Past, Possibilities, and Potholes on the Information Superhighway

Joseph A. Braun, Jr.

A 1960's cultural quiz:

1.What was the name of the commune whose member, Wavy Gravy, announced "breakfast in bed for 400,000" at the Woodstock Festival?
B. The Hog Farm
C. The John Birch Society
D. Rainbow Coalition

2.The Merry Pranksters were a group of early hippies who traveled with which celebrated author around the country in a bus.
A.James Michener
B.Ken Kesey
C.Harold Rugg
D.Ernest Hemingway

3. Why would a member of the commune of Woodstock fame and a former Merry Prankster team up to form a very successful business around a Defense Department effort to create a communications system for directing counterattack in the event of a thermonuclear strike?

Admittedly, the above questions are good fodder for a round of Trivial Pursuit. They also highlight the importance of critical thinking in an Information Age. Is any of the above information true? If it is, so what?

Beyer defined critical thinking in the social studies as "the process of determining the authenticity, accuracy, and worth of information or knowledge claims."1 Although his definition predates what we now call the Information Age, the era we live in makes the teaching of these skills more vital than ever, given the accelerated rate of Internet use by schools and individual students.

The answers to the trivia quiz are found in the first part of this article, which briefly chronicles the development of the Internet. The second part of the article addresses ways in which teachers can use various Internet clients (a term for Internet-related software) to promote social studies learning. Finally, the article identifies three social studies issues inherent in using the Internet.

The Internet: A Perspective on its Past
Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant were two of the founding fathers of a computing conferencing system known as the WELL, an acronym for Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link. During the sixties, Brand belonged to the Merry Pranksters, a troop of early hippies and followers of author Ken Kesey (who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Brand later became a faculty member of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI), which was experimenting with the effectiveness of computing conferencing. It was through WBSI that Brand became acquainted with Brilliant, who had migrated from the Hog Farm commune made famous in the movie Woodstock, to medical school, and then to leadership in the World Health Organization's fight against smallpox.2

Both of these colorful individuals became involved in using computers as a means of "facilitating communication among interesting people in the San Francisco Bay Area. . . and to bring e-mail to the masses."3 With startup money from Brand's successful counterculture magazines-The Whole Earth Catalog and its spin-off, The Whole Earth Software Review-the WELL was incorporated as a computer-mediated communication system in San Francisco in 1985, and soon became a site on the fledgling Internet.

At the same time the Merry Pranksters were roaming the country in their psychedelic bus (1964, to be precise), the Rand think tank was developing top-secret thermonuclear war scenarios for the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). This included communication possibilities for a counterstrike command system. At the time of the Woodstock festival (1969), work was complete on ARPANET, the first computer-mediated conferencing system (CMC) to become operational for launching a counterattack in the event of a nuclear first strike by another power.

Eventually, the Defense Department declassified its CMC. From a simple network of some 23 computers on the ARPANET in 1973, to a currently estimated 20-30 million users worldwide, the Internet has changed human communication patterns just as unalterably as did the printing press five-and-one-half centuries ago. The difference between these two revolutionary developments is that, whereas it took considerable time for the majority of a population to become literate (in the case of the United States, not until the establishment of universal schooling in the nineteenth century), much of the world's population was ready immediately to consume and publish multimedia information via the Internet.

The history of the Internet has been accidental, according to chronicler Howard Rheingold: "Again and again, the most important parts of the Net piggybacked on technologies that were created for very different purposes."4 As these technologies developed, people found unique uses for them. Social studies teachers are no exception, and the following section points to ways that Internet technologies can now be applied for instructional purposes.

Accessing the World Wide Web as a Curriculum Resource
How can a social studies teacher use Internet technologies to develop curriculum materials for a thematic unit? For example, let's suppose that our teacher is searching for ideas and resources about coal mining-a subject that incorporates a number of NCSS thematic strands:
2 time, continuity & change
3 people, places & environments
7 production, distribution & consumption
8 science, technology & society
As recently as a few years ago, teachers using the Internet needed to be familiar with a number of different Internet clients (software which performs an Internet function, such as gopher and ftp), and to know how to employ each separately to search for information. These Internet clients would access numerous servers (Internet-dedicated computers that function as gateways to the Internet and/or as repositories of files that Internet users might seek).

Essentially, the Internet is a vastly intricate global network of servers that can be accessed by clients through use of a microcomputer. Many of these formerly stand-alone clients are now seamlessly incorporated into the latest versions of web browsers (a term for a special kind of Internet client that accesses the World Wide Web). Current web browsers, such as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer, now include the functions of several clients (e.g., e-mail and newsgroups), in addition to providing easy access to search engines to help find information on all servers within the vast network of the World Wide Web.

Usually accessed through an icon on the browser screen, search engines are computerized databases of files that can be text, graphic, or audio. There are a number of search engines (Lycos, Yahoo!, and Alta Vista, to name a few). Each has its own protocols, or instructions for conducting a search. Special features of most search engines, such as support for Boolean searches or the use of upper and lower case in descriptor items, can be found in the instructions on the search engine's homepage (often the first "page" you see when you access a World Wide Web site).

By following the search tips that are linked to the search engine's homepage, our teacher will learn the best wording for an information and resource search. The teacher might experiment and conduct searches with different phrases or descriptors, such as history and coal mining, coal mining, or coal mining music, and see how the results yield different resources. Similarly, searches using different engines may yield identification of different Internet sites to visit.

Metacrawler is a popular engine since it searches several of the other major engines simultaneously and eliminates most duplicates. Citations also serve as links to relevant homepages or other pertinent Internet resources (see Figure 1). A search for the phrase "history and coal mining" yielded 39 hits, and now the teacher must select which resources and information would most likely stimulate meaningful learning for students. Among some possibilities are these sites, designated by their web addresses or URLs (Universal Resource Locator):

Teachers doubtless already know of other sites likely to contain relevant archives, such as the Library of Congress (see Website List in the special pullout section).

Once our teacher has identified sites that appear likely to be fruitful, a decision must be made on how to present this information to students. If students have access to the World Wide Web in school, a teacher has several options:

E-Mail, Listservs, and Newsgroups
While vast, the World Wide Web is not the only Internet resource our social studies teacher can use to collect resources and ideas for teaching the coal mining unit. Our teacher might reach out to the countless millions all over the world who log onto the Internet daily to read their e-mail and/or monitor newsgroup postings.

As a listserv subscriber, our teacher decides to get some ideas for the coal mining unit by posting a message to the NCSS listserv and a listserv on labor history. By posting a message soliciting ideas about teaching coal mining to the listserv, anyone who subscribes will automatically receive it and can easily respond. However, the information seeker should ask respondents to reply directly to the individual's e-mail, as opposed to sending a reply to everyone subscribing to the list. This is an easy mistake to make, but aggravating to any subscriber who gets such a posting and has no use for it (some listservs are moderated as a way of keeping down traffic by permitting only messages relevant to all listserv subscribers). On the other hand, someone may reasonably believe that enough listserv subscribers would benefit by what is posted to intentionally send a reply to the entire listserv.

As a listserv subscriber, any message is automatically posted to your mail when you engage the e-mail client (thus flooding subscribers to a busy listserv when they log-on). Newsgroups, on the other hand, require no subscription message-the user simply selects whatever newsgroup appears interesting and begins reading messages following a particular thread (topic) of discussion. Word searches are used to narrow down the possibilities from the thousands of newsgroups available. Once some appropriate newsgroups are identified, they can be preselected so only stipulated ones appear and you don't have to download and sort through them all.
As with a listserv, posting a message to a newsgroup is also a simple way to communicate with the countless Internet users who may come across it. There are specific newsgroups devoted to discussion among social studies educators (see Social Studies Newsgroups on the Website list) to which our teacher might turn for ideas about coal mining. There is also a mining newsgroup where technical expertise could become available on-line to the class. Anyone finding a posting to the newsgroup might respond, and it would not be unheard of for teachers from coal mining areas in China, Poland, or Wales to respond with information about their local area.
It is the global accessibility of information and ideas that make use of the World Wide Web, e-mail, and newsgroups such a powerful force for social studies teachers. It is this same easy access that poses a challenge. How do we determine what information on the Internet is accurate, authentic, and worthwhile? Also, with so much information available, how do we assess what students are actually learning?

Old Issues in an "Internet" Bottle
John Perry Barlow has been described as the "current poet-laureate to cyberspace." A contributing lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Barlow is also co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to protecting free expression, guarding individual rights to privacy, and maintaining on-line access to the masses with regard to the Internet.6 As Barlow notes, the advent of a technology is often filled with unintended consequences (who would have imagined the pollution and lifestyle changes brought about by the designers of automobile technology at the turn of the 20th century). Three social studies curriculum issues related to use of the Internet warrant attention by curriculum developers and teachers to avoid unintended consequences.

Assessment: the Missing Link
As rich as are the possibilities for promoting significant learning through the World Wide Web, teachers will not find much to help with the crucial task of assessment. In other words, while a Web page may have lots of great information readily available, students are not usually asked to do anything with the information. Thus, the teacher must figure out how to determine what, if anything, an individual student has learned from spending time at a site or engaging in e-mail discussions.
At this point, most Web pages do not give teachers much direction in assessing student learning. Hopefully this will change as teachers become more savvy in using the Web as a learning resource. Developers of Web pages often provide an e-mail link for the user, but most do not ask the user to respond in any significant way to the content encountered. Moreover, very few World Wide Web sites engage the student in comparing data found at one site with similar or divergent data from another site in order to draw a conclusion.

As more and more curriculum is developed around the Internet, this assessment issue must be addressed. Until then, social studies teachers using the Internet for instructional purposes will be on their own when it comes to determining what students have actually learned from visiting a Web site, and what difference that learning might make.

Fortunately, with alternative assessment approaches becoming more widespread, there are lots of possibilities beyond a paper and pencil assessment. Some teachers are asking students to apply their burgeoning multimedia talents to publish their own homepages on the Web as demonstration of their major understandings. In our example above, students studying coal mining might collaborate to produce a class homepage that includes links to pages that individual students produce on coal mining accidents, economic impacts, environmental concerns, labor issues, or cultural insights gained through studying work songs.

Moral Education
Future scenarios (some rather alarming) are rife on how the Internet may affect us as individuals, citizens of a society, and members of the world community.7 The truth is, no one knows for sure how the Internet will affect such issues as democratic principles vs. totalitarian infringements, human communication and social interaction, and the process of education. All we can say with any certainty is that our venture into cyberspace will change how we gather and disseminate information, and how we communicate with people near and far.
A dramatic and very touching example of how the Internet is affecting people's lives was reported in a Time magazine article on the Internet.8 The story involved a woman who used the WELL to post messages regarding her life and impending death from cancer. Many people who read these messages were deeply touched by her musings on the meaning of life and its inescapable end for each one of us. The relationships that developed between the woman and those who responded-people she never met face to face-are a profound testament to the computer's power as a tool for moral education.

We need to assess the potential of the Internet to enhance moral education in our schools.9 Today's teachers are using values and civic education models designed two or more decades ago. Some of the work on addressing controversial issues in the social studies classroom could be applied to the Internet.10 Similarly, some previously developed computer and moral education strategies could be modified for more up-to-date use.11 As the situation stands, social studies teachers now using the Internet must work from older models of moral education, or develop their own curriculum materials, for dealing with what their students encounter on-line.12

Critical Thinking
Traditionally, publishers and editors-whether the subject be trade books, textbooks or encyclopedias-have served as gatekeepers of knowledge within the various academic disciplines. With the Internet, there are no well-acknowledged gatekeepers, and anyone can publish misinformation without much consequence. The need for teachers to help students develop the ability to discover authentic and relevant knowledge-to distinguish fact from fiction-is greater than ever. Beyer defines this set of skills as critical thinking, and says it involves judging the authenticity, accuracy, and worthwhileness of information.13
Clearly, the Internet poses a new dimension to the development of critical thinking. Students now have much freer access to sources of information, and unless they are prepared to make use of critical thinking skills as they download data, they can easily be manipulated or persuaded into accepting information that is misleading and erroneous. Moreover, these skills need to be applied not only to texts but to all forms of multimedia.14

Barlow makes the point that our familiar realities are becoming altered. If we don't like the confusion, we can dig a hole and hide for the next twenty years. He advocates instead a kind of leap into faith: an inclination towards optimism and the belief that we will take good advantage of the potential that lies at our fingertips.

As social studies teachers, it is our charge to prepare students to become global citizens imbued with a spirit of democracy and able to accommodate to the accelerating changes brought about by the Internet. Developing the technical proficiency to use the Internet is becoming easier-as suggested by the example of our teacher planning a coal mining unit. The harder part lies in developing the instructional vigilance to address issues of Internet use like the ones raised above. Yet only by doing so can social studies teachers take advantage of the possibilities-while avoiding the potholes-of life along the information superhighway.

1. Barry K. Beyer, "Critical Thinking: What Is It?", Social Education 49, 4 (1985): 278.
2. Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993).
3. Ibid., 42.
4. Ibid., 67.
5. To subscribe to the NCSS listserv, send an e-mail message to the listserv address. Type in the "To:" line of the message. All other lines in the header should be left empty. In the body of the message, type SUBSCRIBE NCSS-L followed by your e-mail address. If using lowercase, be sure to type the letter "quot; rather than the numeral "1" after "ncss-". No other text should appear in the body of the message (including "signature" lines you have created).
6. Bob Berger, "The Circuit Rider," Net Guide 2, 9 (1995): 30-32.
7. Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1995); Rheingold, op cit.; Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway (New York: Doubleday, 1995); Stephen L. Talbott, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in our Midst (Sebastapol, CA: O'Reilly & Associates, 1995); Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).
8. Time Magazine, "WELL: Wishers on the Internet," Vol. 144, no. 10 (September 5, 1994): 18.
9. Joseph A. Braun, Jr., Phyllis Fernlund, and Charles S. White, Using Technology as a Tool in the Social Studies (Wilsonville, OR: Franklin Beedle & Associates, in press).
10. John A. Rossi, "Creating Strategies and Conditions for Civil Discourse about Controversial Issues," Social Education 60, 1 (1996): 15-21.
11. Stephen J. Taffee, "Computers, Kids and Values," The Computing Teacher (August/September 1994): 15-18; Larry S. Hannah and Charles B. Matus, "A Question of Ethics," The Computing Teacher (August/September 1985): 11-14.
12. Cal Carpenter, "On-Line Ethics: What's a Teacher to Do?", Learning and Leading with Technology (March 1996): 40-60.
13. Beyer.
14. Gail M. Hickey, "Reading and Social Studies: The Critical Connection," Social Education 54, 3 (1990): 286-288.

Joseph A. Braun, Jr., is Professor of Curriculum & Instruction, Illinois State University, Normal. Portions of this article will be included in a chapter of his forthcoming book, with co-authors Phyllis Fernlund and Charles S. White, Using Technology as a Tool in the Social Studies, to be published by Franklin Beedle & Associates of Wilsonville, OR.