Moving Beyond Access in K-12 Education
Saturday, May 1, 1999


Online Inquiry: From Classroom Curriculum to District Adoption and Everything In Between

Keynote Speaker: Elliot Soloway

[These are edited summaries, not complete transcripts.]

We have spent a lot of money to wire the schools, but we are just beginning to think about how to make something that people want, then how to get it into the schools, and how to make it sustainable after the money runs out. I am going to share some of the experiences that I and my colleagues at the University of Michigan have had which reflect on these issues. In the The National Science Foundation Center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools (LetUS), we focus on science, inquiry based pedagogy, technology, learner centered design, and we also try to address sustainability.

One of our projects called the Middle Years Digital Library (MYDL) works for High School down to fourth or fifth grade. In conjunction with that, we have created curriculum units for sixth grade science that cover geology, weather, astronomy, and ecology . Those are integrated with an overall curriculum based on the Michigan standards. Standards are critical, because they drive change -- for better or worse. Luckily, the four key curriculum areas -- Science, Language Arts, Math and Social Studies-- all have standards making groups that say the same thing. This quote captures their views about the changes needed in pedagogy "Inquiry into authentic questions generated from student experiences is the central strategy for teaching science." (National Research Council, National Science Education Standards, 1996, p. 31) If you start with the kids ideas and what is motivating to them, and then build the content and process around it, it changes what goes on.

What is the role of technology in this? When you first get a new technology, it mimics old technology, so it is not surprising that teachers are using the Internet to deliver electronic text books. They find a great site like NASA's Windows on the Universe and have their kids look at it to answer five questions they have been given. That is the place to start, but we shouldn't stop there. If the Internet is simply a vehicle to deliver an electronic text book, then we are busting our chops for nothing. In MYDL, we turn it around just a little bit. Instead of us inventing the questions, we have the kids invent the questions. It is hard to get kids to ask their own questions, and we do need to spend days helping them learn how to do it. Maybe the first time, their question isn't the greatest, but by the fourth time, they can think of great questions.

Why is the Internet technology important? Imagine thirty kids going down to the Media Specialist with their own individual question and asking for a book about it. No school library could have the resources to be able to deal with all the questions the kids come up with on their own. The only way to address the diversity of questions is the Internet.

Unfortunately, we must deal with what the Internet is, rather than what it could be. The Internet could be the idea that a vast amount of valuable resources are at hand, but it is too overwhelming. If you type something in, you get a million hits. Consider these ratios. Right now, there are 500,000 books and magazines published each year with roughly 50,000 librarians cataloging them. On the other hand, there are three hundred million web pages on the Internet, and it doubles every three months. Meanwhile, there are sixteen people in the back room scribbling madly. This model won't scale. Right now, we don't search the Internet in the MYDL. We have a digital librarian who tries to find and make summaries of good web sites to construct a digital library, so when the kids search, they only get a few hits rather than 100,000.

When schools adopt a curriculum like MYDL, how do you get teachers to think that time on the Internet is time well spent so that they will use it? Curriculum and the professional development are very important, because that is what convinces a typical teacher that it is valuable enough to use. We run professional development workshops in August like everyone else, and then we have workshops every two weeks after school too. We also involve administrators. You canšt put change solely on the backs of teachers! I have moved away from only dealing with classroom teachers, and more towards dealing with administrators, because change has to come all the way from the top as well as the bottom. If you only work from teacher-centric change, there isn't a chance it is going to work. When it is on teachers' backs, and their energy dies, it will go away. How much energy can they put out? If it is systemic, then change is possible.


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