‘Information is not learning’
Using the Internet as an effective teaching tool
The World Wide Web has given teachers and students of history access to an ‘information superhighway’ previously unparalleled. However, whilst there are obvious advantages in terms of the resources now available on the Internet, this has not necessarily been translated into the effective teaching and learning of history. This paper will look at the advantages and disadvantages of the Internet as a teaching tool. It will highlight the benefits of using webquests as a method for ensuring the use of higher order thinking skills when using the Internet. The paper will conclude with a case study looking at a webquest that I have written about the contribution of black and asian soldiers in the First World War (www.comptonhistory.com/ww1webquest.htm). This was taught to year 9 students in January 2005.
There are a number of advantages of using the Internet as a teaching tool. The most obvious concerns the amount of material that is available to both teacher and pupil and the speed of access that has been facilitated. As an illustrative example, when I was preparing the ww1 webquest I was able to find fascinating and inspiring material about the soldiers that fought in the British Army as members of the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR). This included interviews with some of the surviving veterans, Eugene Clark and George Blackman as well as details of the Taranto Mutiny when soldiers from the BWIR demonstrated their anger against the racial discrimination that they faced at end of the war. In the absence of access to the Internet this would have involved extensive and time consuming research. The fact was that I was able to sit at my desk and spend a few hours searching via Google and poring over extracts from Jamaican and British newspapers amongst other websites. Some of the other advantages of the Internet include the improvement in ICT skills that it provides. A research study (http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/TIPS/gilmour.html) carried out by Nick Gilmour, a teacher in Cambridgeshire found that ‘(the Internet group) produced some excellent project work and demonstrated high levels of ICT skill.’ and that the use of the Internet ‘often stimulates and raises the levels of motivation. The quality of project work is greatly improved with the use of computers.’ Gillian Mead from Chesterton Community College argues that the effective use of the Internet ‘enable(s) students to develop as independent, effective, efficient and discerning electronic information gatherers rather (than) remain as serendipitous and credulous surferbrowsers’ (http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/TIPS/mead.html).
However, there are undoubtedly a number of concerns about the use of the Internet as an effective teaching tool. The most striking observation is that ‘information access alone, without a means for learning the information ‘effectively’, or, a means for turning information into knowledge, results in numerous design faults, namely information overload and navigation problems.’ (Jones and Scully http://webjcli.ncl.ac.uk/1998/issue2/jones2.html). Another problem is that the use of the internet can be a frustrating learning experience with the pupils lost in a web of irrelevant and inappropriate material. The vast majority of material on the Internet is not designed for pupils of a school age and unless pupils are taught the skills necessary to search the internet effectively they often become frustrated as they search in vain. There is also the misconception that the answer to everything can be found at the end of a Google search. Some pupils also find themselves far too easily distracted by the pop ups, banners and games, cars, music, football etc sites that are only a URL away when the teacher isn’t looking. However the most pressing concern is the passivity of many pupils involved in Internet research. The temptation to cut and paste chunks of unread text is seemingly too hard to resist for many pupils resulting in the acquisition of knowledge without the processing that is so vital for a deeper understanding. The Internet is not a substitute for the good teacher; whilst it can deliver a wide amount of resource material it can not adapt to the needs of the individual student.
There are a variety of ways that these disadvantages can be overcome to enable the Internet to become an effective teaching resource. The problems of passivity can be solved by creating teaching material that forces pupils towards information processing rather than research gathering. The most obvious example of this is the use of webquests to which I will turn to shortly. The problems of pupils getting ‘lost’ can be overcome by a number of strategies: pupils can be trained to use search engines more effectively, particularly by honing down the searches with the use of keywords. Alternatively the use of a ‘portal’ which guides the pupils towards pre-selected websites can allow the teacher to direct the pupils to the most appropriate resources. Finally there needs to be an increase in the number of teacher created websites, with differentiated material and tasks that encourage higher order thinking skills and are adapted to the needs of the pupil.
A webquest is an online lesson or series of lessons using the Internet as a resource bank. A successful webquest engages the student with an enticing ‘hook’ and requires students to complete a task, often using other ICT applications, that encourages the development of higher order thinking skills. The structure of a webquest follows a particular format;
Introduction – This is the initial stimulus material that acts as a ‘hook’ for the student and engages them with the task. This could be either a real life situation, for example the Amistad slave ship case or a fantasy scenario, for example a time machine has been invented to take the students to a place or event in history.
Task – This is the opportunity for the teacher to be as creative as possible. The task must have a realistic and achievable outcome but could take any variety of formats ranging from a whole class debate to a multimedia presentation to a simple written description.
Process– As a tool for enhancing independent learning the Webquest guides the student through a series of step-by-step processes to enable the task to be completed. This may involve working individually or as part of a larger group with individually assigned roles. The student should also be given guidance in how to complete the task. This may take the form of ‘scaffolding’ whereby the student is able to build up knowledge through a series of smaller task, or may involve the use of directed questions, concept mapping, tables and worksheets.
Resources - One of the fundamentals of the Webquest is the use of the World Wide Web as a resource bank. A crucial aspect is that the student is guided to the most appropriate resources and not left to drift aimlessly in ‘hyperspace’. This may involve differentiated resource pages with a page devoted to the key websites and a second page for additional resources. Students are not necessarily limited to using the Internet. There is a wide range of (electronic) resources available including e-mail, videoconferencing, using databases and forums. Students could also use material from their school and local libraries or from their teacher.
Evaluation – This provides the student with the marking criteria and allows them to understand how they will be assessed as an individual and part of the team. This insight encourages the student to become self-evaluative and provides the ‘critical steps’ that are needed to make further progress.
Conclusion – This allows the student to evaluate the progress that they have made and provides an opportunity for further exploration. This may be achieved through the addition of further questions or stimuli that may arise from the original task.
There are many advantages to the use of Webquests;
q The creation of the Webquest is straightforward for any teacher that has a basic competency in ICT – there are various templates that can be used such as this one from the Webquest website:
q The teacher can adapt a task to the appropriate needs of their classes and to individual students. This can be done by varying the complexity of the task and by allocating different roles within the Webquest.
q The use of Webquest is an excellent motivational tool. Students can engage in real-life enquiry based activities and have the opportunity to create a valuable end product.
q Webquests can encourage team building skills in order to achieve a collective task as well as enhancing individual skills in a wide variety of ways; literacy, ICT, numeracy, communication, problem solving.
q Webquests often depend on the use of higher order thinking skills. Students will need to synthesise material from a wide range of sources and the task may require the evaluation of a particular interpretation or event.
Case study – the black and asian soldiers in the First World War webquest http://www.comptonhistory.com/ww1webquest.htm
I wrote this webquest over a period of three days in the Christmas holidays 2004 and subsequently spent a few hours tightening up different sections after receiving feedback from colleagues and members of the History Teacher’s Discussion Forum. I tried it for the first time in January with two classes of year nine pupils in the top and middle ability sets having previously studied the causes of WW1 and Trench Warfare. The students were in the computer suite for three lessons.
The black and asian soldiers in the First World War webquest asks students to imagine that they had been commisioned to write a booklet for primary school children about the contributions that soldiers from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean made to the war. This task meant that pupils had to use higher order thinking skills to synthesise the appropriate material and produce an outcome that was different from the original material they had used. They were guided to the best resources via this page (resources page) which was differentiated to allow access to the key resources as well as being hyperlinked to further resources if needed (extended resources page). I also included a self assessment sheet that can be looked at here (assessment page) which required the pupils to grade themselves on different criteria ranging from how many websites they used (this was deliberately scored to encourage them not to use too many), how appropriate their language was (I was hoping to cut out as much cutting and pasting as possible) and their effort. I now realise that I should have also included a section about their ICT skills.
I was fairly disappointed by the majority of the results, but I will add the proviso that this was the first time that any of the students had used a webquest before:
- too many of the students had simply lifted chunks straight from the various websites that they used.
- those who had 'strayed' from the websites that I recommended often went completely off the track - one student ended up writing about Franz Ferdinand!
- There was little thought put into the presentation of the booklets - they were good at making it look colourful, but the layouts were cluttered and (a personal bugbear) the text was not justified and hyphenated as it stretched across two lines. Some didn't even bother with any colour at all and wrote it in Word - v dull.
- some of the lower ability students found the webquest too daunting and in their words 'too long'! This was despite my attempts to really narrow the resources to a bare minimum with a differentiated page for those who wanted further research
However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. One of the best booklets was produced by a dyslexic pupil who really thought carefully about what to include, kept the text to an appropriate amount and in accessible language, clearly presented the work and made good use of images. The best booklet was produced by a student who managed to cover a range of contributions and presented his work effectively:
So, my overall thoughts about this series of lessons. Well, like everything I will not be put off because it didn't work first time, I shall continue to give the classes experience of webquests and I am confident that they shall get better at working with them. I also think that our pupils are now so much more ICT savvy that we can really focus on the historical content and allow that to engage and drive the pupils further in their ICT work. One other positive that I can take out of this is that the vast majority of the pupils genuinely were interested in the topic and learned a lot - probably, no certainly a lot more than they would have learned from a worksheet.
Whilst there are obvious advantages to using the Internet in the classroom, such as the speed of access to a wide range of sources, it is imperative that students are encouraged to process the material they find rather than passively accepting it at face value. One of the most effective ways to do this is to use webquests as a vehicle for developing higher order thinking skills and using the Internet as a resource for guided research. Information is not learning, it’s what you do with it that counts.