Meridian: Inventing an Online Journal

Cheryl L. Mason and Edwin R. Gerler
“We’re in a strange place, those of us who are enthralled by the Web and its possibilities for publishing: we want to make the best of this opportunity, but have only the vaguest idea of how to do that.”1 The new electronic journal, Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal, is one response to walking in this strange place. It introduces middle school and other educators to the possibilities of applying the latest technology to teaching and learning. This journal became a reality through the combined efforts of graduate students and faculty supporters across the curriculum at North Carolina State University. Why and how Meridian was invented is the subject of this article.

The Uses of an Online Journal
Recent decades have been characterized by a ferment of knowledge in the field of K-12 education, paralleled by a dramatic growth in the number of professional conferences and scholarly journals that provide venues for communicating these ideas. At the same time, the actual means for disseminating new information has stagnated. True, there has been some growth in computer-assisted presentations at conferences and the use of teleconferencing. Moreover, the evolution of desktop publishing has eased and speeded up the production of education journals. Yet the form of these professional journals has changed little. The Internet offers exciting possibilities for the communication of knowledge among those engaged in educating young people. One such possibility is the online journal. What are its advantages over more traditional communication?
To begin with, going online enables researchers to communicate their findings more rapidly to classroom teachers. Editors have quick access to research manuscripts and can refer them for review more rapidly. Once manuscripts have been approved for publication, they can be placed online immediately without waiting for a certain number of articles to be published in a single issue of a journal.
Online journals offer wider access to new knowledge. Typically, professional journals are housed in college and university libraries, without easy access for teachers and other professionals who want to use them. Online journals can be accessed anywhere an adequate computer is available—at home, in a school classroom or laboratory, in a university office, or even in a hotel room while traveling. Given the equipment, they are equally available in a university town or a remote rural area.
Online journals make the work of educational researchers easier in allowing for the quick search for archived material. Rather than having to use the print indexes of professional journals and then physically search the journals for the desired information, online journals allow for electronic search and retrieval of archived information. For example, the Current Index to Journals in Education is easily accessed by the “Search ERIC Wizard” at http://ericae.net/search.htm#riecije .
Online journals provide lay persons with access to professional knowledge formerly “locked away” in the private shelves of college and university libraries. Although some of the articles in scholarly journals may not be of interest or easy for lay persons to understand, this information does become available and open to challenge by anyone. Moreover, the wider availability of the information may encourage scholars to make their work more understandable and less coded with specialized professional jargon.
Online journals will certainly be more accessible to teachers and other educators with physical impairments. Persons with limited vision, for example, can enlarge the font size of their Internet browser and read online journals with ease. Technology also affords the possibility of allowing online materials to be read electronically to persons with severe visual impairments.
Online journals will increase the availability of research findings to educators in developing countries who are moving forward to increase their Internet access with an eye toward international collaboration in education. University and school libraries in these countries have often had to settle for outdated educational materials. In The Twilight of Common Dreams, Todd Gitlin notes that “the cultivation of difference is nothing new, but the sheer profusion of identities that claim separate political standing today is unprecedented.”2 As Gitlin rightly claims, many of us in education want and need to celebrate our diversity. But we also want to affirm what we share—in the classic words of Harry Stack Sullivan, that “we are all more simply human than otherwise.”3 The Internet, and online professional journals in particular, can help educators across the world discover their commonalities.
Online journals allow for ever more creative ways of presenting educational research and descriptions of educational programs. Graphics make online journals visually appealing to teachers and other educators. “Ultimately, of course, it’s content that counts the most, and an ugly e-journal with good content is clearly preferable to a beautiful journal with little substance. But it’s the combination of the two that makes a truly outstanding publication.”4 The ability to add graphics, movies, sound, and links to other resources makes the online journal especially useful to teachers. It is one thing to describe a scientific experiment in a chemistry laboratory, and quite another to see it occurring in a QuickTime™ movie. It may be intriguing to read about computer educational games created by middle school students, but it is far more stimulating to be able to try them out online.
Online journals offer the possibility for teachers to communicate with the authors of articles. Some authors are already making themselves available for live discussion of their articles via Internet teleconferencing through such programs as CU-SeeMe. In other cases, simply clicking on the author’s name provides e-mail access to the author.

Meridian: A Link to Middle School Social Studies
The 1992 Task Force on Standards for Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies summarized its vision for powerful social studies teaching and learning in the following statement: “Social studies teaching and learning are powerful when they are meaningful, integrative, value-based, challenging, and active.”5 Our inaugural edition of Meridian was devoted to articles meant to demonstrate how an online journal can exemplify the features of powerful learning.
Meaningful Learning. Meaningful social studies activities are those which require students to process new information by connecting it with their prior knowledge. Lessons that build upon students’ existing schemata and enrich existing concepts are meaningful. Concepts should be considered “hooks on which we hang new information.”6 Rieber, Luke, and Smith discuss and demonstrate meaningful activities in their article, “Project KIDESIGNER: Constructivism at Work through Play.” The purpose of the games included in this article is to optimize students’ innate ability to learn through play.
Students engage in problem solving activities that encourage them to think critically and creatively, while connecting their prior knowledge with their immediate experiences. (See, for example, “Columbus Travels Through Time” on Meridian at http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/feat_1/games.html)
Integrative Learning. Powerful integrative lessons are not merely activities that cross the boundaries of disciplines. Rather, they are multidisciplinary activities conceived with the intent of developing social understanding and civic efficacy goals. “Learning with and about Technology: A Middle School Nature Area” is our example. Fetterman shares the experiences of students who researched the biological and environmental problems of a designated nature area. Using technology to conduct research, analyze data, and disseminate the findings, the students demonstrated the consequences of a broad range of ecological decisions using an integrative approach that involved learning not only about their specific nature area, but about its implications for the world’s ecosystem. (See http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/feat_2/lrntech.html)
Value-based Learning. Value-based social studies education encourages students to weigh the ethical confines of controversial issues and articulate their own viewpoints. Copyright policies, Internet access, and freedom of speech concerns are among the ethical dimensions of computers in schools. Martorella highlights a number of these issues and discusses their consequences in the context of the classroom in his commentary, “Urgent Emerging Issues Related to Technology Applications in Schools.” Links within this article highlight one schoo#146;s attempt to regulate student Internet access with an “Acceptable Use Policy.” (See http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/feat_4/apps.html)
Challenging Learning. Challenging social studies activities involve collaboration within a learning community. Online learning communities may be defined as “a body of individuals who use computer networks to share ideas, information, and insights about a given topic to support the ongoing learning experiences of all the members.”7 McCullen’s article, “Making A Difference,” highlights examples of middle school students actively engaged in powerful learning. An example of student involvement in a global online learning community is the “Web-O-Lution” project, whereby students constructed three-dimensional models and shared cultures with schools in Grodno, Belarus, and Honolulu, Hawaii. Also included is the “I Have a Dream, TOO!” project, which invited children from all over the world to share their dreams in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King. (See http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/feat_5/difference.html)
Active Learning. Active teaching and learning encourages students to process new information in relation to their prior knowledge, and then use reflection to apply it their own experiences. Meridian encourages the reader to engage in active learning through articles such as “Gender and Digital Media.” Teachers reading this article find themselves actively engaged in their own learning process. Goldman-Segall has embedded within the text digital video clips of the middle school students involved in her project. After watching and listening to each of the video clips, readers are invited to post their reflections within a comment box. (See the article at http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/feat_3/gender.html)

“Dewey Wins!” Online
Over the past decade, social studies educators have fostered a renewed interest in John Dewey and his educational ideas.8 An integrated curriculum that relates to individual experiences and requires critical thinking and collaborative decision making was the essence of Dewey’s Laboratory School. A century later, educators are still searching for ways to implement Deweyian reforms in school classrooms.
A headline in The Wall Street Journal recently touted, “Dewey Wins!”.9 The article argues that the constructivist classroom first idealized by Dewey offers the most “fertile ground” for the integration of computers into the curriculum. The Internet empowers students to become active constructors of their own knowledge as they perform collaborative research in a global online learning community. Constructivist learning and instructional technology is a topic being explored on many websites.10
As social studies educators, the creators of Meridian believe it is our responsibility to help develop thinking citizens, and that the best way is through community-centered constructivist classrooms. It is likewise our responsibility to explore emerging technologies and their tremendous potential for the teaching of social studies.


Notes
1. J. A. Turner, “Silicon Snake Oil and Branding,” The Journal of Electronic Publishing (Online: 1997). Available at http://www.press.umich.edu/jep (1995, January 1).
2. Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995).
3. Henry Stack Sullivan, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry (Washington, DC: William Alanson White Psychiatric Foundation, 1947).
4. T. Lieb, “Basic Journal-ism: Tips for Electronic Publishers,” The Journal of Electronic Publishing (Online 1997). Available on the Web at http://www.press.umich.edu/jep (1995, January 1).
5. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: Author, 1994), 162.
6. Peter Martorella, Teaching Social Studies in Middle and Secondary Schools (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), 164.
7. Lynn Fontana, “Online Learning Communities: Implications for then Social Studies,” in Peter Martorella, ed., Interactive Technologies and the Social Studies (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996), 4.
8. A. Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (New York: Norton, 1995).
9. Robert Cwiklik, “Dewey Wins!”, The Wall Street Journal (November 17, 1997): R-19.
10. See, for example, the National Museum of American Art’s web page (http://nmaa-ryder.si.edu/deptdir/pubsub/re_constructivist.html) on constructivism and technology.

Cheryl L. Mason is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at North Carolina State University. Edwin R. Gerler, Jr. is associate dean for research and external affairs in the College of Education and Psychology at North Carolina State University. To contact Meridian with questions or manuscript submissions, send e-mail to meridian@poe.coe.ncsu.edu.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.