Working the Web for Education

Working the Web for Education

Theory and Practice on Integrating the Web for Learning

by Tom March

An updated version of this article is available through ozline’s Web-and-Flow. Two new critical thinking formats have been added: the Concept Builder and the Insight Reflector.

This article builds on the notions set out in an earlier article, “What’s on the Web?”,
published in the July / August 1995 Computer-Using Educators’ Newsletter

Theory: an Introduction

In 1995, “What’s on the Web?” was written with the goal of scanning the Web for what might be useful to teachers and students. The “might be useful” was not individual stellar Web sites, but a broader contextual framework to cyberspace: if not exactly defining the universe, I hoped to at least mark out that some things are galaxies, a few constellations, and many are stars radiating their own special light. Books entitled such things as “Explore the Unleashed World Wide Web in 7 Days for Dummies/Educators” list tens of thousands of “Killer Web sites,” implicitly suggesting that once you get a handle on these you’ll have “done” the Web. But this is akin to getting access to the Library of Congress and being handed a piece of paper listing someone’s Top Ten Favorite Books. Oh yes, and the library’s collection doubles in size every three months. So, it’s not the titles that are needed, it’s the structure, the organization, the forest for the trees.

Zen in the Art of Teaching with the Web

It’s a lot like what you’re already doing.

It’s unlike anything you’ve ever done before.

Say what? After exploring the Web from a teacher’s perspective, the above paired truths sang out their accuracy. Getting a take on the stuff of the Web proved comforting in that basically the Internet offers lots of information and some learning experiences. Doesn’t this sound like the familiar terra firma of the classroom teacher? You might ask then, “What’s so big about cyberspace?” “Big” has a lot to do with it. Teachers are frequently bound by the magazines they subscribe to, the television shows they videotape, the books available in their library, the perspectives filtered through textbooks, etc. With the Web you get the world.

Explore the Zen of Teaching with the Web

Our attempt to classify the content and function of Web sites that would be useful to teachers defined seven main categories. If you’d like to find out more about each, turn to the earlier article, otherwise click, surf, and cogitate your way through the table below until the Zen truth is revealed to you. In case you need the “Teacher’s Edition” to this table, skip ahead to the “correct answer.”


Traditional Web-based
– textbooks
– libraries
– encyclopedias
– American Studies Web
– The Library of Congress
– Wikipedia
– field trips
– magazines
– guest speakers
– The Heart
– CNN Interactive
– History Alive Chautauquas
– group direct instruction
– Solo Frog Dissection
– Quick and Dirty HTML
– bulletin boards
– worksheets
– textbook index
– Mrs. Howard’s Class Homepage
– ElectraGuide for Writers
– Google
– teacher-prepared
– simulated
– campus-based
– The San Diego Zoo InternQuest
– MayaQuest
– The Journey North
– collaborative groups
– research component
– class discussions
– multimedia product
– Searching for China
– Little Rock 9, Integration 0?
– Ewe 2
– Eyes on Art

The Benefits of the Web

If you came here for the right answer, all I can say is: Gotcha! Like religion, politics, and favorite foods, the Internet is large enough to accommodate most everyone’s taste, bias, and natural inclination. It seems to have something for everybody. This is not to say it has everything for everybody. It is not an encyclopedia (although encyclopedia are available there). It is not abundant in its resources for non-reading elementary students (although there are plenty of images). It is not the storehouse for archived historical documents (yet). Conversely, it’s spotty in its range and attitude toward posting the work of contemporary artists (let’s be advocates for a sensible Fair Use policy for education). But the Web (just out of toddlerhood in human years) continues to grow exponentially, becoming more robust and sophisticated in what seem like six month increments. So if something you want or need is lacking, either put it up yourself, or wait a few months and check again. Now that I’ve made a case for there being no one right answer to what makes the Web so great compared to traditional information sources or learning experiences, it’s too tempting not to at least offer some fairly obvious advantages afforded learners through the Web.

Basically, the Web-based content and experiences look a lot like what traditionally grows in classrooms. But in other ways the fruit borne of these trees tastes unlike anything educators have chanced to sample before. In other words, educators will recognize old friends like references, resources and lessons, but the breadth, depth, immediacy, passion, and interactivity available in the Web-based brethren open up an entirely new way to educate.

Browsing the Internet garden brings forth specimens that blossom with potential:


So the suggestion is, as you search for Web sites, don’t look for the online equivalent of your textbook or handouts (though they may exist), look for the sparks that create insights, the contrasts that excite problem solving, the bells and whistles that motivate, the passion that inspires. Needless to say, if you are new to the Web, it’s necessary for you to surf, stumble, search, and lurch your way to finding your own understanding of the Web. It would be a shame to inflict the Internet on students as just one more structured, assigned, have-to dictated by the teacher. Along these lines, the next section makes a case for shifting the teacher’s sphere of influence in the orbit of the classroom.


An Embarrassment of Riches (that could be worthless)

Question: If the basic categories of the learning universe are the same, but they gain the potentials of immediacy, relevance, interactivity, authenticity, etc. through Internet access, how does the teacher’s relative position in the learning alignment change?

In other words, when the teacher is the source of the information, the learning path tends to be teacher-to-learner, sometimes skipping the critical process of learning along the way. When the source of information, interaction, opinion, imagery, etc. is other than the teacher – i.e., the Internet and its netizens – what is the teacher now supposed to do? Every few years a term pops up that no one’s heard of, but that within six months has become a regular and even tired part of the teaching vernacular. Remember the first time you heard “paradigm shift?” Within months, the metaphor of “thinking out of the box” had gone from little considered, if not unknown, to a standard assumption about what (more) teachers should do.

Last fall, I heard a term three times in two days in three different cities. Disintermediation. Like paradigm shift, disintermediation comes to education from the business world (author’s uncontroled soapbox jab: When will the learning community get its gods right?). An example is the easiest way to understand both the concept and implications of disintermediation. Suppose you have two bookstores, one is at the mall and the other is online. Let’s say the online version sells books for less (even with shipping costs factored in), has a far greater selection, and is available 24 hours a day without leaving your home. The question arises, “What value does the actual mall-based bookstore offer that the Web-based version does not? This is not a rhetorical question. And answers will vary. Sometimes people don’t know what they are looking for and they want to browse the aisles, read some pages, maybe ask a clerk for help or suggestions. Maybe there are lattés and over-stuffed chairs. Maybe there’s the chance to make acquaintance with other (single?) booklovers? Regardless, the mall-based bookstores have to contend with the new competitor who has taken out (dis) a middle man (intermediary) between the book and the buyer.

The point for educators is clear: if more information and expertise might be available to learners via the Internet (Web sites, E-mail correspondence, listservs, etc.), what value do teachers add to students’ education? Again, this is not a rhetorical question. And answers can vary along with teachers’ strengths, personalities, philosophies, etc. But the question remains.

Many years before the Web, educational theories and models began to champion a learner-centered focus in which students take greater responsibility for what goes on in their own minds. Cognitive psychology has been persuasive in arguing that the expert learner’s rich fabric of meaning (AKA schema) doesn’t come from acquiring a single strand of knowledge, but from weaving together relationships among topics into a complex and synthetic whole. Similarly, constructivism suggests that truly comprehensive understanding of a complex topic comes from learners stitching together the facts, relationships, perspectives, variations, and non-examples from an array of contextually rich (not “text usually limited”) inputs. In fact, my personal experience was one of on-going frustration as I tried to implement cog psych and constructivist strategies with the limited resources available pre-Web. Now with the depth and breadth of the Internet becoming more and more accessible to more learners, the marriage of technology with learning seems assured after their lengthy, off-again on-again, courtship.

So rather than view disintermediation as a threat, the power of the Internet has liberated teachers to move from the industrial Age of assembly line learning to an Information / Communication Age where they can no longer sphincter the firehose flow of information shooting through our society. So we get to take on the roles that have been suggested by the learner-centered strategies: facilitator, guide-on-the-side, mentor, coach, etc. After all, we’ve taken the educational psychology courses and thought about the learning theories, so let’s add the human, inspiring, adaptive value that we can bring to make this embarrassment of riches that is the Internet truly valuable to learners.

Practice: A Role for the Webbed Educator

So if we teachers are not the source of information, what other value do we add to support students? There seem to be three main areas: creating a learning environment, shaping Web-based activities, and hands-on facilitation while students are in the learning process. The remainder of this article will focus on the second aspect, the only one that is exclusively related to integrating the Web into classroom learning. The other two aspects (creating a learning community and in-process facilitation) are well-treated in the literature on student-centered instruction.

Remember the premise that the Internet is an embarrassment of riches that’s next to worthless without an educator. If this statement seems filled with too much boosterism, perhaps pointing to a few non-examples of how technology is ab-used will make the case. Perhaps you too have seen technology used as a “Lesson Plan in a Can:” rolling a two hour Hollywood movie with little or no tie-in to learning activities, letting students play computer games divorced from other classroom studies, surfing the Net, or online chatting. It’s a little surprising that teachers who wouldn’t dream of sending students to the library without a learning task and who would never sanction class time for students to pass notes, do see surfing and chatting as somehow inherently educational just because they involve the Internet. This is a natural response to a new technology. People need to gather to see the latest thing, aren’t sure what it’s for, and tend to use it in traditional ways. Enough people (and many students from home!) have spent this time and are now ready to see what this new technology will actually do to increase student learning.

What follows is one fairly comprehensive strategy for integrating the incredible power of the Internet with student learning. The strategy offers an easy entry place for newcomers to the Internet as well as more sophisticated activities for advanced users. There are two main phases to the strategy are:

Harvesting the Web’s abundance

Shaping activities related to learning goals

The chart below outlines the decisions that would guide users toward a particular format of Web-based learning.


Start Where You’re At: New or Savvy?

The best suggestion in picking a topic is to start where you’re at. If you have an area that’s your specialty, something that thrills you to teach, that you know inside and out, up and down begin there. Or maybe there’s a topic you’ve been wanting to learn more about; there’s nothing like a hungry learner. (If you’re stuck, explore The Idea Machine to click through 50 prompts for picking a topic.)

Topic Hotlist

The natural place to begin integrating the Web for learning is collecting sites that you find most useful / interesting / peculiar on your topic. Doing this will save your learners hours of aimless surfing. In the bad old Pre-Web days, people collected Internet locations on index cards, in databases, or on crumpled scraps of paper. With today’s Web browsers, this Internet harvesting can be done through bookmarking your favorite sites with a simple pull down on the menu. This is fine for the machine you’re using, but it’s a bit of a hassle to get those bookmarks transferred to all the computers in a lab. It’s a much more efficient process to create a Webpage that collects the locations in a Topic Hotlist. This solves the computer-specific nature of bookmarks and also makes your collection available to everyone in your school, district and the world (nothing like maximizing your effort!).

When you create a Topic Hotlist, your learners will be spared hours of fruitless searching. What they will have is analogous to when your diligent school librarian gathers key works from the stacks on a topic your classes are studying and rolls them into your room for students to explore. The resources likely differ in quality, currency, and quirkiness, but the learning strategy is similar: give the students a breadth of materials on the topic they are studying. What’s missing is the exact learning you’d like the students to achieve. Those tasks and instructions are probably on the handout they’re working on, not the Webpage they’re using to gain insights, experiences, and information. This is why a Topic Hotlist is an easy strategy to employ; you simply add the Web resources to an activity or unit you already have prepared.

Sometimes you might choose to have learners search their own sites on the Internet. Good examples of this are when students do independent study projects like I-Searches or you have groups studying different aspects of a larger topic (an example would be an interdisciplinary study with student teams each taking a decades in 20th Century American history). In these cases it makes sense to have students search – and shouldn’t they be able to post what they have found on the Web via their own hotlist? The deciding factor here is probably how many computers you have available to students in school or in their homes or local libraries and available time. Access speed can also cramp this activity if your connection is dial-up, clogged or molasses.

Example Topic Hotlist – China on the Net 

Multimedia Scrapbook

Many teachers who are fairly new to the Net have been technology-users for years. Their students create newsletters, desktop slide presentations, HyperStudio stacks, etc. Creating Multimedia Scrapbooks will be no-brainers for these teachers who now get access to the Web. Essentially a hotlist, the Scrapbook focuses on providing links to a variety of media and content types (photographs, maps, stories, facts, quotations, sound clips, videos, virtual reality tours, etc.). Learners use the Scrapbook links to explore aspects of the topic that they feel are important. They then download or copy and paste these scraps into a variety of formats: newsletter, desktop slide presentation, collage, bulletin board, HyperStudio stack, or Web page. The students’ creations will now be richer and more sophisticated because of resources that had never been available in their classrooms before. This is also a good time to educate students on copyright and fair use policies as well as making contact with more expert learners via e-mail. Finally, By allowing students to pursue their own interests amid an abundance of choices, the Multimedia Scrapbook offers a more open, student-centered approach that encourages construction of meaning. Even though neither Topic Hotlists nor Multimedia Scrapbooks target achieving specific learning, the cluey teacher will use these strategies to promote the constructivist learning that can happen when students synthesize a large and contextually rich selection of data and experiences.

Example Multimedia Scrapbook – Exploring China 

Promote Learning

Let’s say that you want to create a totally Web-based activity. You might as well. After all, you’ll create handouts, do research, locate resources, and design the activities, so why not put this on the Web, too? Then your students can access it from any connected computer and other teachers at your grade level across the world could have access to your learning experience. The main difference between the first two formats and the following three is that Treasure HuntsSubject Samplers, and WebQuests target specific learning, rather than merely sending students to Web sites hoping they will find something useful there and create cognitive sparks. Isn’t it better to provide compelling experiences that foster the attitudes, knowledge and skills that are the goals you’re all working toward? Take a tour through the descriptions and examples below to see which format most captures your learning goals.

Treasure Hunt

When it’s time to develop some solid knowledge on a subject, teachers and students can create Treasure Hunts. The basic strategy here is to find Web pages that hold information (text, graphic, sound, video, etc.) that you feel is essential to understanding the given topic. Maybe you gather 10 – 15 links (and remember, these are the exact pages you want the students to go to for information, not the top page of a huge Web site). After you’ve gathered these links, you pose one key question for each Web site you’ve linked to.

A smartly designed Treasure Hunt can go far beyond finding unrelated nuggets of knowledge. By choosing questions that define the scope or parameters of the topic, when the students discover the answers they are tapping into a deeper vein of thought, one that now stakes out the dimensions or schema of the domain being studied. Finally, by including a culminating “Big Question,” students can synthesize what they have learned and shape it into a broader understanding of the big picture.

Example Treasure Hunt – Black History Past to Present

Subject Sampler

Part of what makes the Internet so great is the quirky, passionate, real stuff that many people and organizations post there. You’ll find things on the Web that you’d never find on TV, the newspapers, or magazines. Subject Samplers tap into this vibrant vein in order to connect students to the chosen topic. Specifically, Samplers work like those chocolate samplers: you open the box, look things over, think you see something you’d like, then poke your finger into it. If you like it, you eat it. If you don’t, you leave it pre-poked for someone else’s taste.

Specifically, in a Subject Sampler learners are presented with a smaller number (maybe half a dozen) of intriguing Web sites organized around a main topic. What makes this a particularly effective way to engage student buy-in is that first off, you’ve chosen Web sites themselves that offer something interesting to do, read, or see. Second, students are asked to respond to the Web-based activities from a personal perspective. Rather than uncover hard knowledge (as they do in a Treasure Hunt), students are asked about their perspectives on topics, comparisons to experiences they have had, personal interpretations of artworks or data, etc. Thus, more important than the right answer is that students are invited to join the community of learners surrounding the topic, for students to see that their views are valued in this context. Use a Subject Sampler when you want students to feel connected to the topic and to feel that the subject matter really matters.

Example Subject Sampler – My China 


When it’s time to go beyond learning facts and to get into grayer matter in a topic, your students are ready to try a WebQuest. Basically, a WebQuest is an inquiry activity that presents student groups with a challenging task, provides access to an abundance of usually online resources and scaffolds the learning process to prompt higher order thinking. The products of WebQuests are usually then put out to the world for some real feedback.

It’s best to choose a topic in which aspects are under dispute or that at least offer a couple different perspectives. Current events, controversial social and environmental topics work well. Also anything that requires evaluation or scientific hypothesizing will evoke a variety of interpretations. The reason the Web is so critical is because it offers the breadth of perspectives and viewpoints that are usually needed to construct meaning on complex topics. Students benefit from being linked to a wide variety of Web resources so that they can explore and make sense of the issues involved in the challenge.

Logistically, all students begin by learning some common background knowledge, then divide into groups. In the groups each student or pair of students have a particular role, task, or perspective to master. They effectively become experts on one aspect of a topic. When the roles come together, students must synthesize their learning by completing a summarizing act such as e-mailing congressional representatives or presenting their interpretation to real world experts on the topic.

You might want to use an WebQuest as a first activity to quickly immerse students in real learning, then go back and fill in the broader picture with a Treasure Hunt or Subject Sampler.

Example WebQuests – Tuskegee TragedyThe Big Wide WorldLittle Rock 9, Integration 0?

Where Do You Go From Here?

Suggestions for Choosing Activity Formats

If you’re new to the Web or think students merely need additional resources, gather links into a Hotlist or Scrapbook. If you’re ready to take the next step of incorporating learning activities into a Webpage, then choose one of the three formats based upon what might be missing in your present curriculum. For example, if learners need to gain more knowledge about the subject, inform them with a Treasure Hunt. If they come out of a current unit apathetic, hook them with a Subject Sampler. If they learn enough knowledge and like the topic, but don’t engage in higher-level thinking, challenge them with a WebQuest.

Now you may be saying, “Okay, I’m interested in making one of these Web pages, but I don’t know HTML, haven’t got a clue about how to post pages on the Internet, and mostly, I have no time to learn either.” So the next question arises:

So do I give up?

Fear not, feisty teachers, your life just got easier thanks to Filamentality (“combining filaments of the Web with learners’ mentalities”). Filamentality is an interactive Web site that we created because learning HTML, designing a Web-based activity, and posting pages on the Net are three pretty big hurdles for people with students to see, papers to grade, lessons to write, and cookies to bake (the true glue that keeps a class happy). Thanks to masterful Perl programming by Jodi Reed (see her Getting Started with CGI Webpage) and the willingness of Pacific Bell to post user Web pages on its server, you can be guided through choosing a topic, gathering quality Internet sites, creating one or all five of the activity formats described above, and automatically posting your pages on the Web. Want to learn more? Test drive Filamentality on the Web or in a workshop near you.


Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Three years (and many HTML tags) later, our sponsorship from Pacific Bell Education First continues after the conclusion of the Fellowships. We hope that you find at least some aspect of our applications useful in working the Web for education. When we heard people ask “What’s on the Web?” we wrote that article and presented at conferences throughout California. When teachers and librarians were saying, “Where’s the good stuff on the Net?” we created the Blue Web’n library of great educational sites. Filamentality ties most of it together. It looks like we left you hanging with just one more question: who’ll bake those cookies?


Written August 1997, last revised April 18, 2005


6 thoughts on “Working the Web for Education”

  1. It’s a good article. It´s unbelievable that there are a lot of applications on the web but teachers do not know how to integrate them into the classroom. I’d like to become a little expert on these topics to use them in my class.

  2. Read the article. It is real interesting and useful to us teachers as it provides steps on how to create web for classroom teaching. It has just come at the right time. it is my hope that in the end students will also be motivated to create their own web. That will be the greatest achivement of my course. Looking forward to use the guidelines provided.

  3. its really a very useful article and i really want to be expert in ths field so that i can use it in the class and make the class more entertaining and interesting.


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