Introduction to the Web
The impact of the Internet and the World Wide Web on popular culture is not hard to measure. Tally the jargon that's made it into our everyday language: 'Net-surfing, info superhighway, Web site, chat room, cyber, browser, online, homepage, HTML and @. If the Web has reached such broad public awareness, how do you think it's touched the lives of our trend-tracking students? In fact, people have begun referring to today's students as Generation Dot Com. So even if the Web bore no educational value, we as teachers would need to come to terms with it to understand our students' world and frame of reference. The good news is that the Web is not just helpful to education, but, used effectively, it can revolutionize student learning. To begin, lets explode three myths that could stand between a willing educator and effective classroom use of the Web...
Myth #1 - The Web is the World's Biggest Encyclopedia
This is the first misconception many newcomers bring to the Web. Yes, both offer lots of information on lots of topics, but the similarities tend to end there. Whereas an encyclopedia is organized and cross-referenced, the Web is amorphous and chaotic. Whereas the content of an encyclopedia is carefully researched and striving for bias-free presentation, the Web is passionately posted and full of opinions and rarely hidden agendas. Finally, whereas an encyclopedia is written by professionals, anyone can write a Web page. Oh yeah, one's sort of dead and the other pretty lively. Which do you think students would be more likely to respond to and use? Better yet, which one do you think more accurately represents the reality around us? So rather than being the world's biggest encyclopedia, the Web is more like inviting the world itself into your classroom.
Myth #2 - The Web is an Information Superhighway
Although the Web is like a superhighway of information when seen as a source of data, facts, and figures, this misses more powerful aspects. More than information, the Web is about people, ideas, and sharing. Evidence for this can be seen in the Web's ancestry. Long before the Web, and even the Internet, something called ARPAnet connected researchers via a communications network (the name denoted its funding source: the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency). Yes, the researchers posted information, but more important than the information was the act itself: people across the country were sharing ideas and working together. When the Internet came online, this sharing and collegiality carried on from the military sphere to higher education. With the birth of the Web's friendly user interface, the world has joined in, with everyone from primary school classrooms to rock bands and law firms wanting to connect with their communities. A sure sign of the learning / sharing / community-building aspect of the Web is evident in our best Web sites: companies who spend millions on television advertising whose only purpose is to sell, know that their Web site must offer more (games, fun facts, "insider" information, online tools etc.). In other worlds, they must play by the rules of the Web and contribute something to the online community. If not, a few thousand similar Web sites exist that will lure users away by offering something valuable.
Myth #3 - The Web is Full of Useless Junk
This isn't actually a myth. It's true; the Web is full of useless junk. What's makes the statement less than the whole truth, however, is the Web's size. Because of its incomprehensible hugeness, something of everything is on the Web: undesirable junk, indecipherable university research, incomplete arguments, yesterday's forgotten and rotting postings. But, hovering side-by-side with these in cyberspace are also desirable gems like the Library of Congress, up-to-the-minute reporting like that on CNN Interactive, and the persuasive Web sites created by students in the ThinkQuest project. This is not to say that it's all there. For example, the number of links on the subject of Ancient Greece will be more limited than the topic of Oceans. But give us a little time to make the Web what we want and need it to be. It's barely out of toddlerhood and yet it's shown a terrific responsiveness. Search engines have become more powerful and easier to use, many meta sites filter through the millions of Web pages and link to those of value to a particular community, and more schools, teacher and students are coming online daily which will help shape the direction of our Web and post the pages we seek.
A Final Thought
Viewed through the eyes of traditional education, who would want a learning resource that presents the world in all its chaos, offers more opinions than facts, and requires a subtle intelligence to sort the gems from the junk? Viewed from a more student-centered, active-learning perspective, what better resource could you imagine! With the Web, students must take charge of their learning and scrutinize everything. An vital role for educators is to facilitate this shift and provide students with the skills they need to reach their destinations, not flounder in the surf of each shifting wave.
revised: January 2, 1999