More than Just a Pretty Interface
Access, Content, and Relevance in Computer Technology

Brenda Mitchell-Powell

Technology clearly offers communication options unavailable or inaccessible without an electronic superhighway. But technology is not a panacea. And shortcomings are glaring in teaching and learning environments where efficiency and effectiveness are gauged quantitatively rather than qualitatively.

Technological Parameters

The ease of entry, immediate gratification, and interactive appeal of computer technology exert tremendous influence on teaching approaches and learning styles for students weaned on animated talking heads and sound bites of information. Initially envisioned as entertainment tools, computers now function as surrogate companions or instructors tirelessly introducing skills via game-based formats. In a recent Boston Globe article, for example, Ronald Rosenberg reports that over 330 new software programs were introduced for children ages
3 to 15 compared with 228 in 1993, and that over half of those programs are in CD-ROM (compact disc—read-only memory) format (1994, p.92). He notes that CD-ROM drives are now included in about half of the personal computers sold (Ibid., p.93).

This CD-ROM boom typifies recent hardware developments that increase opportunities and broaden applications for computer technology. Especially popular are task- oriented discs, such as book production, spelling mastery, or typing instruction. Discs that use visual stimuli to create high-interest skill-building units in art, math, geography, and creative writing are similarly well-received by students. Also popular are CD-ROM versions of reference products (encyclopedias or atlases, for instance) that enhance printed text with audio and video options. Reference discs offer the added advantage of space and cost efficiency gained through reduced storage requirements (Lyall, 1994; Rosenberg, 1994).

Increased opportunities and broadened applications for technology apply to hardware systems as well as formats. For example, certain high-end Macintosh computers now accommodate IBM PC-compatible Windows-based applications, thus eliminating complicated translation problems or the need for multiple machines. And Apple now licenses their operating system to other computer manufacturers, thereby offering the promise of reduced system prices.

The costs of these ever-changing technological developments, however, continue to outpace the budgets of most school districts and individuals. Meanwhile, the differing needs or objectives of commercial users and vendors and those of nonprofit, spirit-of-inquiry sponsors fuel marketplace anxieties. In fact commercial users and vendors have only recently been welcomed in traditional educational environments. The Federation of Academic and Research Networks (FARNET), which helped to develop network policies and shape the National Research and Education Network (NREN), is a notable exception (Hoffman, 1994 ).

The Selected List of Educational Networks contains further information on FARNET and NREN.
Further complicating the potential benefits of computer technology are the concerns with ownership and management of systems and software. Commercial vendors, such as conglomerate packagers or telecommunication companies, compete directly with nonprofit, independent, or federally subsidized and controlled systems by offering well-financed and timely or specialized products and services that increasingly influence the direction and share of electronic markets. Bilateral partnerships, which pair public-sector needs with private-sector capabilities, now affect traditional educational environments, but commodification and privatization still dominate discussions regarding information access and content control (Druckrey, 1994; French, 1994; Laflin, 1994; Zulu, 1994).

Access, Content, and Relevance

On-line services are available in distinct types, each of which involves distinct access procedures and protocols. Service types include discussion lists (E-mail), news groups, bulletin board systems, and gopher servers.
Internet resources for educators are primarily conversational exchanges through E-mail or news groups. These exchanges, in contrast to interactive conference or “chat” modes, are electronic analogs of messages and responses. The electronic-analog format facilitates system entry and operation, especially for technological novices; but it limits the range of potential conversants by restricting responses between geographical, chronological, and cultural areas. Substantial variations, such as those between countries or continents, significantly reduce the potential benefit of electronic interaction.

Conversations limited by language differences, for instance, may require translation assistance. Not all electronic systems include automated and/or automatic translation tools, and not all such tools are effective. Beyond considerations of hardware efficacy, however, are concerns for the quality of the translation. Even the most efficient translation may prove to be inappropriate or ineffective.
Variables in cultural response patterns may also discourage conversational exchanges that could lead to mutual learning opportunities. “Timeliness,” for example, is a reflection of both culture and custom. If the accepted cultural norms for appropriate response time between conversants is unacceptable, satisfactory exchange may not be possible.
Arguably, the most profound concerns with electronic conversational exchanges in educational applications are differences in instructional strategies and modalities across cultures. Cross-cultural exchanges may seem exciting, but major differences in teaching approaches, learning styles, and study habits can pose insurmountable challenges even for the most dedicated multiculturalist. An innocently posed query from one cultural group, for example, may exceed the acceptable standards for personal interaction for another group (Gilton, 1994).

Respect for cultural differences and commitment to relevant, realistic materials is modeled in a discussion note from Internet guru Dave Hughes. In a posting to the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), Hughes recounts the enthusiasm with which Native American teenagers embraced the Internet when given an opportunity to sample Indian-created art and literature. This enthusiasm was a marked contrast to the “polite, quiet interest” displayed during Hughes’ introduction to the technology and to the students’ E-mail discussions with Dr. George Johnston, a MIT-based physicist (Hughes, 1994).


Effective communication requires more than a simple exchange of verbal or nonverbal language. While emerging computer technologies offer untold promise for K-12 teaching and learning environments, evangelism must include realistic and responsible expectations of market dynamics, accountability, and purposefulness. Above all, both novice and seasoned practitioners should remember that tools merely facilitate labor. They are not ends in and of themselves.

References &
Recommended Resources*
Druckrey, T. (1994). Introduction. In G. Bender, & T. Druckrey (Eds.), Culture on the brink: Ideologies of technology (pp. 1-12). Seattle, WA: Bay Press.
French, H. W. (1994, October 1). Linked to Internet, Could Africa’s voice be heard? The New York Times, p.2.
Gilton, D. L. (1994) A world of
difference: Preparing for information literacy instruction for diverse groups. MultiCultural Review, 3(4), 54-56.
Hoffman, P. E. (1994). Internet instant reference. San Francisco, CA: Sybex.*
Hughes, D. (1994, November).
As quoted in Enough of White Man’s ASCII, an unattributed editorial sidebar. College & Research Libraries News, p.635.
Laflin, M. (1993). Development communications: An alternative to what? In D. Nostbakken, &
C. Morrow (Eds.), Cultural Expression in the Global Village (pp. 101-109). Nostbakken, Penang, Malaysia: Southbound/ Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: International Development Research Centre.
LaQuey, T., with Ryer, J. C. (1993). The Internet companion:
A beginner’s guide to global networking. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.*
Lyall, S. (1994, August 14). Are these books, or what? CD-ROM and the literary industry. The New York Times Book Review, pp.3, 20-21.
Pfaffenberger, B., with Bruce, W. R. III, & Stanley, T. S. (1990). Que’s computer user’s dictionary. Carmel, IN: Que Corporation.*
Rosenberg, R. (1994, November 20). An ever-exploding market. The Boston Globe, p.92.
Zulu, I. M. (1994, August ). Dynamics of information apartheid. Paper presented at the Second National Conference of African American Librarians, sponsored by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA), Milwaukee, WI.
A Selected List of Educational Networks Serving K-12 Users

Consortium for School Networking (CoSN)
CoSN is a nonprofit organization dedicated to network interaction between K-12 teachers and students.
• gopher:
• mail: cosn@bitnic.bitnet
Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN)
CREN oversees the Because It’s Time Network (BITNET, which was developed by EDUCOM, a nonprofit educational consortium for college and university communication) and its member files.
• gopher:
• mail:
Educational Native American Network (ENAN)
ENAN was established by and for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP) schools that serve Native American children. As of November 1994, the network was not available through Internet, though access is forthcoming. Call 505-227-7310 for additional information and to obtain the password and toll-free number for dial-in access. ENAN provides information on classroom practices and ideas, curriculum materials and resources, online courses, and instructional projects.

Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC)
ERIC is a federally funded program for K-12 education-related resources. Included are teaching and learning strategies, information technology, and administrative topics. AskERIC, one of the available resources, is a project to develop and study Internet-based education information
services, systems, and tools for K-12 administrators, teachers, and students.

Educational Resources
• Mailing List
K12admin (access: list is a discussion forum for K-12 administrators.
• Gopher Server
The host accessed with is a Duquesne University-supported server for global dialogue for fifth through tenth grade students.
Federation of Academic and Research Networks (FARNET)
FARNET supports computer use in research and in schools. FARNET also was largely responsible for the support of the National Research and Education Network (NREN), the federal initiative conceived to improve network information and access to students. If successfully implemented, the federal legislation associated with NREN would provide Internet access for thousands of K-12 schools across the United States.
Access: gopher:

About the Author
Brenda Mitchell-Powell is a writer and editor whose red pens and #2 lead pencils peacefully coexist with her Macintosh® peripherals.