaped by tabloid values more typical of talk shows and TV than schools.

The values that once shaped the creation of comprehensive and balanced school library collections have all too often been shoved aside in the rush to wire and network classrooms. In many cases, library positions and funding have been short changed in order to fund computers and networking.

Despite a huge investment in these new technologies, early studies of classroom Internet usage are disappointing, as Becker (1999) reports that "constructivist" teachers are three times more likely to use the Internet with students than "traditional" teachers. ( ) And even these teachers predisposed to "student centered learning" (a minority) report relatively meager use.

Most of Becker’s sample expresses reluctance to invest heavily in student exploration with technology because of increasingly demanding state standards and tests. These pressures foster a conservative and skeptical view of new technologies and the Internet as was discussed at some length in this column in the May issue of eSchool News, "Reaching the Reluctant Teacher."

To win the full support and enthusiastic participation of late adopting, reluctant, traditional and even constructivist teachers, schools are finding they must purchase fully developed information products that deliver quality in a highly organized and efficient manner.

Truly Free Sites

There are some spectacular free Web sites, but they are a tiny minority. They represent such a small portion of the total that their contribution is diminished by the avalanche of mediocre and self-serving sites that often obscure the good sites from visitors.

• The Thinker ( – one of the few American museums to share most of its collection online. More than 70,000 images are available for exploration and enjoyment subject to reasonable copyright restrictions. Most museums are limiting online access to a disappointingly minor slice of the total collection, using their Web sites mostly to market museum products and physical visits. The Thinker is an excellent example of what we expected from the Internet but rarely experience.
• The Math Forum ( – Math teachers have found inspiration, comfort, fellowship, excellent lesson plans and a treasure chest of good information at this Web site funded in part by the National Science Foundation and hosted by Swarthmore with much volunteer assistance and some corporate contributions.

Virtually Free Sites

Some of the apparently "free" sites on the Internet do charge a hidden "toll." There may be no immediate billing or cash amount due upon entry, but the visitor is either paying taxes, putting up with advertising, giving up private information or paying the price of information distorted by corporate, political or special interest group bias.

Government Sites – The U.S. Census (, the National Gallery of Art (, NASA ( , the American Memory Collection from the Library of Congress ( and the Smithsonian ( offer rich collections of artifacts, paintings and other treasures at no apparent cost, but they are funded to a great extent by tax dollars combined with corporate donations. The speed with which these institutions may digitize their collections is impeded by budget realities. At a time when many politicians urge "privatization" of many government functions, we may see severe limits placed upon this governmental digitization process. If left to market forces, we may also see a tendency to digitize only the most popular information, using some variant of Nielsen ratings to identify which information is digitized.

Corporate Sites – Companies like Disney ( and INTEL ( offer Web sites with apparently free content, but the visitor must endure intense marketing. Corporate interests may prevail over traditional values. INTEL, for example, has entered the ART museum business, offering "blockbuster" art shows online in its own museum, wandering far afield from its primary business – the invention and production of chips. We see Web sites enabling corporations to wander across boundary lines without taking time to establish credentials. Museums are transformed into entertainment and corporate show pieces. They become vehicles for corporate promotions. Before long can we expect to see the statue of the Thinker transformed to include a laptop (*with INTEL inside")?

Special Interest Sites – Those on either side of the environmental debate launch Web sites that may indulge heavily in persuasion rather than providing balanced, accurate information. Propaganda, thinly veiled, prevails as green sites arise to counter corporate sites attempting to project green images. How well can out students learn about acid rain, nuclear power and global warming when such issues are presented through the highly slanted perspectives of interest groups more intent on inflaming fears and passions than illuminating and educating.

Amateur Sites – Some of the best sites on the Internet are provided by individuals. Amateurs with a passion for a subject may dedicate thousands of hours to developing an impressive Web site for their favorite rock star or political issue. Unfortunately, such sites can also offer gross distortions of history (claiming the Holocaust was a hoax, for example) as well as information that is incorrect, slanted and misleading. The amateurism works as charm or curse, depending upon the individual’s background, expertise and balance. The cost of visiting such sites must sometimes be measured in ignorance and distortion, not dollars.

Examples of Information Products

Smart schools load the network (and each desktop) with 10-12 information products to provide balance and reliability. They recognize that well structured, professionally developed resources are an essential element of any plan to reach the late adopting and reluctant teacher as well as the pioneers and enthusiasts.

Reference Works – Students and teachers should be able to count on quick access to electronic research tools such as a dictionary, a thesaurus, an atlas, an encyclopedia and a collection of quotations such as one might find in Microsoft Bookshelf (, but it pays to assess the quality of each of these elements. Collections can be hastily compiled, thin and lacking in scholarship. In some cases, it will pay to buy each element separately after carefully reviewing the options.

Encyclopedias – When it comes to encyclopedias, for example, Britannica (available in CD-ROM or online versions offers substantially better scholarship, writing and depth than many of its electronic competitors. One finds huge differences in quality when comparing articles in Britannica with other encyclopedias, for example.

Periodicals – Many of the leading newspapers and magazines of the day are now available online, but sustained access to their collections usually require payment of subscription fees to a company such as Electric Library ( or UMI’s ProQuest (, two providers currently joining forces in a merger. Once again schools will find significant differences in the depth and quality of these collections when comparing products like Electric Library with competitors such as EBSCO ( and SIRS ( High on any school’s list of evaluation criteria should be issues such as age appropriateness, search features and the user friendliness of the interface.

Curriculum Projects – Because late adopting and reluctant teachers are especially insistent that new technologies deliver student achievement tied to state standards and because many of these teachers prefer curriculum "packages" that offer a complete learning experience (including reliable Web sites), some schools are signing up for such services provided (at a cost) by educational publishers such as Classroom Connect ( and Scholastic (

Databases – Many school will select databases and collections specifically related to curriculum topics. They may purchase data about foreign countries from the World Bank ( or World Data Interactive (, for example, to supplement the free data available from government sources.

Image Collections – Few of the basic software packages such as Office or AppleWorks come with extensive, satisfying or rich image collections and many schools have been discontented with the quality of clip art. To address these issues, many educators are exploring payment for image collections that may offer more soul and more communication power. An example would be ArtToday ( a subscription service for photographs and other types of images.

This material is © 1999 Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. It may be e-mailed to individuals but not posted electronically in any form. It may also be duplicated in hard copy format for use by schools and universities within a not-for-profit context. Previously published in the November, 1999 issue of eSchool News.

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