Student-Centered Intranets(2)


Technology has truly found a home in our nation's schools. Computers are in classrooms, in libraries, in computer labs, and in other common areas around each campus. They are connected to the Internet as well as to each other. They are connected to powerful fileservers offering the best educational software and reference material. But what has the introduction of all this technology really meant for our students?

Has it improved educational outcomes? Is learning really easier? After all this time, is technology integrated into the curriculum? Where is the evidence that technology is making the difference you would expect from the investment made by education departments and schools? But how can this be? Everyone is aware of the power of the computer, the value of being able to communicate with others via the Internet — the vast stores of information on the web and in multiple CD-based encyclopedias. Surely these resources must all be improving teaching and learning in schools? Surely?

Passive Learning Vs Active Learning:

Computer experts develop computers and computer software to make manual tasks easier and quicker. Inspired by the typewriter, they went further and developed the word-processor, allowing users to save, recall, and edit documents. Inspired by the card-file system, they developed the database management system, allowing users to store, link, search, and even uplink information. Computers automate processes. Automation is good. But how on earth do you automate learning?

What the technology and so-called educational software developers have done is propagated the automation model and produced huge databases of information, electronic books and even on-line videos of real teachers presenting lessons with interactive games on the computer to keep a student's attention. We've already seen the teacher's role change from the lecturing "Sage on the Stage" to the facilitating "Guide on the Side". If educational technology enhancements continue down the development path of automation, will the teacher's role change again to "Bore Out the Door"?

You'd think that having more and relevant information on hand would help with the learning process, but all it really does is reinforce to the student that their role is to be consumers of information. This is also known as passive learning. The problem is that passive learning develops passive students — and passive teachers.

Certainly students need to be consumers, but for technology to really assist the learning process, students need to be authors as well. And that's where the technology fits in exceptionally well. If only the educational software developers could see it. When students become the authors of information, they demonstrate the facets of active learning. Instead of automating, they are ‘informating.’ They are constructing the flow of converting information to knowledge and, hopefully, to wisdom.

Authors and Intranets:

An intRAnet is an internal computer network that uses the same tools and protocols as the IntERnet. Many schools have already established an intranet to make available useful information via Web pages stored on a local server. The content of typical school intranets include: school policies, newsletters, staff lists, calendars and timetables, library info, sports details, links to useful Internet sites, Principal's page, faculty info and class pages with some examples of good student work. There are many great sites on the Internet with good instructions for setting up a school intranet.

Usually only one or two teachers manage the whole intranet site. Staff submit documents to the Webmaster, who places them on the school's intranet. Thus the teachers become locked into the automation paradigm we've already discussed.

Student-Centered Intranets:

Let's think differently about school intranets. Why restrict the school's intranet to just one or two webmasters? How can we use the intranet more with our students? How do you integrate the intranet into the curriculum? How can we informate with our intranet? The answers to these questions lie within a student-centered intranet.

This is an intranet based on student content, where all students publish their own work. It encourages students to add to and update their Web pages which relate to their work in class. Students have the responsibility for what gets published and the intranet becomes an additional new medium for student output.

Students discover the enormous advantages this medium offers, including the extended life of their work. Instead of a five-page project which only their teacher and maybe their parents see, and which is then left in some drawer somewhere, their work suddenly gains extended life — and an audience. The fact that multiple people can view their work will build the desire in the students to produce higher quality content and presentation, and a project need never be complete. They can always add to and update it as they find new information.

Other advantages include increased information skills, development of Web site design skills, a sense of ownership and trust, sharing of ideas and skills among students, and the integration of various technologies. Web sites allow students to link all of the other technology applications they use such as digital photos and scanning, word processing, PowerPoint, HyperStudio, video, sound, animation and Internet links all into the one easy to navigate medium. It's not inconceivable that kindergarten or first grade students could author Web pages.

Sounds a little hard:

I know what you're thinking. You have all sorts of questions. Here are some typical concerns and the answers.

"We're just teachers. How can we teach Web site design when we can't do it ourselves?". But how hard is it really? Tools like FrontPage, Dreamweaver and even Netscape Composer make Web site design almost as easy as word processing.

"How do you monitor what gets published?" All schools should have an Acceptable Use Policy, or APU. These are publishing guidelines linked to the school's discipline policy. The guidelines should stipulate what's acceptable and what isn't, and the discipline policy should outline the repercussions for publishing unacceptable material. Put the responsibility back onto the students.

"What's the structure of this student-centered intranet look like? — it sounds huge!" It sounds huge, because it is huge! Imagine every student in your school having a Web page. Who's going to set that up? Obviously setting up the structure is a manual task that in large schools is going to take a very long time. This is a task that could be automated. Guess what? It has been automated. A new product, "Stu's EduWeb" is all you need.

EduWeb does all the groundwork for you, taking your enrolment data and building a student-centred intranet on your school's local fileserver and providing every student with their own webspace in which to publish their work.

A detailed look at EduWeb will be provided in a separate article, but the website will provide you with ideas and feedback from schools that are already using their computers as real learning tools where the benefits of student motivation and school improvement are being realized.

Stuart Hasic