Vol 6|No 4|January|1997

The Internet as Curriculum

Curriculum as Mass
Curriculum as Journey
Strategy One: Provide Good Interfaces
Strategy Two: Elevate Prospecting Skills

Strategy Three: Provide Scaffolding

As schools rush to connect to the Information Highway, what are the best ways to employ the Internet in support of the curriculum?

Imagine your school has several labs each allowing 30 students at a time to mine the electronic information resources. Even better, imagine that many of your classrooms offer a half dozen or more Internet connected computers which are also linked to a rich array of locally served resources such as encyclopedias and databases.

What would you do with such access? What would you do with such rich information? How would you apply all that Information Power to the curriculum?

That all depends on what kind of curriculum you must address . . .

Do you have a curriculum worth teaching?

Curriculum as Mass and Matter

In some school districts you cannot tell which came first . . . the textbook or the curriculum. The social studies curriculum in such districts bears an uncanny resemblance to the table of contents of a particular textbook series. The same with math and science. A committee shops for a textbook series and then writes a curriculum to fit the winner. In many cases, the curriculum is a list of topics to be covered with little attention paid to concepts, generalizations or learning strategies.

This kind of curriculum lends itself to a linear sequence of neatly packaged lessons presented by the teacher. The role of information in such a curriculum is very tightly defined . . . as something akin to processed food. Five hundred years of history are boiled down into a mere 500 pages of text. The textbook keeps only the most important facts. Even so, there is never enough time to get through it all. It's like rolling boulders up a steep hill. Trying to get the kids to remember all those facts at least until the test or the exam . . .

Because there is never enough time to finish the (typically thick) textbook or "cover" the curriculum, the Internet's robust and wildly rambling information is likely to be viewed as a jungle, a briar patch, or a distraction by teachers and administrators who value such a curriculum.

Quick sand.

This is an outmoded approach to schools and curriculum. A smokestack curriculum for a bygone era of factories and assembly lines. Not a curriculum for an Age of Information.

Learning as Eating?

In schools where the curriculum is a mass to be swallowed, where students are fed information meals all too similar to fast food - high in fat, low in nutrition - we should not be asking how to employ the Internet in support of the curriculum. We should first be asking what kind of curriculum is appropriate in 1997.

What kind of curriculum will prepare students to take on the challenges of the next century and an Information Society?

We should first change the curriculum to focus on learning. Schools should be much more about students making meaning rather than merely committing someone else's insights to memory. Learning ought to be much more like cooking than eating. But not microwave cooking!

Curriculum as Journey

In those schools where the curriculum is viewed more as an adventure, as an invitation to explore interesting questions and issues, the Internet and the other new information technologies will prove far more valuable and will be much more likely to receive a warm welcome from teachers and students alike.

When curriculum is written as a journey, student discovery, invention and investigation are prized. Questions are paramount. Essential questions. Major concepts. Theories. Why do things happen the way they do? We study mathematics or science or social studies in order to understand our world and how it works. For the sake of economy, we spend part of our time reading the collected wisdom of sages, absorbing that which may serve us well in this rapidly changing world. But we also devote a good deal of time struggling with issues arising out of our own times, trying to make sense out of our own era.

The Baltimore County Schools in Maryland have created a curriculum which lists such important questions. Take a look at middle school social studies.

Smokestack schools offered very few opportunities to work with primary sources or raw data. Information Age schools (see article on Post Modem schools) will provide a balance between primary and secondary sources, challenging students to develop their own insights while critiquing and reviewing the best thinking of the society's "elders."

Strategy One - Provide Good Interfaces

Because the Internet is a bit of an information jungle, it really pays to provide good interfaces guiding teachers and students to quality information which is relevant to the curriculum and appropriate for the age student.

At the same time, the ultimate goal is to develop lifelong learners who are capable of cutting a path even through information jungles, so we must take care not to structure all student use of the Net. More on that below . . .

There are several good ways to provide interfaces . . .

1. Develop curriculum pages on the school Web page which list and annotate good sources while providing suggested activities and directions for learning. See Cutting to the Chase: Leading Teachers and Students to the "Right Stuff" with WWW Curriculum Pages

Peter Vogel, a physics teacher in British Columbia, has created a remarkable site dedicated to information about and resources for the instruction of physics 11/12. Go to the Physics site.

Some very talented library media specialists working in the Baltimore County Schools have developed an outstanding site identifying worthwhile Internet resources for all aspects of their Essential Curriculum. Go to the Baltimore site.

Twin Grove Junior High school in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, provides a stellar Web site with great curriculum pages and resources.

You will find additional examples of curriculum pages at the Bellingham School Web page (http://www.bham.wednet.edu). There are pages for each curriculum area as well as pages devoted to special holidays or topics:

The production of these lists requires a considerable investment of time, much of which is spent prospecting (see below) for good sites.

2. Teach students and staff sufficient HTML skills so that they can routinely and frequently develop lesson pages which include good resources and activities. These pages may be shared locally on a WAN (Wide Area Network) or Intranet.

3. Provide links on the school Web page to one or more of the excellent lists created by educators like Kathy Schrock.

4. Point staff towards commercially developed curriculum sites from educational publishers or to governmental agencies and museums offering sites tailored to the needs of students. The Library of Congress provides excellent lessons plans, for example, a page full of resources to help teachers and students learn about using the kinds of primary source materials available online. Go to the Library of Congress Educator's Page.

The best example of educational publishing I have found, Ligature Gateway, which was offering interdisciplinary units, is no longer a working address. There is a huge gap in provision of quality from the publishers, unfortunately. Scholastic does offer some promising examples of Internet connections to its K-8 programs at its Web site.

A good interface provides many or all of the following elements:

We need to acknowledge up front that the Internet was not designed with schools in mind. It is not an information compacting device like a textbook.

Very few Web sites were developed with either the K-12 curriculum or the developmental needs of students at the forefront. The information is usually presented with little thought to how it might be used in a school by a teacher and a classroom of students. Rarely do we find a "teacher's guide."

As long as the Internet presents itself as a highly disorganized frontier, schools must make a major investment in organizing "tours" to the best information sites. The inefficiencies of creating insight and making meaning may otherwise overwhelm the advantages.

Strategy Two: Elevate Prospecting Skills

While schooling in the 19th and 20th centuries was primarily about students mastering processed information - the core curriculum - it is likely that schooling and learning during the next century will be characterized by far more PROSPECTING - the purposeful, skilled, but somewhat haphazard search for insight and truth across a complicated information landscape.

Why? Because information problem-solving skills will be paramount - the basic foundation for a robust career and life.

Prospecting is quite different from the linear, sequential inquiry models which were most favored in previous centuries.

The following were early attempts of mine to describe the kinds of skills necessary to make meaning from the kinds of information sources found on the Internet:

Grazing the Net:
Raising a Generation of Free Range Students
Culling the Net and Mucking About the Web

As I have worked on research models for schools during the past three years, I continue to see the need for a well planned progression from structured research experiences (highly guided) towards those calling for great independence.

Many staff members and students may rebel against prospecting. Without a strong skill base, the prospecting experience will seem too much like wandering in the desert or the jungle. We can picture the leathery old gold prospector leading a team of mules out of the wasteland with nothing to show for two years of effort.

This image captures the response of those who are thrown too early into the information resources of the Net without the skills to find much of anything to sustain life or meaning.

All too often this new information landscape is either empty or cluttered and there are few clues to guide the searcher. In many cases, intuition and supposition must play major roles.

Roget's Thesaurus draws a connection between the act of prospecting and a treasure-hunt. But it may prove to be a treasure hunt through a garbage pail or landfill!

The information prospector must . . .

Scour, clean out, turn over, rake over
Pick over, turn out, turn inside out
Rake through, rifle through, go through
Search through, look into every nook and cranny
Look or search high and low
Search high heaven
Sift through, winnow, explore every inch
Go over with a fine-tooth comb
Pry into, peer into, peep into, peek into

Overhaul, frisk, go over, shake down
Search one's pockets, feel in one's pockets
Search for, feel for, grope for, hunt for
Drag for, fish for, dig for
Leave no stone unturned, explore every avenue,
Cast about, seek a clue, follow the trail

(SOURCE: Roget's Thesaurus of English words and phrases.)

No wonder some people say "No thank you!" and cling their encyclopedias or text books.

Effective prospecting is a blend of art and skill, not simply a matter of wandering around with a divining rod in your two hands hoping to find the gold or water or oil below the surface.

Visit the Prospector's Primer, and you will learn that during the past 5,000 years prospecting for oil has progressed from . . .

"a matter of guesswork and good luck . . . (to something) considerably less random."

"For example, structural geology involves gathering and interpreting information from above ground to deduce what lies underground. Geologists obtain this information by examining exposed rocks or, when difficult terrain limits access, by examining images from satellites and radar."

In a similar fashion, prospecting for insight demands skillful observation and deduction. The use of search engines, for example, is more or less powerful depending upon whether or not the searcher has some sense of the logical interplay of words and the search strategies supported by the particular engine.

The rush of schools to climb aboard the Internet does, at times, seem a bit like the California Gold Rush of 1849. We hear of the Mother Lode, the enormous potential of digitized information treasures, and we clamber to gain access. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the best information is lying out in the open where it can be found rapidly and easily. The rest requires much detective work.


The goal of prospecting is to improve the odds of success so that finding good information is a probability rather than an accident.

We hope that several hours of prospecting will result in the likelihood that we will "strike oil" or find the "Mother lode."

We turn to whatever mix of information sources we have available (whether they be paid sources such as Electric Library or the free Web) with the natural presumption that we will emerge with new knowledge and new understanding, that we will not surface empty handed.

While prospecting involves dozens of skills, several are especially worth listing and describing here:

1. Scanning the Information Landscape

What's out there? Before we start "drilling" for oil, actually opening up and reading articles, we would be wise to survey the offerings and get a general feeling for the landscape of a particular topic.

When we turn to the Internet, we have three basic sources which support this kind of scanning:

  1. Search Engines
  2. Indexes
  3. Printed Guides

As an example, in seeking good resources for a curriculum site devoted to The World's Great Explorers recently, I turned to AltaVista, one of the leading search engines.

I used two words for a simple first search, "explorers" and "science." This strategy turned up 40,000 "hits" - what AltaVista calls "matching documents." That is quite a few!

If I had started opening these "hits" one at a time, I would have wasted a great deal of time. If we reckon the "drilling" time and expense expended uselessly each time we open a Web site which is irrelevant to our task or quest, we would soon feel informationally "bankrupt."

In this case some half of the first 50 "hits" were related to school science programs such as Science Explorers - an excellent group of programs unrelated to my search. "Science Explorers is a series of day-long, hands-on science workshops for teams of teachers and students from rural and urban areas" in several states and cities such as

Colorado (http://connect.colorado.edu/~boulder/ScienceExplorers.html)
Chicago (http://www.chias.org/www/edu/cse/csehome.html), each with its own special flavor and development.

Many of the other sites which emerged in the first 50 were adventure travel and cruise offers of one kind or another. I only found 2-3 sites which were "on target."

Some of the sites were genuinely devoted to scientific explorers such as the Chelsea House Publishers' site which offers books on the Great Explorers. But when I tried this page later, I was greeted with "NOT HERE." I did manage to locate the home page and some useful lists at this site but no real content.

Scanning entails looking over the first 50 "hits" to see the patterns - staying on the surface without "drilling."


Scanning delivers two opportunities:

  1. Finding the Good:
    Scanning develops a profile of the landscape so you have some sense of where to "drill" - which sites might be worth visiting and which ones to avoid. You skim the brief abstracts, asking all the while, "How much relevance is this likely to have?"
  2. Screening the Irrelevant:
    It provides a basis to modify your original search strategy to eliminate or screen out irrelevant materials.

    Once your simple inquiry turns up so many irrelevant sites, you can select the Advanced Query option from the top of the AltaVista page and eliminate various words which are indicators of irrelevant items as I did with the following:

    Explorers NEAR (science or scientific) AND NOT ("Science Explorers" OR child OR children OR museum or club or cruise or school or young or New or NASA or summer or enrichment or project)

    This strategy reduced the mountain of "hits" to a mere 31. A much smaller pile to explore.

    I still found few valuable sites, but one or two were "gold mines." I actually found the "Mother Lode" at one school which was building a Web site with biographies:

    Twin Groves Junior High School (http://www.twingroves.district96.k12.il.us/Heros/ScienceBios.html) in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, provided me with a whole page of excellent Web sites related to science explorers. I do not know if I would have ever found them if I had not switched to the "Advanced Search" mode and started eliminating "distracters."

    Unfortunately, many Internet users never seek out the more advanced features of these search engines and are condemned to info-glut because they do not know how to target and screen out the irrelevant documents.

    It is essential that schools teach both staff and students to employ the advanced searching features of these engines as a natural part of prospecting.


2. Identifying the Key Factors for Convergence

The Prospector's Primer from Chevron (http://www.chevron.com/chevron_root/explore/science/primer/index.html) mentioned above explains the importance of convergence:

The goal is to find a convergence of the geologic elements necessary to form an oil or gas field. These elements include (1) a source rock to generate hydrocarbons, (2) a porous reservoir rock to hold them and (3) a structural trap to prevent fluids and gas from leaking away. Traps tend to exist in predictable places - for example, along faults and folds caused by movement of the Earth's crust or near subsurface salt domes.

When it comes to information-seeking, the convergence is established by creating a logical intersection of search words and key concepts, the combination of which are most likely to identify relevant sites and articles.

In the example given above for "science explorers," the first strategy to reduce the mountain of irrelevant information was to use the "AND NOT" search function (called a "logical operator") to eliminate records containing certain words likely to indicate irrelevancy.

Achieving convergence requires thought regarding key word choice and placement (proximity). By combining just the right words in just the right order - which may take some trial and error - the information searcher can focus upon the confluence (like the meeting of two rivers) of the information streams.

In Boolean Logic, this UNION is represented by the intersection of two or more circles . . .

Careful word choice is a logical "closing in upon" the target, a centering, tapering focalization upon the most important and pertinent information.

Having scanned the landscape of the first few searches for "science explorers" I begin to brainstorm and test alternative key words using the Advanced Query function of AltaVista.

By now I am realizing that the word "explorer" is redundant and unnecessary, that scientists are explorers almost by definition, so I take care of my original two words (science and explorers) by using "scientist" along with the newly valued term "biography" which should have occurred to me in the first place but didn't until I found the middle school site. The fruits of serendipity!

The search for "biography AND scientist" results in 10,000 related documents, many of which seem to be describing individual contemporary figures.

These individual contemporary figures are not relevant to my project, so I improve convergence by changing both of my search terms to plurals:

biographies AND scientists

I also reduce the chance of retrieving contemporary figures using AND NOT to eliminate some present tense verbs:

biographies AND scientists AND NOT (is OR are)

This convergent strategy reduces the 10,000 down to just 40 relevant documents, of which several are "gold mines."

Knight-Ridder offers a "pay for service" biography site devoted to scientists.

The MacTutor History of Mathematics site at the School of Mathematical and Computational Sciences, the University of St Andrews, in St Andrews, Scotland, provides an excellent set of biographies for mathematicians.

Alexandra's Awesome Home Page provides links to a half dozen great sites:

A main character in William Gibson's recent novel, IDORU, has the job of "an intuitive fisher of patterns of information," actually trying to help a TV program expose the sins of celebrities by looking for trends in vast databases of seemingly innocent information like credit card charges, phone calls and household bills.

Laney was the equivalent of a dowser, a cybernetic water-witch. (pg. 25)
He'd spent his time skimming vast floes of undifferentiated data, looking for "nodal points" he'd been trained to recognize . . ." (pg. 25)
. . . info-faults that might be followed down to some other kind of truth, another mode of knowing, deep within gray shoals of information.(pg. 39)

We are after the same nodes as Gibson's cyber-witch . . . the junctions, meeting-points, intersections, and crossroads which enable us to "make up our minds," "put 2 and 2 together," and make sense from non-sense.

Whether we think in terms of nodes or convergence, we are looking for the connections which allow us to strike oil or gold.

3. Being Alert to Clues

Scanning hundreds of "hits" we are intuitively seeking words and elements in the brief abstracts which serve as an intimation or tip-off of something to go by. We hope for a tell-tale sign, a hint, a straw in the wind, an OMEN, perhaps.

In seeking scientific explorers, the word "biography" popped up as an important clue early in my first searching.

As I browsed through the top levels and then looked more carefully at the sites which I bothered to open, a whole new search strategy suddenly came to mind . . .

I had noticed that all the good sites that I had found seemed to offer a list of names. What if I picked three great scientists and built a search around their names instead of using any large conceptual words?

"Albert Einstein" AND "Charles Darwin" AND "Marie Curie" AND NOT price

This strategy produced just 20 "hits" but led me to Macro Press in Fountain Valley, CA 92708, a publisher with a series of science books for elementary students. This site offers online biographies for dozens of scientists covered in the books.

This name strategy emerged from scanning the trends and patterns, seeking the characteristics of the most valuable sites and then converting those clues into words.

Strategy Three: Provide Scaffolding and Research Infrastructure

Smokestack research was mainly information gathering - descriptive research.

Because explanatory research - projects which require synthesis and the development of new insights - is considerably more complicated and demanding than smokestack research, we need to develop Research Infrastructure in each district - clear statements about the role of research in the curriculum as well as models which outline the key elements, stages and expectations associated with such research - the scaffolding, if you will.

If we provide a model for the phases of a research project such as Mike Eisenberg's Big Six or the Research Cycle I first outlined in some detail in a series of articles for Technology Connection, both staff and students will welcome the structure.

In Bellingham, we have incorporated the Research Cycle into staff development programs such as Launching Student Investigations and Information Literacy and The Net so that teachers will possess the frame or skeleton upon which to build class research activities.

The Research Cycle

sorting & sifting
For an explanation of the Research Cycle Go to Information Literacy and the Net . Failure to provide a Research Infrastructure matched to the opportunities of the Post Modem School and the new information landscape will lead to a severe mismatch between the new resources and the preexisting school programs. Note the October 1996 issue of From Now On.

Credits: The prospector image is a cartoon from Charles Miles, owner of Grin Graphics Company, whose work appears on Barry's Clip Art Server and is available for non-commercial use.
Several of the icons (hourglass) are from Barry's Clip Art Server.
The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format if unchanged in format and content for educational, non-profit school district use only. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.
FNO is applying for formal copyright registration for articles.

From Now On Index Page