The Social Studies Classroom on the Eve of the Cyber Century

 

Jana Sackman Eaton

We are enveloped in a phenomenal transformation from a globe based on atoms and analog technology to a digitized universe, where bits travel at the speed of light and the rapidity of change is exponential. The social studies classroom of tomorrow is one in which most information will be transmitted via digitized information superhighways. Paper will be replaced by a computerized equivalent, lightweight and electronically erasable. School buildings and classroom configurations will undergo metamorphoses, with computer laboratories replacing the traditional social studies classroom.

In the new cyber era, distance instruction will become commonplace. The perfection of voice recognition, video conferencing, and related computer communication technologies will result in more user friendly and interactive learning environments for the delivery of this instruction. Sophisticated computer simulations, instant access to experts, online research and publication, cross-cultural communication, virtual field trips, and access to a plethora of resources are present realities and critical inclusions in all future social studies curricula.

Our role as social studies teachers will also change profoundly. No longer will we lecture in teacher-centered, text-based classes with neat rows of desks. Rather, we will become mentors in an instructional environment that is decidedly student-centered, discovery-based, conducive to collaboration, and accommodating of all learning styles and intelligences.

Given a classroom computer and online access, it is possible to move your classroom into the cyber world of tomorrow, even if you are not particularly computer literate. First, having your own web pages can enhance communication with students and parents, provide a venue for publishing student work, encompass multimedia presentations, and direct students in projects and research assignments. Second, you can bring a limitless world of resources into your classroom to augment the relatively meager sources available in even the best-provisioned secondary library. This can enhance your instruction, better engage the learners, and provide for dazzling multimedia presentations. Finally, you can prepare your students to select materials critically, and to interpret, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize the data so that they become intelligent and efficient information processors.

 

Piloting Internet Access

Our school has had Internet access for four years now, and I was fortunate enough to participate in the pilot program. While serious questions were raised about all of the flotsam on the Internet, and whether or not to filter the material to which students would have access (we decided against), many of us quickly discovered that there was a veritable cornucopia of information there for the taking.

As a teacher of Afro-Asian Cultural Studies and Advanced Placement Comparative Government and Politics, I had often been frustrated by the lack of resources available, not only in our high school library, but in the community libraries as well. As more schools offer a greater variety of A.P. courses, there is a corresponding need for access to academic journals and resources that high school libraries cannot be expected to support or maintain, yet much of which is available on the Internet or through it via subscriber databases (such as GaleNet and Proquest).

Creating a Web Page

After I learned how to navigate the Net, my next step was to design and write my own social studies web pages. At the time, I was unaware that there were templates and software available for web page creation, so I located Internet sources with instructions for programming in “raw” HTML and designed my own; the project took the better part of a weekend. I wanted my web pages to provide information that parents would deem valuable, as well as research and project tools for students, assignments that could be viewed by concerned parents or absent students, a forum for creating presentations or publishing student work, and e-mail access to me. When our school moves to a standard computerized grading system, I would also like students and parents to be able to access their current grades on my web pages.

The creation of web pages has become much simpler now that software is available that will translate your text into HTML—the HyperText Markup Language that is most commonly used to transmit and read information on the Internet. You don’t need to know how to write HTML. Many schools have started technology clubs, where computer-savvy students assist teachers in designing their own web pages. If you insist on writing your own programs, there are myriad tutorials on the Internet to assist you. You might start with the sites listed under “Computers and Internet” in the Yahoo! or Looksmart hierarchical directories (Yahoo!: www.yahoo.com; Looksmart: www.looksmart.com).

Although my own web pages are not as sophisticated in appearance as those made with programs such as FrontPage or DreamWeaver, they are functional. Students frequently visit the pages from home to check on assignment due dates, to use the bookmarked news and research sources for the various content units, and to e-mail me with questions. Likewise, parents may view photos of the students, check the assignments page, and use the built-in e-mail feature to check on the progress of their sons or daughters. While some of my colleagues fear being flooded with e-mail, I have not found this to be the case. In fact, I have found that it takes considerably less time to respond via e-mail than to play “phone tag” or converse with parents during needed planning periods.

I also have an icon in which students may type their ZIP codes and click to find the names of their Congressmen and how to contact them—including e-mailing directly from the site. This free “badge” may be attached to your own web page, compliments of Congress.Com, and is available at congress.org/main.html. Another free program that may be incorporated into your own pages is a counter that will keep track of the number of times your website has been visited. There are many counters available as shareware or freeware on the Internet, as well as animations and images, sound clips, e-mail programs, videoconferencing programs—the list goes on. One site with a multitude of links to free programs that can be downloaded is located at www.highpower.net/softwareshareware.htm.

The student assignment page, which I post approximately one month in advance of the due dates, contains all assignments. It can be printed out to send home to absent students who do not have Internet access. You may also include the specific instructions for projects and papers here, as well as your grading rubric. The “What’s New?” page informs parents of special projects or activities, such as forthcoming field trips.

Because I did research in China and Japan during the past two summers, I have posted synopses of my observations and findings on my web pages. Additionally, I have photo “galleries” for both countries that I use for presentations throughout the school district, the community, and at various conferences. I use either an overhead with an LCD (liquid crystal display) panel or a large monitor for projecting the images.

On the page titled “Bookmarks,” I’ve included links to search engines, news sources, reference materials, and government and culture websites. Included, for example, are links to the following sites: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Virtual Reference Desk, Political Leaders, Maps, the United Nations Homepages, Constitutions, China the Beautiful, the National Museum of African Art, the Japanese Parliament, The China Daily, the Library of Congress, and Thomas Legislative Information. You may copy my URLs (Uniform Resource Locators, or web addresses) by clicking on “view the source” in your web browser.

Besides developing your own web pages, you can use technology and the Internet to deliver, enrich, or augment the curriculum; create enticing presentations; conduct in-depth research; stay in touch with colleagues; bridge the gap between secondary and collegiate institutions; participate in online cross-cultural projects with schools in a host of countries; and consult experts who were previously unavailable.

 

Learning in Cyberspace

Several years ago, my students indicated that they would be interested in “doing a project” with a school in some area we were studying. An Internet search located which schools in these countries had websites in English. We decided to work with a school in Kobe, Japan. After numerous e-mail messages between the Kobe teachers and me, we and our students decided to do a survey together. Its purpose was to gather data for a comparative analysis of gender roles and role socialization in our respective societies. After the surveys had been tallied, the students interpreted the results and posted them on their websites. They were all amazed at some of the differences, but found that they also had more in common than anticipated. This comparative cross-cultural gender studies project is an example of what can be done online with a partner school.

I do require all students to learn how to use advanced Internet search techniques using Boolean operators, and to make presentations using Internet sources. Information on how to do advanced searches may be obtained on the help pages of your search engine; AltaVista is my favorite at the moment and has an excellent help section with clear explanations as to using Boolean operators. You’ll find it at www.altavista.com/av/content/help_advanced.htm Many students go further to design elaborate presentations with the HyperStudio or PowerPoint programs. For example, my students in the twelfth-grade A.P. Comparative Government and Politics class presented a series of lessons on the British government and politics. They used PowerPoint slides, designed their web pages with FrontPage, and included links to related sites, outlines of their materials, enrichment activities, quizzes, and review materials. (Their work may be viewed at members.tripod.com/govchapter9)

Because many texts are hopelessly out-of-date or unavailable, I “teach” some units entirely from the Internet. The United Nations and European Union web pages, for example, contain everything that my students need to know about these institutions and are continually updated. I design assignment packages where students record and explain information, compare, classify, evaluate, analyze, synthesize, etc. When we are in the one networked computer lab, students usually work alone, but in the library they work in groups, clustered around the eleven online computers. (I also have two Power Macintosh™ computers in the classroom with Internet access, thanks to a grant for one computer and a contest in which I won the other computer.) Contrary to the widely held belief that extensive computer use fosters social isolation, I have found the opposite to be true: students collaborate extensively in either setting when permitted to do so and are almost always on task.

Sometimes I take my students on virtual “treasure hunts.” In Russia, for example, they discovered the jewels of the Czars, the Cyrillic alphabet, St. Basi#146;s Cathedral, and examples of Russian art and folklore (Friends and Partners: www.friends–partners.org/friends/index.htmlopt-tables-mac-english; New Russia: www.interknowledge.com/russia). Tenth graders studied Africa and made presentations on the art housed in the Smithsonian’s virtual National Museum of African Art (www.si.edu/organiza/museums/africart/nmafa.htm). While learning about the Middle East, students focused on the Out There News Megastories site (www.megastories.com/ mideast/index.htm), which contains in-depth information on the Arab-Israeli conflict and used this as a basis for multimedia presentations and a paper, “Is Peace Possible?”

In conjunction with the unit on China, students journeyed to the “China the Beautifu#148; site (www.chinapage.com/china-rm.html), with its magnificent display of exquisite art work and calligraphy of the masters, as well as pages of poems, novels, and opera synopses. This site has downloadable software for reading Chinese, as well as soundbites in Chinese. During a Fulbright trip to China this past summer, I became intrigued with the practice of Feng Shui, and have since discovered a number of websites on the topic. I subsequently designed a project in which students will use these sites to redesign the layouts of rooms in their homes to reflect the principles of this Eastern philosophy.

My A.P. classes turned to the web pages of the British Conservative (www.conservative-party.org.uk), Labour (www.labour.org.uk), and Liberal Democratic (www.libdems.org.uk) parties to compare their platforms on leading issues in order to write an analytical paper. They researched the Net and the Proquest databases to bolster their arguments in debates on whether the monarchy or House of Lords should be abolished. The A.P. students also frequently consult political constitutions on the Net (www.uni-wuerzburg.de/law), as well as a site listing countries’ political leaders (www.geocities.com/Athens/1058/rulers.html). Another good route to information is the A. P. LISTSERV (a mailing list for A.P. government teachers and political scientists who serve as consultants to the A. P. Program).

The abundance of domestic and foreign news sources also introduces exciting possibilities. Comparing news as it is reported in the various online papers around the world presents students with varying perspectives and underlying cultural assumptions, and provides a unique opportunity for comparative analysis in the social studies classroom.

 

Cornucopia …but not Utopia

Finally, it is imperative that students learn how to evaluate critically materials gleaned from the web. I use my own evaluation tool, which is a two-page form, but there are others readily available on the Net. (See Kathy Schrock’s page on critical evaluation tools at discoveryschool.com/schrockguide/eval.html.) On my evaluation form, students identify the site by name and URL and note when the site was last updated; the site’s author and sources if listed; the relevance and depth of the material; the domain (government, commercial, educational, organizational, network, military, or state) and its possible impact on reliability, biases, or points-of-view; links to other sources; bibliographies; and means of verifying the accuracy of information.

The nascent information superhighway, as sensational as it is, is not Utopia. Lessons must be carefully crafted, as considerable class time can be wasted on fruitless or unskilled searches. Teachers must determine whether the search or the content is central to the particular lesson; if you are after content, it is usually more efficient to provide the sites that you have previewed for the lesson rather than to have your students spend the class period searching.

Both students and teachers must become skilled at weeding out superficial, misleading or inaccurate material. Limited bandwidth and sluggish processors can make Internet access extremely slow. Yet the advantages of having online capabilities and skills far outweigh the inconveniences and drawbacks of the Internet. Like it or not, this is a highly transitional, perhaps even revolutionary, period of time. It is incumbent on all of us to plunge boldly into cyberspace with our social studies classes and into to a highly connected twenty-first century if we are to prepare our students for the unprecedented challenges of the digital age.

 

Jana Eaton teaches at Unionville High School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. She was a “Pennsylvania Social Studies Teacher of the Year” (1998), and has received national recognition for integrating the Internet and technology into the curriculum. Her web page address is www.ucf.k12.pa.us/jeaton.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.