The use of Internet by math and science teachers

John M. Rogan April 1995
Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association convention.

The Internet and The Information Super Highway have become familiar buzz words. In some circles, access to the resources of the Internet has become synonymous with educational reform. The purpose of this paper is to explore the broad questions, "Does such access deliver the anticipated renewal of teaching and learning? If so, under what conditions? and to what degree?"

In 1993, the Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project funded five groups with the general aim of using telecommunications and the Internet to foster the renewal of math and science education in rural schools. The US West Foundation provided half the funding for the four Western projects. The five projects jointly represent one of the few initiatives to explicitly link reform in math and science education with the use of telecommunications. The extent to which these projects have succeeded in reaching this goal during the first year of operation will be explored in this paper.

The Projects
The five funded projects are described below.

a) Teacher On-line Projects
Teacher On-line Projects is designed to help rural elementary and secondary educators bring a new world to their classrooms through telecomputing. The ten sites include six from Minnesota, and one from Iowa, North Dakota, Michigan and Wisconsin; Teacher On-line Projects is designed to develop on-line computer communication services to support the participating classrooms (teachers and students) in the application of problem-solving skills for community-based projects to improve their mathematics and science skills. From working with a local Wildlife refuge to develop to utilize this unique wildlife habitat as a means of economic development to partnering with a city council to identify success factors for maintaining retail business on main street. Each school community has established a team of one math teacher, one science teacher, and one community member, to implement a project that will use national mathematics and science standards to study a local community issue.

As part of their participation each team will receive training and support as they guide their students in identifying a community issue and designing the solution to the issue.

Students will work as mathematicians and scientists using appropriate techniques and skills to resolve issues. Teams will communicate with other teams, share information, contact mathematics and science education experts, interact with researchers, and search for information through a variety of on-line resources through the Internet.

The five objects for Teacher on line Project are:
* Students, guided by their math and science teachers, will design a solution to an identified community problem.
* Students and teachers in the Teacher On-line Projects will access and share information with others through a variety of networks connected through Internet.
* Math and science teachers from rural communities will belong to a "virtual community" with others working on similar projects to share experiences, teaching strategies, and project results.
* Students will work toward achieving selected goals of the math and science standards, identified with their teachers as they apply problem solving techniques to solve a community-based problem.
* Document and disseminate the process for providing access to appropriate resources and teaching strategies for rural math and science teachers.

b) Creating Connections: Rural Teachers and the Internet

Creating Connections is a project designed to provide an opportunity to rural teachers of math and science to learn to use the world-wide Internet network as both a professional development and a curricular tool.

This project enables teachers who are widely dispersed to participate in a program which offers on-going support following the initial workshop. This presentation will explore the effectiveness of the workshop for short term goals as well as the effectiveness of the on-going support via telecommunications to meet longer range goals. The paper contains a report on the activity of the teachers and their response to the availability of on-going support and the role which that support plays in the teachers' mastery of the tool.

c) Tennessee Valley Project
Designed to empower teachers of children in grades 4, 5, and 6 to improve their science teaching by changing the way they teach science, partnering with practicing scientists, and tapping the information and communication resources of Internet, the Tennessee Valley Project will create collaborative research opportunities for teachers, practicing scientists, and higher education faculty on how best to implement strategies of reform through working partnerships.

Through the project, teachers will translate theories and strategies of reform in science education into classroom practice by synthesizing information and resources from six sources:

1. Science, Technology, Society (STS) techniques and strategies;
2. assessment techniques which reflect the new thinking about assessment;
3. state mandated curriculum guidelines;
4. National Science Education Standards currently being revised by the National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment;
5. Internet communication facilities and instructional resources;
6. partnerships with practicing scientists to create instructional activities modeled on the work of the scientist but designed for children in grades 4, 5, and 6.

d) Reach for the Sky
The goals of Reach for the Sky are:
* Providing teachers access to telecomputing equipment, sustainable connectivity, training, and technical support.
* Linking teachers to the Internet science/mathematics resources and data bases.
* Networking teachers with local, national, and global communities of peers and experts.
* Assisting teachers to create and conduct telecurricular units and to mentor other teachers in the development and implementation of similar units.
* Showcasing teacher innovations in the use of the Internet and telecomputing which provide role models of educational renewal.

During the first year of the project, 22 teachers of grades 3-12 with special interest in math and science, are receiving training in the use of the Internet and in the creation and use of telecurricular units. In the second year, these teachers will act as mentors for an additional 80 teachers who will receive all training online. After that it is expected that an unlimited number of teachers will be able to emulate the project model using the disseminated project materials with the assistance of online mentors.

e) Rural Community Alliance for Enhancing Science and Math Education
The primary goals of this project are to:
* Provide teachers and schools with the tools to integrate telecomputing resources into their science and math curriculum.
* Address issues of classroom reform.
* Gain the community support which is needed to provide funding for change.

In order to accomplish these goals trainers will utilize an interactive multi-media training package that will present models for using online telecomputing resources, leading to greater opportunities for problem solving and the development of critical thinking skills in math and science.

The Questions
Following the description of each project, representatives of the projects will form a panel and the questions below will be posed and discussed:

1. What happens when teachers who have never been on the Internet before are first given access? What are the frustrations and the triumphs? Are there one or more identifiable barriers to be overcome? Does the type of access make any difference?

2. What kind of math/science resources were found on the Internet? How easy was it to find and acquire these resources? Was the time spent perceived to be worthwhile? Which of the resources was perceived as being most useful?

3. Can the resources found on the Internet, or access to the Internet in general, result in better classroom practice? In which ways does access to the Internet change ways in which teachers teach and learners learn?

Methodology and Results
The methodology used by each of the five projects to collect data, and the results of the data collection will be presented in five separate sections. The North West Regional Educational Laboratories won the contract from Anneberg/CPB to be the external evaluator of the five projects. Some of the data presented were collected as part of the external evaluation. In addition, project collected their own data, especially in areas that were unique to each project.

Reach for the Sky
The data presented in this section were collected using questionnaires, interviews, comments made online, a focus group discussion and classroom observations. During February 1995, a questionnaire devised by the external evaluator, Dr. Kim Yap of NWREL, was answered by 19 of the 22 Reach for the Sky teachers. In the same month, 13 of the teachers met in Helena, Montana, the State capitol, to participate in a technology fair at the Capitol building, and to meet as a project.

During this time, all teachers met with the internal evaluator for a 15 minute interview. Teachers not attending the Helena meeting were subsequently interviewed by phone. Towards the end of February, the internal evaluator accompanied an external evaluator from NWREL on an onsite visit at two of the Reach for the Sky schools, Garfield School in Lewistown and the Winifred School, some forty miles north of Lewistown. During the visits, four classrooms were observed and an in depth interview was held with each of the four teachers. On the afternoon of 2/22, the external examiner facilitated a focus group discussion which included teachers (both part of the project and outside of it), administrators, students, parents, and community members.

1. What happens when teachers who have never been on the Internet before are first given access? What are the frustrations and the triumphs? Are there one or more identifiable barriers to be overcome? Does the type of access make any difference?

Teachers in the Reach for the Sky Project spoke with feeling about both the frustrations and the triumphs of their experience with the Internet. One teacher put it, "The Internet is 45% frustration, 45% not being connected and 10% exhilaration." Some of the triumphs will be examined first, followed by the frustrations.

One overwhelming theme, which was repeated again and again, was the exhilarating experience of having access to unlimited information and resources. Some likened it to a large library to which they now had instant recourse, but the access is available without having to leave one's home. The access provided, for some, new avenues of learning and possibilities which previously had not even been imagined. The scope and variety of what is available proved to be a recurring sub-theme during the interviews. Some said that they enjoyed 'surfing the Internet' just for the fun is seeing what would turn up next. For others, just knowing it was there, made a psychological difference.

A second major theme to emerge from the responses of teachers was the overcoming of isolation and the feeling of being part of a global community. A phrase which reoccurred with some regularity was the enjoyment of "meeting new people". Specific contacts with peers, such as other middle school teachers, and with experts were mentioned. The latter category included seeking information from experts on diverse topics such as subways, the Loch Ness monster, adult education programs, dessert plants, and hantavirus pellets. Also mentioned as part of this theme was the opportunity to partake in some global telecommunications projects such as Live from the Antarctica, MayaQuest, Geogame and Where is Roger.

A third theme, which was diffused throughout most of the responses was one of excitement and renewal. The opportunities and possibilities were seen to be both exciting and overwhelming, but for all that much appreciated. The theme of "new approaches, new ideas, new resources" was a frequently reoccurring one.

On the other hand, the opportunities provided by access to the Internet were not without some frustration. As before, various themes emerged, shaped in part by the availability of resources at the school and the kind of access provided.

Time emerged as the number one source of frustration. Some mentioned the time that it took to master some of the skills needed to access the Internet. Almost all commented on how they wished there were more hours in a day to acquire resources and to use them. An important sub-theme to emerge at this point was the existing curriculum. Teachers are already trying to cope with a full curriculum. Invariably, time spent on some kind of telecurricular activity, even one linked to the existing curriculum, is going to take time from what was done before. Priorities will need to be decided. In the meantime, the pioneering teachers are trying to add new activities and skills to what is already in place. Often times, the resources obtained cannot be effectively used in the classroom without developing some kind of curriculum package to support their use. Again, this takes time. As fun as it is, the Internet can be a great waster of time. Some teachers spoke of hours spent trying to track down some resource because its location involved a lot of guess work. Others subscribed to a listserv, only to be overwhelmed by the volume of mail which suddenly arrived in their mail boxes.

Time management and discipline became important skills to be learned. Teachers had to make time available on a weekly basis, usually at set times, and learn to neither skimp on or exceed what was allocated. Some spoke of the adjustments they had to make in their lifestyles and family commitments.

Second, frustrations with the Internet itself emerged as a substantive theme. Basically, the Internet is not user-friendly and this was pointed out on a number of occasions. More specifically, the Internet is not reliable. If access is to be part of a lesson, there is no guarantee that a connection will be made. Frequently, access to a specific site is denied because it is heavily used. Other times, when access is gained, a particular resource is not available, or cannot be accessed. As one teacher put it, "There is so much to weed out." Teachers spoke of having to wade through messages on the listservs to glean out the small fraction of what was useful. Another source of frustration was experienced when 'experts' were approached and failed to answer or there was some other form of lack of response. Frustrations in this area were compounded by the lack of time. Some allocated a precious hour to find a particular resource and then came up empty handed. Either source of frustration by itself might have been acceptable, but together they became a major aggravation.

Third, Reach for the Sky has provided access to the Internet using a modem and long distance phone lines. This access mode does have its limitations. Some would have liked a graphic interface, with point and click capabilities. However, during the first year of the project, this was not feasible. This type of access also raised the question of cost. Those using long distance phone lines to access the Internet found that the cost of being online could be rather prohibitive. Many were shocked at their August and September phone bills! The offline reader, which is the main telecommunication mode advocated by the Project does keep phone costs low, but on the other hand does not permit browsing of the Internet. Many teachers found themselves on the outside looking in when it came to direct resource acquisition. They had begun to glimpse what was out there for them to explore, but online costs limited what they could actually experience and download.

The fourth source of frustration is also cost related. As teachers began to realize the potential of the Internet and to experience learning modes hitherto unknown to them, they began to visualize new ways in which their students might begin to learn. However, in some cases these dreams floundered because of the reality of the classroom situation. In the worst cases, the classrooms were devoid of computers. Others did have a computer, but no modem or phone line. The gap between potential and actual learning in the classroom has become a source of frustration for a number of teachers. Some have been successful in getting their colleagues and administration to glimpse their vision and to start providing support in the form of hardware. Others have become more isolated from their colleagues, and are thinking of moving to technologically greener pastures.

2. What kind of math/science resources were found on the Internet? How easy was it to find and acquire these resources? Was the time spent perceived to be worthwhile? Which of the resources was perceived as being most useful?

Reach for the Sky teachers tended to fall into one of two groups. The one group consisted of teachers who had spent a lot of time searching the Internet for resources, and were by and large pleased with what they had found. The other group did not spend much time on searching for or accessing resources, but rather used the Internet to participate in telecurricular activities and thus spent time on collecting, sharing and analyzing data. The two groups tended to be somewhat exclusive of each other, suggesting that time constraints forced teachers to set priorities.

Teachers who did invest time in searching the Internet for resources were pleased with what they had found, and felt that the investment was worthwhile. A list of resources cited is categorized and listed below. Numbers in parenthesis indicate how often a particular resource was cited. The complete data from the questionnaires is given in Appendix I.

Live From Antarctica - Math/Science/Social Studies
Interdisciplinary unit involving experts in the field and studying Antarctica.

Where is Roger? - Tracking Roger through the Eastern Hemisphere, we spent the last semester tracking him through Australia and have contacted other schools around the world who were also on the list. (2)

Geogame - A geography activity for Middle School kids. (2)

Mayaquest - Students being able to interact with experts online in Central America seeking answers as to why the Maya civilizations have disappeared. We are going to compare this ancient civilization to other ancient civilizations we've already studied in Europe. (2)

The Geometry Forum through which we get a Problem of the Week and a Project of the Month for the class or individuals to work on. The results are written and then returned to the forum. (2)

Space related (8)
General or unspecified (6)

Lesson plans/Units
Math (5)
Science (3)
General or unspecified (2)

Edupage News
Data for projects
Math (2)
General or unspecified (2)


Listservs or general help
Ideas for the classroom (8)
Middle schools (2)
Math projects
Science/environmental projects (2)
General knowledge (3)

Civil war letters
Drama plays for elementary students

3. Can the resources found on the Internet, or access to the Internet in general, result in better classroom practice? In which ways does access to the Internet change ways in which teachers teach and learners learn?

Ultimately, the worth of experimental projects like Reach for the Sky will need to be judged in terms of differences they make to the teaching and learning processes. Renewal in math and science education eventually needs to play out in the classroom if the project is to have any impact. Data gathered to date is based on self reported changes, gathered both by means of a questionnaire and an interview. Furthermore, four classrooms have been observed. Based on this data, Reach for the Sky teachers fall into two groups. The first and larger group reported some significant, in their estimation, changes to their teaching practice. The second group said that they recognized the potential for teaching differently, they were proceeding with caution and were still learning themselves. This second group envisaged making some kind of change to their teaching in the near future. Both changes to the way in which teachers teach and students learn were reported in the interviews. The changes to teaching styles and methods will be dealt with first.

A major difference to the way in which lessons are taught appears to be the use of resources which were not available previously.

"I have new ideas of how students can gain information and how to present it to other students."

Resources that were mentioned included images and textual information. While the former tended to be used as visual aids, and hence viewed by the students passively, the latter tended to be incorporated by the students in a more active manner in reports and discussions. The availability of these resources, in some instances, had a major impact on the content taught. For example, the availability of images from space led to a greater emphasis on this topic. Those teachers who were involved in telecollaborative activities during the Fall of 1994 reported on the data from other schools as an important resource. Finally programs such as Live from the Antarctica, Where is Roger?, and Geogame, where used, appeared to have made a major impact on classroom teaching.

A second major theme to emerge was that of personal growth, and more specifically the ability to overcome isolation and to incorporate more diversity in lessons taught. As one teacher put it, "I am more of a global person and very aware of what's going on in the rest of the world. I try to communicate that to my students so they realize what may be affecting their new found friends on different continents. We always try to find commonalities on all parts of the globe. I am much more aware as a person."

Personal growth was a theme touched on by a number of those interviewed. Specifically, teachers were able to consult scientists and other teachers for ideas and advice. Perhaps more importantly, they were able to bring the outside world into their own classrooms. Some teachers allowed their students to follow the activities of scientists from all over the world working in the Antarctica, and to pose questions to them. Others had the opportunity to follow Roger across Australia. Science, geography, math, social studies and writing could all be incorporated into accounts of Roger's travels. One teacher capitalized on the fact that Roger declined to climb a rock sacred to the aboriginal people of Australia to initiate a discussion on sensitivity to cultural beliefs of others. Yet another way in which isolation was overcome was the provision of opportunities of students to communicate directly with other students in other parts of the country or world. In one school, each student was linked with a student teacher in a university methods course. This cross-age linkage proved to be exciting and beneficial to both groups. The university students discovered how much they had to learn about explaining math concepts using text only. Friendships were established that extended beyond the end of the course itself.

Third, some teachers reported that a major change was taking place in the way in which they taught. Lesson were becoming more student centered and less teacher directed.
"I have been able to personalize my teaching more to the individual student through the items that I have gained access to through the Internet. The students have been getting more hands on resources during this time."
Students were being given more freedom to pursue topics of their own interest, which were often sparked by some resource found on the Internet.
"It has made me a much better teacher! I have more resources out there on the Internet. I have gained a better understanding of my students needs. They are directing their education more than they ever did in my class before. I feel that I have much better connections with other teachers from around the world. My students have gained more of a world view of things, understanding other cultures and breaking down stereotypes."
Another example is that in math classes, students were challenged to find ways of expressing the data that they had collected instead of the teacher telling them what to do. Some teachers reported that they were seeing their role more as that of a facilitator, and that their style of teaching was becoming more investigative and inquiry oriented.
"Much more innovative and relevant to student needs for the future. More student centered and focused on investigative type activities."

Teachers also reported on differences in ways in which students were learning. In some cases these changes were well underway, while in others they were envisaged rather than implemented. One overall way of looking at the change in learning was summed up in the words of one teacher who quoted the old proverb,
"Give me a fish and I eat for a day. Teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime."

While learning in the past has tended to concentrate on assimilating a body of knowledge (usually set out in a textbook), the Internet encourages students to become seekers of knowledge and teachers the facilitators of learning in this new mode.

Looking now at some of the specific points made by teachers.
One overwhelming response was that the use of computers and Internet access was proving to be highly motivational. For example, the ability to download an image from a source many miles away fascinated students. Many were excited both by the computer itself, and by some of the other indirect changes that were occurring as a result of the technology available.

"The biggest change is new ideas in the classroom. The students are more interested even though they are learning the same concepts they would have learned from the book. It has a whole new flavor with different approaches that the students enjoy and think of as 'new'."

A second major theme to emerge was that students were becoming independent explorers and were taking more responsibility for their own learning. Teachers claimed that the problem solving skills of their students were improving. Specifically, the use of real data gathered by the students themselves, sometimes in collaboration with other schools, has made a big difference in attitude towards math and in how learning occurs. As students became more responsible for the analysis of their data, they sought to make meaning of what they had found, rather than to follow a set algorithm to come up with the right answer.

"Because we are collaborating with other schools, the students have a REAL audience and REAL reasons for accuracy."

This theme was summed up by a teacher who said, "They will be doing more true science, not just the canned stuff."

Students were able to take charge of their own learning, to some extent, by the access to resources that were not previously available. In some cases these resources were found and explored online. In other cases, they were available on CDs provided through the Microsoft partnership.

Students were able to do independent research on topics of interest to them because of access to information previously unavailable to small, rural schools.

Third, greater collaboration between students was reported by some teachers. Many of the telecollaborative projects, as well as those found on place like the Geometry forum, required students to work in groups to come up with a solution to a problem. This solution would then be posted and viewed by students in other schools.

Students in some of the schools had direct access to e-mail, while others had to send message through the teacher. In either case, students were able to reach out to the world beyond themselves and their own community. To many of them, contact with other schools in Montana was as novel as being able to communicate with Estonian students.

Hence it would appear that students are becoming independent learners to some extent. However, a caution was sounded by one teacher. He reported that students are more inclined to explore and 'surf' than to specifically mine the resource for information to do with an identified research question.

List of resources as given in response to the questionnaire.

*Graphics on assorted planets from Nasa
*Some free software for volcanoes
*Teacher help on math science projects
*Lesson plans for Science
*Drama plays for elementary students
*Live From Antarctica - Math/Science/Social Studies
Interdisciplinary unit involving experts in the field and studying Antarctica.
*Where is Roger? - Tracking Roger through the Eastern Hemisphere, we spent the last semester tracking him through Australia and have contacted other schools around the world who were also on the list.
*Geogame - A terrific geography activity for Middle School kids. This has been really a challenge.
*Mayaquest - Students being able to interact with experts online in Central America seeking answers as to why the Maya civilizations have disappeared. We are going to compare this ancient civilization to other ancient civilizations we've already studied in Europe. This study has involved quite a bit of research on my part and the project has been extremely helpful in developing a bibliography and providing lesson plans and online resources.
*Projects with classes in other schools in which my classes could become involved.
*The Geometry Forum through which we get a Problem of the Week and a Project of the Month for the class or individuals to work on. The results are written and then returned to the forum.
*Listservs that offer ideas and lessons appropriate for my students.
Listservs that increase my general computer/internet knowledge
*Lesson plans found while 'surfing'
*Images used for Science lessons
*Images of space objects.
*Projects from other teachers (Math)
*(Info. from a listserv helped me find) Civil Wars from an Iowan Soldier
*Images of many, many things of interest to my students
*I think that having contact with other teachers and exchanging lesson ideas to make things better for the students (more "real-world" and more hands-on and more future oriented) has been an invaluable resource.
*Lesson plans
*Personal contact with others.
*I have acquired access to math lesson plans on a variety of topics.
*Students were able to reach Santa on the Internet and receive a response.
*I have acquired the knowledge how to access whatever resource that I have a need for.
*I subscribed to listserves on Middle School issues and kidcafe.
*Graphics, and text with graphics
*Ideas from a list-serv for classroom projects
*Data for telecollaborative projects
*Space images
*Classroom lesson plan ideas
*Ongoing programs.
*I have used images from space.
*I have used information from other teachers in the project.
*I also belong to a firenet listserve.
*I use weather reports.
*I read teacher interaction on the internet.
*Material (Mean, Median, Mode)
*Satellite & telescope images.
*US Government Res.(NOAA, NASA, NIH)
*Where on the Globe Is Roger Project
*Geogame project
*Edupage news
*Math and Science lessons from a variety of sources.
*Scholastic Central: a great resource for materials, authors, science projects.
*Dartmouth Library: Shakespeare
*Environmental gophers: