Is the World Wide Web a new medium which demands and deserves an entirely new metaphor, with new modes of thinking to guide its implementation and use?
Marshall McLuhan (of "The Medium is the Message" fame) observed, "Every new medium is implemented in the metaphors of the old media."
Spend some time browsing through the recent explosion of school-based Web pages and you'll discover the truth of this observation. In too many cases, school pages seem to be missing something of importance that we all attribute to "the 'Net." In truth, most school pages are not very stimulating.
Many educators new to the Web talk excitedly about "publishing on the Web." This is the familiar metaphor of the old hypermedia (Hypercard, Linkway, Hyperstudio) and it is a picture of a high-tech printing press: a publishing enterprise which employs new presentation techniques to create and distribute an information product to be consumed by an audience... albeit a much larger audience.
The vast majority of school-based web sites apparently reflect this "old metaphor" thinking. And after you "surf" even just a few school Web sites, your inevitable ennui will raise the question, "What are we missing here?" If this is what "publishing on the Web" is all about, why bother?
Is the Web just a hypermedium in a "traditional" sense, ala Hyperstudio and Linkway, which students use to gather, create, organize, and "publish" a variety of packaged and original "information?"
Or is the World Wide Web a new medium which demands and deserves an entirely new metaphor, with new modes of thinking to guide its implementation and use?
To answer this puzzling question, last year (1995) I embarked on a campaign to scour the Web, talk to Web-using teachers and students (by phone, email, CU-SeeMe) and actually visit Web-using classes to assess first-hand what is "working," and to determine the impact... if any... this new technology is having in the lives of students.
The problems, and the answers that my quest evolved, can be nicely illustrated by contrasting my visits to two schools in the Arctic-like regions of Minneapolis/St. Paul in February.
My first visit was to a forward-thinking "model" technology-using high school that had an early presence on the Web. Prior to my visit I reviewed their attractive Web site, and they were kind enough to arrange for me a visit with the students whose work had been published. The school was certainly impressive, and it was generally an enjoyable visit.
However, my conversation with the eight or ten published student authors was disappointing. I noted for them the novelty of their work being available to forty million people on the Internet, and described how much I enjoyed reviewing their work from almost almost 2000 miles away in sunny San Diego. Then I asked them how this "impressed" them. It was clear from their reaction (in the form of puzzled looks and shrugged shoulders) that they weren't at all impressed... in fact, they seemed unable to relate to this question. It seemed apparent that "publishing on the Web" had no particular meaning to these students.
I next asked how this project was different than "regular" school work. Did it feel any different? One student replied that this was pretty much a "regular" assignment which they worked on, turned in to the teacher, and it later showed up "on the Web." In other words, I reflected, this felt pretty much like traditional, familiar school work that had no special meaning or importance to them. This observation was met with a chorus of nods and assents.
After a few other questions and efforts to solicit reactions and comments, I discerned that these students had no stories to relate about their Web experiences. There seemed to be no evidence that these students could muster or articulate that puts "publishing on the Web" into a different category than "regular" school work.
This visit left me dangling farther over the edge facing the question, "If this is what "publishing on the Web" is all about, why bother?"
The next day... Valentine's Day... I visited Hillside Elementary School which sharply contrasted with the day before and which threw into bold relief the essential ingredients of a successful Web publishing experience.
Chris Collins, sixth grade teacher at Hillside, is not only one of the very first teachers in the U.S. with her own Web page (March 15, 1994), but she has also discovered that a good web page should be a door-opener to the world, and that reader feedback is a critical aspect of classroom Web publishing.
When Mrs. Collins started early in 1994, the World Wide Web was still relatively unknown, and she had to demonstrate the value to learning of this new medium with only modest resources. Starting with a grant of only $1000, and with a mentor at the University of Minnesota, Mrs. Collins purchased a Macintosh computer, a 14,400 BPS modem, and a phone line for her classroom. Her UM mentor contributed a dial-up SLIP Internet account and Internet email accounts for her and her students, and agreed to house her home page on one of the Macintosh SE computers in the Department of Education at the University of Minnesota.
The Hillside Web site is a good example of the principle that what technology you have is less important than what you do with the technology you have.
When student authors dialog with their audience, publishing on the Web is not the end of the story... it's the beginning of the story.
Like any early adopter of technology, Mrs. Collins has had to "invent" many of the principles and practices involved in maintaining a classroom-based Web server. Yet she has succeeded in integrating Internet resources and her Web server into every subject that she teaches, as her students....
As I talked to Mrs. Collins and her students, I was bowled over with the contrast with my previous day's visit: These students had stories... hundreds of stories... to tell about their learning and Web publishing. It was evident that they were excited about what they were doing, and they were eager to share their experiences with me. It soon became evident that their excitement resulted from their interaction with their readers: the conversations and dialogs which grew out of their Web presentations. Their Web server is really a magical door-opener, which brings into their classroom a world of peers and professionals and interesting people who become catalysts for motivating deeper understanding and learning for her students.
Students will write when they have a sympathetic, interested audience and they have something to say.
The conversations and dialog her students were having during the winter of 1995 was no accident: In her assignment for the 1995 Franklin Institute Internet Workshop Mrs. Collins tells her students to build Web exhibits that are...
...Interactive. Can someone become involved with your project? Look at the interactive projects done by the Franklin Institute. They are set up as a virtual exhibit so that you can interact. You can watch movies, ask questions, and do experiments.
Every student in Mrs. Collins class has his or her own Internet email account. Moreover, most student home pages and articles are signed with the author's email address, which invites the reader to correspond with the author.
As I listened to the stories these young authors had to tell about their conversations with their diverse audience, it became apparent that Web publishing in this class was having an important impact on their involvement and interest. (Of course, this should be no surprise to those familiar with current research in writing and students, which observes that students will write when they have a sympathetic, interested audience and they have something to say.)
These two articulate sixth graders in Mrs. Collins 1994-1995 class were eager to share with me how they prepared their joint project on natural disasters, and what happened after publishing their exhibit on the Hillside Web server.
Max explained in detail how he constructed and videotaped an earthquake simulation, using a pie plate, grain, cardboard, and Legos, which he videotaped and then digitized into a QuickTime movie as part of their Natural Disasters report.
I asked Max and Ryan how publishing their research on the Web is different than simply writing your report and giving it to your teacher.
Max said, "It feels like you're not doing work... instead of just turning it in to your teacher, you put it on here... our teacher looks at it anyway, but then you get messages back on your email from people who have looked at it."
Between them, Max and Ryan had received over 100 messages from a wide variety of people... adults, college students, their peers... who gave them feedback on their exhibit, asked them questions, or who wanted to talk about earthquakes, volcanoes, or other things the boys studied. It was evident that the boys valued the feedback they received. Max eagerly shared with me several of his prize messages, including one which came from a 5-year old.
I asked Max and Ryan how this makes them feel about the importance of doing good and accurate work. Max said that "When so many people can look at it you want it to be perfect." They both agreed that it makes them more conscious of trying to do a good job.
Max, Ryan, and the other students that I spoke with were excited about their publishing experiences. They understood the scope of the Internet, and how their publishing was visible around the world. The feedback they were receiving from correspondents from all walks of life provided a degree of "authentic assessment" which prompted them to critically evaluate their own work, and motivated them to look for ways to correct and improve it.
My visit with Hillside students was such a marked contrast with my experience at the high school the day before that the lessons fairly leaped out at me. The student authors at the high school were missing the opportunity to interact with their audience. There was no mechanism for any real feedback (other than the traditional teacher responses to their work) by which they could measure their effectiveness, impact, or value as Web authors. They may have a general theoretical understanding of what is happening, but absent any dialog and interaction with their readers, it has no impact on their motivation nor their efforts.
Note: according to the high school administration, student access to the Internet and email privileges was restricted by district administration pending the development of a district policy. While this is a prudent temporary limitation, the lack of such access during my visit left a notable mark on the lack of student interest and involvement. Of course, there are some legitimate... and also many inflated... concerns about student Internet access and their safety. However, countless schools around the world are discovering, as Mrs. Collins told me, that access to the Internet and to email presents fewer real risks than walking to and from school or riding the bus downtown. (See our sections on protecting children.)
All of this begins to make more sense when you begin to understand the native medium of the Internet. The Internet is first and foremost a communications medium... not a publishing medium. It was designed to facilitate communications and the exchange of information between people. The new paradigm implicit in the World Wide Web is the ability of the Internet to foster conversations between writers and readers. Given the potential of this kind of interactive dialog, we now see coming together various strands of pedagogical research of the past dozen and more years. Constructivist and cooperative learning, process writing, authentic assessment, and more are all logical and natural aspects of this new medium... they are built right into the medium. Much of what educational reformers have sought to do find things happening as a natural matter of course in well-designed Internet and Web based projects.
Chris Collins' experience at Hillside Elementary School are not unique. More and more teachers around the world are independently making the same discoveries that she did. The World Wide Web fosters the kinds of experiences which her students are having.
Paradigms are shifting: there is a growing groundswell of grass-roots, classroom-based school reform mini-movements which are changing the ways students and teachers both teach and learn. Just as the Internet and the World Wide Web are changing the world of commerce and business all about us, they are beginning to work incredible change in the lives of teachers and their students in growing numbers of classrooms all around the world.
As the saying goes... try it! You may like it.