How teachers can make the most of classroom Internet use

The Internet provides many wonderful teaching and learning opportunities that can enhance any classroom. It can open a dynamic and interactive window on the world to students and help them to develop knowledge and skills that they will use throughout their life. However, it can also lead to shoddy scholarship, or worse, if activities are not planned and monitored thoroughly. The key to successful Internet use, as in all teaching practice, is to be well prepared.

Why use the Internet in the classroom?

The world into which today’s students will graduate is certain to be one heavily dependent on digital technology. Their work, finances and social life will be largely orchestrated on computers. It seems only proper that they should be given the chance to explore the potential of this technology in an environment that offers structure, focus and support. Although students may be spending hours each night on Internet activities, it is important to recognise that well-prepared teachers can offer skill-based learning opportunities that are not available at home. Activities, therefore, should be centred on higher-level thinking, such as organising, analysing and creating. If lesson plans are going to involve little more than ‘surfing’ or fact gathering, it may be best to skip the Internet lesson and try something else.

Try to make use of other computer functions at the same time. Give students worksheets or graphic organisers that they can cut and paste from a school’s intranet, or expand their data collection skills through the use of spreadsheets. Use web searches as an excuse to teach about compiling bibliographies and encourage students to share their findings through blogs. Take advantage of the computer’s multimedia capability so that e-learning involves sound and vision too. Above all, promote interactive learning; data is not just something to be found, it is something to be processed.

Advantages in using the Internet

The web offers many advantages over traditional chalk and talk pedagogy. It is the world’s biggest library, and can be easily navigated by any student with reasonable research skills. (Any student who automatically selects the top listing –or Wikipedia – in their Google search does not necessarily have these skills.) Today’s young people will need to know how to find reputable resources throughout their lives, so if they don’t already know, give them a crash course in Boolean semantics or clustered searches. The Internet may be only a learning tool, but it will be a vital one for many students in and beyond school, and it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that they understand how to use it effectively.

The Internet yields real-time data in a way that other media can’t. Any research project involving weather patterns, elections or the Olympics may benefit from up-to-the-minute results found on the ‘net.

The collaborative benefits offered by the Internet are often not used productively by students and teachers. Blogs and emails can allow students to share and discuss timely information with peers and instructors. Also, many good websites have been established so that learners and teachers can share their work and discover new ways of conducting inquiry based activities. Some examples: Teach-nology; Global Classroom Project; Flat Stanley Project; Education World.

Take advantage of multimedia. Modern students tend to be visual learners, so develop lesson plans that allow the use of static images and video. Encourage students to transform their research into comic strips, for example, through facilities such as stripcreator or comic-creator. Many sites also offer interactive graphics, although these, like video streaming sites (such as YouTube) can chew through Internet credit and may be best displayed via a data projector.

The interactive nature of the Internet may represent the biggest advantage of all. Students may learn through a multitude of “hands-on” digital activities and games, they can organise and analyse information almost as soon as they locate it, and they are able to direct their own searches far quicker and more comprehensively than they could in a traditional library. Interaction also extends to the potential for group-based activities and on-line sharing.

Possible problems with Internet use

Any teacher who has offered Internet learning to their students will be aware that it’s not all plain sailing. Most students are very poor researchers and unless given direction will waste a lot of time tracking down the information they need. There is also the ‘candy-shop’ factor that tempts students to access inappropriate sites and social networks. Although most schools employ filtering of Internet sites, students are wonderfully adept at locating proxies that will get around any restrictions.

The teacher may need to decide how much Internet freedom they should grant their charges. They can be a Master (high supervision and guidance), a Manager (medium restrictions), or a Mentor (low restrictions – students develop own guiding questions from key words and provide progress reports to teacher).

Teachers also need to ensure that students are accessing reliable information. The most popular websites are not always the best, and much time can be lost in chasing down relevant (or irrelevant) data. Worse still, students may stumble upon information that is biased or incorrect. It may be a good idea to review and suggest prospective sites, or teach all concerned to evaluate the worthiness of a resource. From Now On is one site that provides very good information on this tricky issue.

There are more pressing issues to deal with than time-wasting, however. The teacher may have to answer to parental concerns that their child will have access to age-inappropriate material. Explain school policy and filtering restrictions and ensure that students know that random ‘history’ checks will be conducted.

By far the biggest issue surrounding Internet use is cheating. In the most extreme cases, students can crib from their peers via email, or download complete essays. It may be necessary to format questions so that specific topics are addressed in a way that allows for creative or critical thinking, and to request supplementary oral responses when there is any doubt about originality.

Most common, however, is plagiarism brought about by intellectual laziness. There is an ill-founded belief that knowing ‘stuff’ is sufficient for success. Teachers must caution their students that this is not the case. The Internet, and the information found there, are merely props to encourage thinking. Online activities need to reflect this, and all plagiarism should be dealt with severely. If there is any doubt about the origin of a student’s work, simply select a key phrase, top and tail it with quotation marks, and then Google it. The odds are high that any copied text will be located immediately.