© 1996, Jamie McKenzie,
All Rights Reserved
This article first appeared in
Educational Leadership, November, 1996
Before schools invest millions of dollars* to provide "robust" access to the World Wide Web - meaning sufficient bandwidth to support whole classrooms of students working in pairs or trios on Net-connected computers - they would be wise to stop and ask "why?"
*Bellingham spent nearly half of its $6 million technology bond on infrastructure to connect all 1500 desktops across 18 schools to the Internet and each other.
The once popular "surfing" metaphor is now pretty much discredited as the Net reveals itself as the greatest yard sale of information in human history. Poorly organized and dominated by amateurs, hucksters and marketing gurus, the net offers INFO-GLUT, INFO-GARBAGE, and INFO-TACTICS. Schools which plunge students into this INFO-SEA with nothing but mythical or metaphorical surfboards are courting disillusionment, chaos and what beach folk call "Wipe Out!" Good planning and staff development can convert the "yard sale" into treasure.
After a year and a half of robust access to the Web, Bellingham has found three strategies to optimize the learning experience of staff and students:
The Research Cycle
Since we have eighteen schools all connected to the Internet, it was a simple matter to create web sites at each school. We began by asking "why bother?" in February of 1995.
A quick scan of several hundred school web sites revealed little of consequence. We found pictures of principals and pictures of buildings. Here and there we found examples of student work. There were lists of Internet sites, but we found little substance, little content and little utility.
The several dozen staff members - many of whom were library media specialists - who joined in these "virtual field trips" were quick to call for something better. Entranced by the vivid graphics and superb information provided by adult virtual museums such as the WEB MUSEUM (http://sunsite.unc.edu/louvre/) and the FRANKLIN INSTITUTE (http://sln.fi.edu/), they seized upon virtual museums as a center piece for web site development.
Virtual museums are student constructed collections of digitized artifacts which illuminate some major aspect of the curriculum.
Ellis Island is one elementary school's virtual museum devoted to diversity, national origin and immigration, for example. Students (half of whom are first generation Americans) share the stories of their families' voyages to America from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Greece and Russia. They digitize family photographs, scan documents, take Apple Quicktake shots of coins and other objects, and then welcome visitors to learn of their experience. For a full listing of Bellingham's museums go to:
A global listing of school virtual museums may be found at:
Students act as curators under the tutelage of teachers like John Schick who help the students to learn HTML as well as the skills of gathering and interpreting artifacts and information. Virtual museums are a great way to engage students in "making meaning" while publishing globally. They challenge students to learn in a fully constructivist manner, building meaning for cyberspace.
We found that many of the lists available on the Web did not point us to quality. The typical user must visit dozens of sites and pass through many levels of menus before finding solid content relevant to the curriculum question at hand. A lack of content is chronic and typical.
We were forced to build our own lists of curriculum-related sites with good content - curriculum pages. Curriculum resource pages eliminate sites which are "media rich but content poor."
In our experience working with Yahoo's lists of curriculum related sites (http://www.yahoo.com/), there was typically a 90% attrition rate.
The team creating the curriculum page saved dozens and potentially thousands of other teachers the trouble of visiting those sites by publishing them on the WWW.
To examine examples of such lists, visit the Bellingham Public Schools at
Because Web lists rarely include annotations and because many of the people who name sites or build lists seem to know little about categorization or labels, it is difficult to identify from simple lists the sites worth visiting. The solution is to add annotations which warn and inform the explorer regarding the site's offerings. These annotations can include comments about large graphics and provide a sketch of the content.
To protect explorers from unnecessary and wasteful passages through menu levels, the addresses for the content pages can be lifted up and placed as links on the curriculum resource page while the link to the home page of the target site can be deactivated. This makes for speedy visits.
Good curriculum resource lists also offer a healthy alternative to districts which are concerned about students coming into contact with controversial materials. Staff and students may visit sites on the list (and stay on them) without risk. Such guidance seems preferable to censorship and site-blocking software.
We learned quickly that old approaches to student research were inadequate to meet the essential learning goals set by the district and were ill suited to the information rich environment we had created with our 1500 PC WAN (wide area network). With all those computers and all of those classrooms connected to great information on CD-ROMs and the Internet, we needed to re-invent our concept of research, upgrading the questioning and elevating the reasoning required while adding a "teaming" component.
We have been engaging teachers in a staff development course titled "Launching Student Investigations." This course was based upon the Research Cycle first published in Multimedia Schools (McKenzie, 1995):
We teach teams of students to move repeatedly through each of the steps of the RESEARCH CYCLE below:
SORTING & SIFTING
(After several repetitions lead to INSIGHT)*
*All of these phases were described in more detail in a 6 part series of articles published by Technology Connection (McKenzie, April '95 - December '95).
We find that most research used to be topical. Students were asked to "go find out about" Dolly Madison or Connecticut. These assignments turned students into simple "word movers." New technologies make word moving - "cutting and pasting" - even more ridiculous. We now emphasize research questions which require either problem-solving or decision-making. Examples: How might we restore the salmon harvest? Which New England city should our family move to?
The student team spends time carving up the question in subsidiary questions. They ask where the best information might lie? What sources are likely to provide the most insight with the most efficiency? Which resources are reliable? How will they sort, sift and store their findings? (database? word processing file?)
If the planning has been thoughtful and productive, the team proceeds to good information sites swiftly and efficiently, gathering only that information which is relevant and useful. Otherwise, teams might wander for many hours, scooping up hundreds of files which will later prove frustrating and valueless.
It is critically important that findings me structured AS THEY ARE GATHERED. Putting this task off until later is very dangerous when coping with INFO-GLUT. It is also important that the team only use the Internet when that is likely to provide the best information. In many cases, books and CD-ROMs will prove more efficient and useful.
SORTING & SIFTING
The more complex the research question, the more important the sorting and sifting which provides the data to support the next stage - synthesis. Some selecting and sorting took place during the previous stage - gathering - but now the team moves toward even more systematic scanning and organizing of data to set aside that which is most likely to contribute to INSIGHT. The team sorts and sifts the information much as a fishing boat must cull the harvest brought to the surface in a net (McKenzie, 1994).
In a process akin to jigsaw puzzling, the student arranges and rearranges the information fragments until patterns and some kind of picture begin to emerge.
Synthesis is fueled by the tension of a powerful research question.
At this point, the team asks if more research is needed before proceeding to the REPORTING stage. In the case of complex and demanding research questions, it often requires several repetitions of the CYCLE. The time for the reporting and sharing of insights is determined by the quality of the "information harvest" during this EVALUATION stage.
As multimedia presentation software becomes readily available to our schools and our students, we are seeing movement toward persuasive presentations. The research team, charged with making a decision or creating a solution, reports its findings and its recommendations to an audience of decision-makers (simulated or real).
Two excellent additional print sources to expand the reader's understanding of information problem-solving would be Michael Eisenberg's Big Six model (1990) and Marty and Jacqueline Brooks' 1993 ASCD publication: In Search of Understanding: the Case for Constructivist Classrooms. An electronic source would be the WWW page devoted to constructivist learning (hhttp://www.ilt.columbia.edu/k12/livetext/curricula/general/webcurr.html)
We see great movement toward information literacy as the information landscape shifts with powerful new technologies. The importance of library media specialists grows dramatically as information systems shift and research becomes central to student-centered. constructivist classrooms. The journey will probably take a full five years of staff development, team planning and invention, but it is a journey well worth undertaking. The pay-off for this investment is the graduation of a generation prepared to make their own meanings in an often confusing, rapidly changing world.
Brooks, M. and Brooks, J. (1993). In Search of Understanding: the Case for Constructivist Classrooms . ASCD, Alexandria, VA.
Eisenberg, M. and Berkowitz, R. (1990). Information Problem-Solving: The Big Six Skills Approach to Library and Information Skills Instruction. Abblex Publishing, Norwood, NJ)
McKenzie, J. (1993). "Grazing the Net: Raising a Generation of Range Free Students." From Now On,, December.
McKenzie, J. (1994). "Culling the Net: A Lesson on the Dark Side." From Now On,, February.
McKenzie, J. (1995). "BeforeNet and AfterNet." Multimedia Schools, June.
McKenzie, J. (1995). "Planning a Voyage into Cyberspace." Technology Connection, April-December issues.
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