Web goes to school Technology: Maryland teachers pack training sessions to learn how to use the Internet's flood of information to best advantage in their classrooms.

July 28, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

It is the most exciting education development in decades.

President Clinton wants every school to have it by the year 2000. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening is in a bigger hurry; he wants all 1,262 Free State public schools to have it by winter. To make that possible, volunteers will spread across Maryland in late September to bring it to 700 schools in a single weekend.

Yet those most familiar with the Internet have been warning for some time that the new technology is not what it's cracked up to be.

While many credit the Internet with changing the face of %J communications in a shrinking, increasingly high-tech world, very few teachers are capable of using it effectively, according to a number of experts.

"People think that because the Internet has such awesome possibilities, all they need to do is get it in their schools," said Charles Phillips, an instructional technology teacher at Western Maryland College and librarian at Brunswick High School in Frederick County.

"Well, computers don't teach. Teachers teach. Computers are just another tool."

The Internet is a paradox. Students can "talk live" with NASA astronauts, gather up-to-the-second weather and water-quality data from buoys in the Chesapeake Bay, chat with fellow students around the globe, do research at the Library of Congress.

"I never thought I'd see the day when teachers would pack meeting rooms seeking knowledge about technology," said Genevieve Knight, a mathematics professor at Coppin State College. "The way technology is driving society, the people who learn it are the ones who will survive."

But the Internet also has several deficiencies, some of which it shares with television, a technology that has never gained a strong foothold in education:

There's too much information on the Internet's World Wide Web, not too little. "It's like drinking from a fire hydrant," said Dennis E. Hinkle, dean of education at Towson State University, the state's largest trainer of teachers.

"The challenge is to help teachers understand how to choose from among the information and, in turn, make learners of their students. That's the most difficult challenge we face in education," he said.

A recent workshop at the Governor's Academy for Mathematics, Science and Technology, a state-sponsored refresher course for working teachers at Towson State University, illustrated the Internet's possibilities -- and its awesome overkill.

Working in Towson's state-of-the-art computer laboratory, Delaware education consultant James King introduced 25 elementary-school teachers to the World Wide Web, leading them to a Web site where they could call up a photograph (or digital impression) of any moon in the solar system.

"Incredible!" said one teacher as she looked at a digital photo of Io, one of Jupiter's 16 moons. Then, as she thought of the reality of her classroom: "But what would I do with this? What do my students care what Io looks like?"

The World Wide Web is a awkward performer, and much of the data on it is unreliable. Even with the fastest of modems, the Web is often "down," and teachers don't have time to deal with its vagaries. Quite often, information can be found in a classroom encyclopedia in much less time than it takes to find it on the Web.

"Teachers have to do much of their work before they expose students to the Internet," Phillips said. "They have to find something useful, preferably download it so they'll have it readily available, and then work backward from that."

The Web is not only clumsy, what's on it is largely static, at least thus far in the development of the technology. Ramu Kannan, who will teach a new Coppin State College course this fall in computer literacy, said it's ironic that children so steeped in fast-paced computer games often find the Internet a colossal bore.

Computers are expensive and wear out or become outdated quickly, according to Towson State's Hinkle. Hinkle is concerned that about half the computers in the state are "low-end," according to a new state Department of Education survey, meaning they cannot connect with the Internet.

"You can still do many useful things with these computers, such as word processing," he said. "But the fact is that many of them are hand-me-downs. Maryland students deserve better."

There is a growing equity problem. The rich get richer in computers and the poor poorer, although Barbara Reeves, director of instructional technology in the Education Department who oversaw the recent survey, said it found gaps in all of the state's school systems, even the rich districts.

The state inventory also confirmed the frenzy of computer interest in Maryland. Seven years ago, the date of the last survey, there were 19 students for each computer in the state; today there are eight. Forty-three percent of the state's public schools now have access to the Internet, about three points higher than the national average, according to Reeves.

Seven years ago, of course, the Internet was unheard of.

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