Casting a Wider “Net”:
Web Tools for
Social Studies Teachers

 

C. Frederick Risinger

For five years, I’ve been writing in this column about using the Internet as an instructional resource in K-12 social studies education. Most of the columns have been built on the theme featured in a particular issue of Social Education and, as a result, focused on websites that contain primarily social studies content. In this column, I’d like to identify websites that do not necessarily contain social studies content, and may not even be education-oriented sites. Yet, I think that each of them provides opportunities for social studies teachers to become more effective in their work … and maybe have a little fun, too.

 

File Management Websites for Teachers on the Move

One chore of many teachers who use technology and the Internet arises from working on multiple computers. Many teachers have a computer at home and one at school. The school computer may have to be shared with several teachers. Other teachers need to do some of their work in a computer lab or in a faculty office area with three or four different computers. Some teachers, like my speech pathologist wife, travel between two or more schools and a central office. In all of these cases, moving files from one computer to another and maintaining up-to-date versions is always a chore and, in some situations, a nearly impossible task. Sure, you can download your files onto a floppy disk or, if you’re lucky or smart enough to have Zip™ drives in the computers you use, onto a Zip 100 or the newer Zip 250 disks. But you have to remember to take them wherever you go and, all too often, the next computer maddeningly refuses to “recognize” the diskette or the file.

An answer to this dilemma, and a neat idea with many more possibilities, is to use a file management website to store your files and make them available from any computer—anywhere in the world—that has Internet access. There are several websites that provide this service. My favorite was Driveway, but in the middle of writing this article, Driveway went out of business. They recommended FreeDrive (www.freedrive.com), and I’ve transferred my files there. With this and other services, you can save all your files—including pictures, your Internet bookmarks, spreadsheets (great for grade books), and any other file—on their server. Then, when you get to your computer at home or another school, you simply log onto the Internet, go to your password-protected FreeDrive account, and download the file you’re working with. If you make changes, save them, upload them to your account, and the next time you download from another location, your file will be updated. You can also make backups of all your important files and keep them on FreeDrive. You just have to be sure to update the backups every week or so—or whenever you make changes to important files.

Last summer, I gave a workshop to civics teachers in Kentucky. I wanted to show them some slides, provide them with an annotated bibliography of websites, and conduct a “tour” of several sites that I thought were particularly relevant to their interests. I took one copy of the bibliography and a Zip 100 disk just in case. But, to illustrate what these storage sites can do, I uploaded the PowerPoint slides, the bibliography, and every website page I wanted to show to my Driveway account. Before the workshop began, I downloaded these files into the demonstration computer. Everything worked like a charm. That workshop file is now stored on FreeDrive. I could fly to Tokyo tomorrow and download it there. Or, I could “share” it with a colleague, and he or she could give the workshop using my materials. Any file can be “shared” by simply clicking on the “Share file” icon at FreeDrive. The person or persons you want to have access to the file receives an e-mail message including the address and a password for that specific file only. This is a great feature if you’re working collaboratively with a group of people on a project.

As mentioned, there are several sites that provide similar services. All are free. Myspace (www.myspace.com) is very similar and gives you twice as much space (50 MB versus 25 MB), but it seems slower to me, probably because it has more advertisements cluttering up the screen and requiring downloading. Another site, i-drive (www.idrive.com), looks promising. It also offers 50 MB of space and seems especially well oriented to college students. It has partnership arrangements with universities from Stanford to Wake Forest.

While I am recommending these file management websites primarily for teacher use, there’s no reason why students, student groups, or even an entire class couldn’t use these features. For example, a teacher could put assignments, readings, or a series of websites on FreeDrive or i-drive, and give students the right to download and print the files. Students working in cooperative groups could also exchange files, make changes, and work together to develop a finished product. This could be done by students in different classes, different schools within the district, or students from schools across the country or world. Now, I’m going to upload this article to my FreeDrive file, go to my office, and work on it there. No more lost or non-working floppies for me.

 

Classroom Management Websites

No doubt about it, education is big business. This applies to public K-12 education as much as it does to higher education or corporate education and training. The proliferation of websites that provide services to teachers attests to this. Several of these sites provide free “classroom portals” for teachers willing to take a little time to set up and maintain them. Most provide online grade books, grade-calculating tools, homework and project suggestions, and many other services for both web-savvy teachers and Web beginners. The other service these sites provide is a wide array of student activities that can be integrated into your curriculum and instruction. These include “virtual field trips,” educational games, and projects—both individualized and group endeavors—that can last one day or a full year.

Of course, the “digital divide”—the new class structure in the United States that separates us into those who have open and ready access to the Internet and those who don’t—can make some of these services and tools irrelevant if you want to use a classroom website to communicate with your students. However, there are several sites worth checking out to see how they might help you in your work or stimulate your ideas about how the Internet can do more than just supply content for your teaching.

One of the oldest and most comprehensive of these sites is Global Schoolhouse (www.gsh.org). You really have to explore this site to get an idea of all the tools and services it offers classroom teachers and even entire schools. Instructions for setting your own classroom website are easy to follow. You can select which of more than 100,000 educator-reviewed websites you want displayed on your site. Your site, which is password protected, can be a showcase for student work, a place where students and parents can view current and future assignments, and a place to include all the Web resources you want for your students. Global Schoolhouse also lets you see other teachers’ classroom sites as examples. One link that I found useful was “Make a Difference,” which describes student service projects in the United States and other nations. Their “Online Expedition” link allows you and your students to follow any of a dozen expeditions to all parts of the globe, for example, the Jason Project. There are over 1,500 lesson plans for online activity, downloadable worksheets in all subject areas, and professional development projects for teachers.

Homeworkspot (www.homeworkspot.com) has more resources than you can imagine on one site. It is categorized by grade level and by subject, so middle school social studies teachers have a different set of resources and tools than do their high school counterparts. The home page links to “field trips” to the White House, to volcanoes, and to Ancient Egypt. Currently, the page is featuring a student project on World War II and a special exhibit on the Apollo Moon Landing. A “teacher’s page” leads you directly to national and state curriculum standards, hundreds of lesson plans (again categorized by subject and grade level), and a fantastic clip art gallery, where you can download graphics and pictures for use in your own lessons.

LearningGate (www.learninggate.com) is another site that has separate pages for teachers, parents, and students. They offer “WebGrader,” a web-based grade book that keeps attendance records, does grade calculating and averaging, allows students and parents to view grades, and can be accessed from your home on the Web. And, the company maintains that files are completely confidential and secure. LearningGate also has links for all subject areas, lesson plans, and professional development activities. It has a friendly interface and is easy to navigate.

 

Your Own E-Mail Account

E-mail has changed the way we communicate. A decade ago, I received four or five letters from out of town daily, and about the same number of memos from colleagues inside Indiana University. Today, I receive no less than 85-100 messages daily via e-mail. Some are my own fault. I subscribe to a financial website that sends daily messages and a cable television site that does the same. (I’m the chair of my county’s telecommunications commission.) But most of the mail comes from students and colleagues. It’s easy to overlook or neglect mail from close friends, my kids, and others who aren’t among my professional contacts. I’ve found it more convenient to have a free e-mail account separate from my Indiana University e-mail.

There are dozens of services that provide free e-mail. The largest two are Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com) and Hotmail, which is available from Microsoft’s MSN network (www.msn.com). I’ve used them both and find them both excellent. Hotmail allows me to customize my fonts and styles a bit more. Both give you the ability to set up a personalized startup page where you can select news features, weather in various cities, and even your personalized daily television guide. You can access Yahoo! or Hotmail from any Internet-accessible computer in the world. I think it’s a good idea to have an e-mail account separate from the one at your workplace.

 

Fun . . . Yet Useful Sites

Many social studies teachers like to use material from Internet sites that include many graphics, click art, and lots of text. If you want to download just the text, that can be difficult. If you are on the Library of Congress site, you might want to download photographs from the Great Depression. Many home computers don’t have enough hard drive space to store all this information. And, you may not have space on your school computer, or you have to share it with colleagues.

One solution is to use iHarvest (www.iharvest.com), a useful tool that you can download free online. It only works on Windows operating systems, but a Macintosh version should be ready soon. iHarvest downloads a toolbar on your computer, gives you 10MB of space (about enough for 150 web pages) and stores the “harvested” material on its server. You can access the harvested material from any Internet-accessible computer; so, you could save web pages from a home computer and load them quickly from another one. I have stored the huge CIA report, “The World in 2015,” and 15 world history web pages for a project I’m working on. This frees up my computer’s hard drive and lets me access my “harvested” pages at work, from home, or from a computer set up at a conference. You can create a “slide show” comprised of the websites you want to demonstrate.

Do you want to calculate time zone differences, convert rubles into dollars, figure the odds in any game of chance, determine the distance from any point on Earth to another, or translate your name into Chinese? You can do these things and a jillion more at the Calculators on Line Center (www-sci.lib.uci.edu/HSG/RefCalculators.html). The site contains over 13,000 calculators and includes a world computer virus map, language dictionaries, and new and used car pricing calculators.

Matt Drudge broke the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal on his online site, The Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com). While he’s not a particularly likeable guy, his website is known for breaking news. He beat all the traditional news sources on President Bush’s recent bombing of Iraq by more than 10 minutes. I check it out once or twice daily for news bulletins. More useful to teachers and others interested in news, he has links to just about every columnist in every newspaper in the United States, plus links to other interesting and hard-to-find news sources. You can read bulletins and news summaries from the Jerusalem Post; the Manchester Guardian; the Islamic Republic wire service; and news sources in North Korea, China, and Japan. What better way to have U.S. students see world news from other perspectives?

Billing itself as “your personal web tour guide,” eTour (www.etour.com) has been named the “most addictive site” by the Industry Standard. It’s free and easy to set up and use. You identify topics you’re interested in (mine included technology/Internet, politics/current events, gardening, and education) and eTour selects appropriate sites for you. When you log on, there’s a different “tour” each time. Generally, I find one or two sites in each tour that are worthy of being added to my bookmarks. Many of the topics from which you can select have relevance to social studies and to teaching. If you want, you can configure it to send you periodic e-mail announcing a tour on one of your selected topics. There is some advertising on the site, but it’s not obtrusive.

I have at least a dozen more sites that I could include in this listing of “Non-Social Studies Sites for Social Studies Teachers.” They will have to wait for a future column. If you have suggestions for interesting, useful, and fun sites that other teachers should know about, send them to me (with a brief description and telling why you like them), and I’ll either include them in a column or feature them on my Social Studies Sources site (www.indiana.edu/~socialst). See you next time, and happy surfing.

 

C. Frederick Risinger is a former NCSS president who coordinates social studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, directs a professional development program, and spends far too much time web surfing.