Social Education 59(4), 1995, pp. 198-202
National Council for the Social Studies

Social Studies and the Internet Revolution

Elizabeth K. Wilson and
George E. Marsh II
Significant shifts in theories about curriculum development and teaching methods are presenting dramatic challenges to traditional thinking about teaching social studies. None of these changes poses as great a challenge-or as many opportunities-as the rapid development of computer technology and instant, electronic communication.
In particular, the Internet, an easily accessible means of electronic communication and research, may not only enhance but further revolutionize and even institutionalize these new approaches to teaching.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all advocated turning away from direct instruction toward "active, inventive instruction" (Pechman 1992, 34). This approach is equally applicable to the teaching of social studies from kindergarten through the twelfth grade (Risinger 1992), and, in fact, the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools endorsed significant changes in curricula and instruction. (The Commission was a collaboration of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the National Council for the Social Studies.)

The Commission's Curriculum Task Force has emphasized the need for "exciting" ways to promote the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The Commission's recommendations are similar in some ways to those of other like groups. Almost all have rejected the passive conveyance of facts and direct instruction as acceptable methods of teaching. Instead, they have recommended "active approaches" to replace these time-worn, traditional methods.

The task force has identified many of these active approaches. They include reading, writing, observing, debating, role playing, doing simulations, and manipulating statistical data to foster critical thinking, decision making, and problem solving. In addition, this group has recommended many alternatives to the textbooks that have served as the basis for traditional teaching. These alternatives include such things as original sources, literature, films, television, artifacts, photographs, historical maps, computers, and computer software that assists in learning.

Many professional organizations, the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools among them, have called for this type of reform and have urged the adoption of teaching practices that foster improved thinking skills. This new type of learning would replace traditional teaching methods that seem to embrace two primary assumptions. These are (1) that the teacher's primary role in the classroom is to transmit knowledge to learners and (2) that students must directly absorb this information (Rosenshine and Stevens 1986; Good and Brophy 1991).

This traditional reliance on rote learning and memorization is now widely regarded as a serious problem (Lipman 1991). Many educators and lay persons now agree that education's most important goal should be to teach children to solve problems. As a result, many educators have developed new curricula based on learner-centered constructivism to teach their students to function successfully in real-world contexts.

While sound in concept, the need to change the way students think and to promote higher-order thinking skills poses a serious challenge for teachers. According to Walberg (1991), "Students' reasoning is often mistaken but logically consistent, confidently held, and difficult to change" (Walberg 1991, 55). Kamiloff-Smith and Inhelder (1975), Piagetian scholars, reported that children are highly resistant to changing theories once they have formed them, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This implies that new, active teaching methods must emphasize even more strongly than before the relevance of the instructional content. Mere reliance on the use of original sources, artifacts, historical maps, and data sets and the like is not enough. These devices by themselves will by no means guarantee that students will find learning more engaging or relevant than when they were studying ordinary textbooks or being taught in a traditional manner.

As Pechman (1992) notes, "Schools try to teach children to use the formal tools of academic disciplines . . . but many children find few opportunities outside of school to practice what they are taught. The resulting inauthenticity of classroom activity makes it difficult for children to see how school learning applies to their lives" (p. 33).

One solution to this dilemma is close at hand: Use computers in teaching social studies to better engage the interests of students in local, national, and global issues and affairs.

Peck and Dorricott (1994) suggest several reasons why schools should use technology. They include the opportunities that technology creates for students to do meaningful work; the increase in the amount of knowledge that students can absorb and the enhanced quality of thinking and writing that computer technology can foster; and the need for graduates to be globally aware and able to use sources in the "real world," outside the school.

The use of computers, in fact, presents the opportunity to revolutionize the way students work and think. Their use, for example, can stimulate an interest in the written word as students search for documents in remote libraries. Using data bases allows students to independently gather, analyze, interpret, and evaluate their own work. According to Peck and Dorricott (1994), "With few exceptions, children's domains of discovery during the school day are limited to the classroom and the school."

However, today's technology, particularly the vast, electronic Internet communications network, can provide students with easy, inexpensive, and immediate access to the world beyond not just their classrooms but beyond their communities and virtually any other existing boundaries. Thus, while still at school, they can acquire knowledge far beyond the boundaries of their own communities and experiences and gain firsthand knowledge of other cultures. Furthermore, because they are engaging in their own research, the information gained can be personally relevant.

Universal Communication as a Teaching Tool
The Internet, also referred to as the "Information Super Highway" or the "National Information Infrastructure," connects millions of computers around the world. It is a global, non-commercial network of networks, some of which focus on education.

The Internet had its origins in the early 1970s as ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency network). That was an effort by the Department of Defense to link the department's many research and military facilities. Since then, the Internet has evolved into a communications system that links universities, government organizations, corporations, and private citizens.

Any school with a computer and a modem can connect to the Internet through a commercial on-line service or a bulletin board service (a "BBS"). Access is also easily available through many mainframe computers at universities. An estimated 30 million people around the world daily send and receive messages, reports, graphics, and other kinds of information over the Internet, and thousands of separate computer networks connect 1.7 million computers in 125 countries to each other (Stix 1993).

The Internet never rests. Every day millions of people exchange information on an almost infinite number of topics in "forums"; tap into thousands of data bases to conduct research; copy files, documents, even music; participate in live, interactive conferences; and send electronic messages back and forth by "e-mail." Students can exchange views with experts on innumerable topics, download free software, read newspapers published in different places all over the world, obtain the full records of Supreme Court decisions, download speeches made by the President of the United States and other government officials, and take part in numerous other activities that support the goals of a well-founded curriculum in social studies.

Alvin Toffler, the famous futurist, believes that the most important domestic political issue is the wealth produced by information and the media. According to Toffler, "No nation can operate a 21st-century economy without a 21st-century electronic infrastructure" (1991, 368-369). If Toffler is correct, no school can afford to remain unconnected to the electronic infrastructure because, as Toffler puts it, we now live in an age when knowledge is the new capital and electronic technology is the new transportation. The primary access to knowledge, particularly new knowledge, is no longer the library, but the global electronic network that not only includes thousands of libraries but that also presents knowledge that will be outdated and obsolete by the time it is published in books.

The use of technology in the classroom is imperative because graduates will enter a work force that is already inextricably tied into information technologies. Using the Internet to communicate, conduct research, and exchange information prepares students for the technological and information-oriented environment they will face upon graduation. Access to the Internet "breaks through" existing boundaries, including the walls of the classroom, as noted earlier, thus helping students avoid parochialism and isolation. Moreover, the Internet can enhance students' roles as constructivists: Each creates his or her own knowledge as a researcher, communicator, and collaborator on a worldwide network of people and resources.

Teaching with Internet: Counting the Ways

Electronic Mail. Teachers can collaborate with other teachers and professors, and students can write back and forth to "electronic" pen pals by using electronic mail ("e-maiquot;). Electronic mail is increasingly common, whether on local area networks ("LANS," stored on computer "fileservers") that connect workers in the same building or on the Internet, which allows anyone operating a properly set up computer to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world who is also hooked up.

File Transfer. File transfer, technically called file transfer protocol (FTP), allows students and teachers to transfer files from other computers. For example, a student may locate and transfer the latest U.S. Supreme Court decision, a recent speech made by the President, or the latest maps of Earth's surface from NASA.

USENET. Begun in 1979 to link two computers in North Carolina, this is a news and discussion service on almost any imaginable topic. People from all over the world contribute information in response to questions posed by other users.

Archie. This is a data base system that regularly "calls" libraries to see what is currently available. It is, in effect, an automatic updating system. Archie currently has catalogs of more than 1,000 file libraries. Like a card catalog, Archie will accept a full or partial file name, and then tell the user where the file is stored.

Gopher. Gopher (from "go for") is a huge Internet menu system. Organizations or sometimes individuals from all over the world have set up Gopher "servers" with menus of items. Files and data about almost any topic are stored in thousands of locations. If, for example, a student wants to find information about "NAFTA," the user can instruct a gopher server to search for this topic.

Veronica. Veronica is a computer tool that makes gophers easier to use. In many gophers, Veronica will search all of "gopherspace." Veronica can be instructed to search for "museum," and it will find locations of museums available for searching on the Internet.

WAIS. The acronym stands for "Wide Area Information Server." There are many WAIS data bases throughout the Internet. One can use gopher to browse for information, just as one would scan a table of contents. WAIS is like an index. Either the gopher or the WAIS will accept a request and then scan the networks to find it.

ListServs. This expression is derived from the term "list service." A ListServ is an automatic mailing list for use by members of a special interest group who are interested in the same topic. A student or teacher can "subscribe" to a particular service, and a host computer will send updated information automatically to recipients each day.

There are thousands of ListServs, many of them developed expressly for educational purposes. Students can get information about different countries, or exchange views in English or many other languages.

Electronic Teaching Tools for Social Studies
The U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies support computer networks for the benefit of students in grades K through 12. The Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) is creating an electronic information service (SMARTLINE) to provide information about education to educators, parents, and community leaders. Some sources of particular relevance to the social studies curriculum are the following:

National Geographic Kids Network. This is a comprehensive international telecommunications-based science and geography curriculum for fourth through sixth graders. Pupils in fifty states and more than twenty countries are assigned to research teams of ten to fifteen different classes. These teams investigate such topics as water supplies, weather, pollution, nutrition, and solar energy.

Project GeoSim. The departments of computer science and geography at Virginia Technological University, Blacksburg, have developed "Project GeoSim," which now has two free software programs for education. These are a population module called "HumPop" and a population change simulation program called "IntlPop." They can be accessed by logging onto the archive server on the Internet and downloading the files. To contact Project GeoSim by Internet, its e-mail address is

Peabody Museum at Yale University. Using the Internet, students can obtain information from the Peabody Museum about their states and communities. Several thousand records for each state are available on-line.

Census-BEA Electronic Forum. This service of the Department of Commerce provides such government statistics as data about domestic and foreign trade, rankings of states, population, inventories, expenditures on manufacturing, and many other topics.

Economic Bulletin Board. Also provided by the Department of Commerce, this service has data on economic analyses such as the census and labor statistics.

Global Seismology and Geomagnetism. The U.S. Department of the Interior provides up-to-date information on earthquakes on this network service.

ERIC. Most educators are familiar with ERIC, but they may not know that ERIC now provides extensive support on-line for educators at all levels.

More Educational Networks
The U.S. government provides many network services useful to educators, but many other groups also offer useful sources of information. Some are described below.

Academy One. Affiliated with the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) and the Cleveland Free-Net, this program provides schools all over the world with access to its community computer systems. Students also have the opportunity to participate in on-line projects, such as group investigation of topics that interest them.

AT Learning Network. The company provides a curriculum-based telecommunications program for grades K-12 that matches students and teachers in "learning circles" with eight to ten other classes around the world for collaborative learning.

Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). CoSN helps educators and students access information and communications resources for learning and collaborative work.

eWorld. This is an on-line information resource of Apple Computer. It offers special information for teachers and classroom computer coordinators.

The EDUCOM K-12 Networking Project. EDUCOM, principally an organization of university computer personnel, has created this project to link teachers in primary and secondary schools to networks.

The FrEdMail Network. FrEdMail is a consortium providing inexpensive telecommunications networks for public agencies and schools, particularly to help teachers and students participate in networking activities. It enables teachers to share experiences, ideas, and materials as well as information for professional development, and provides a gateway to the Internet.

K12NET. This network is a system of more than 250 linked bulletin boards that carry thousands of messages each week around the world. Participants access many subject-specific conferences and also collaborate on projects. Developed as a grassroots project, K12Net is a collaborative effort available free to anyone who can access it through a bulletin board.

KIDSNET. KIDSNET is a global Internet electronic discussion group for children and their teachers. It deals with computer networks and projects linking children in different schools.

FidoNet. FidoNet is one part of the vast computer networks of worldwide bulletin board systems. It is used to send messages and free or inexpensive software to subscribers.

Global Net. This network is similar to FidoNet. It covers a wide range of topics including programming, travel information, news, sports, music, and many other topics.

The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress plans to announce an ambitious effort to convert into digital form the most important materials in its collection and in the collections of all public and research libraries in the country (Lewis 1994). The project would be a vast "virtual library" of digitized images of books, drawings, manuscripts, and photographs that would look like the "originals" and that could be downloaded over computer networks to students and researchers. The Library eventually intends to provide digitized movies and music, all of which would have historical value for teaching social studies. According to Lewis (1994), "The National Digital Library project would become the most extensive source of content material for the emerging National Information Infrastructure."

Getting Started
To get started, you will need a computer, a communications modem, communications software, and an account with an Internet service provider. Just about any computer-Macintosh or IBM-compatible-will let you access the Internet from your classroom or your school's media center. Many new computers have modems and communications software already installed.

As noted above, you will need a service provider. In some states, such as North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia, there are statewide education networks that make Internet access easy. In other states, you may need to access the Internet through a local college or university, or subscribe to a commercial service. To get advice about connecting at your school, contact your local media specialist. If you need further information, contact InterNIC at 1-800-444-4345 for a referral to a service provider.

Connecting to KIDLINK
KIDLINK is an especially useful service for students. KIDLINK has a gopher located at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. The gopher provides information about KIDLINK projects for students involved in global dialogue via e-mail and other means. For special information, you may contact:

Mark Hunnibell

KIDLINK Special Projects

To learn about KIDLINK projects, subscribe to the KIDLINK announcement service by sending an e-mail message to with the following command in the text of your message: SUB KIDLINK Your-first-name Your-last-name

You can access the KIDLINK gopher in several ways:

1.Using your own Gopher client:
gopher 70
2.Using telnet:
telnet login: gopher
3.Using a World Wide Web browser:
4.Using e-mail:
Send mail to Put the following commands in the body of your mail:
send gopher://


Connecting to Other Gophers
Once you are connected to one gopher, you will have access to other gophers. As a result, you can use many gophers to support your teaching. The next gopher may be in the same state, another state, or another country, all accessed by choosing from a menu. If you want a comprehensive listing of available gophers, check out your local bookstore for books that publish lists of them, or look for them on the Internet.

Other Sources
For additional information for using Internet or other services that are available, contact the services listed below.

Internet Resource Directory for Educators On-line:
telnet [or ftp]
IRD-ftp-archives.txt, IRD-listservs.txt, and IRD-infusion-ideas.txt
NECC and Tel-Ed Conferences
International Society for Technology in Education
1787 Agate Street
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1923
Phone: 503-346-4414 or 1-800-336-5191
Fax: 503-346-5890
(Compuserve: 70014,2117)
(AppleLink: ISTE)
Internet Society
1895 Preston White Drive
Suite 100
Reston, Virginia 22091
Phone: 703-648-9888
Fax: 703-620-0913
Consndisc (Consortium for School Networking Discussion List):
To subscribe, send a message to
To subscribe, send a message to
To subscribe, send a message to
Send a message to
Consortium for School Networking Gopher Server:
via gopher: (port 70)
via telnet: telnet, login: gopher
(no password)
The Internet and the
Next American Revolution
Electronic communication networks are not only changing how work is done but also changing organizational power by circumventing traditional authority in governments and corporations. Due to the easy and frequently instant availability of electronic information, decision making is falling to lower levels in organizations and middle managers are being eliminated.

Students will enter a work force in which they will be expected to handle and interpret electronic information. Learning how to use the Internet can provide students with excellent preparation for their future in the electronic work place.

More important still, the Internet, as a tool for instruction in social studies, is presenting students with an unprecedented opportunity to engage in one of the most "democratizing" movements in the world's history-equal access to unbounded, unlimited information.

Bradley Commission on History in Schools. Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools. Washington, DC: Educational Excellence Network, 1992.Curriculum Task Force of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools. (Sandra L. Mullins CIJE Coordinator for ERIC/ChESS). Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, 1989.Good, T.L., and J.E. Brophy. Looking in Classrooms, 5th ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.Kamiloff-Smith, A., and B. Inhelder. "If You Want to Get Ahead, Get a Theory. Cognition 3 (1975): 195-212.Lipman, M. Thinking in Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.Lewis, P.H. Library of Congress Offering to Offer Data Superhighway. New York: N.Y. Times News Service, 1994.National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools. (Sandra L. Mullins, CIJE Coordinator for ERIC/ChESS). Social Studies for the 21st Century: Recommendations of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools. ERIC Digest ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, Bloomington, Indiana; Office of Educational Research and Improvement (ED), Washington, DC, 1988.Peck, K.L., and D. Dorricott. "Why Use Technology?" Educational Leadership 51 (1994): 11-15.Pechman, E.M. "Child as Meaning Maker: The Organizing Theme for Professional Practice Schools." In Professional Practice Schools, edited by M. Levine. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992.Perelman, L.J. "Restructuring with Technology: A Tour of Schools Where It Is Happening." Technology and Learning 2 (1991): 30-37.Risinger, C. (Sandra L. Mullins, CIJE Coordinator for ERIC/ChESS). Trends in K-12 Social Studies. ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, Bloomington, Indiana; Office of Educational Research and Improvement (ED), Washington, DC, 1992.Rose, M.T. The Internet Message. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1993. Handbook of Research on Teaching, 3d ed., edited by M.C. Whitrock. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1986.Stix, G. "Domesticating Cyberspace." Scientific American 269 (1993): 100-10.Toffler, A. Power Shift. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.Thurow, L. Head-to-Head. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992.Walberg, H. "Productive Teaching and Instruction: Assessing the Knowledge Base." In Effective Teaching: Current Research, edited by H. Waxman and H. Walkey, 33-62. Berkeley, California: McCuthchan Publishing Corporation, 1991.Elizabeth K. Wilson is an assistant professor in the Area of Teacher Education at the University of Alabama. Her interests include social studies education, teacher education, and technology.
George E. Marsh II is currently a professor in the Area of Teacher Education at the University of Alabama. A former secondary social studies teacher, he specializes in interactive technology.