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The Internet in schools

Taking the worldwide web into the classroom and vice-versa is still an economic and strategic challenge for educators and governments.

jaime pradesThe apparent spread of LAN houses to the outskirts and the poorest neighborhoods of large and small Brazilian cities is beginning to drive a visible phenomenon: the democratization of the Internet may have a very much greater impact on students in public schools than one might imagine. In various ways:  improvements in the learning process and in income, in the preparation of students for college entrance exams, etc. The classroom, for this group of computer literate people, tends to be uninteresting. It is not by accident that for some time now the Internet has been knocking on the doors of schools and wants to get in, in any way possible – for the good of the students, of course, and even into private schools, where this integration is not yet complete. The outcome of this is that if there is anything certain in the teaching world it is only that the blackboard, box of chalk and board eraser, basic teaching materials that have existed for centuries, are well past their “use by” date.

To turn the computer and the Internet into integrated objects for school learning has been possible, feasible and necessary for some time now. The tools exist and depend on initiatives and political will. Only that? No, the situation is very complicated, simply because we still do not know what is the best way of doing this, even if our classrooms are filled with computers. Nor how. The challenges range from the role of the teacher, the student, the school and the public authorities to discovering how to make this mechanism efficient, because its multiple possibilities make the worldwide computer network an irresistible and widely available attraction for both children and adolescents.

The challenges go further. It is also necessary to know how to avoid poor use of the Internet when doing school work, because it is common for students, including university students, to copy any available material or reproduce information that is wrong or inaccurate, or to commit infractions like plagiarism, or the appropriation of the ideas of other people. Given all these issues, integrating school and the Internet has become the biggest challenge for those who think about, discuss and plan education all over the world.

The web can serve to support distance-learning and even supply information, by complementing the vision of the instruction tool in the teaching-learning process or in the preparation of activities that help students build up their knowledge. This is what Professor José Armando Valente, from Unicamp’s Multimedia and IT Applied to Education Department has observed. In both cases, he says, the ways of using the Internet must be determined by the pedagogic intention of the teacher, who is still looking for a feasible way of doing this.

As Valente observes, educators are aware that the Internet has the most modern resources for manipulating information to help students in their research into a particular subject, in the development of projects, in communication with other people, in publishing the results of work, etc. For the researcher, the more sophisticated the teaching process and the more prepared (more mature and aware of what they want to be in life) the student is, the more useful the Internet can become in their education.

An example has come from Unicamp, which adopted open teaching, offering  all undergraduate subjects  a distance-learning environment via the Internet. The professor of the particular subject can use it or not, depending on  his teaching proposition . If they use it, in some situations it has meant an extension of the classroom – the continuation of discussions, using the resources offered by the environment – a way of submitting the work of students, or for adding support material, etc.

An expert in distance-learning and professor from Escola Politécnica [Polytechnic School] at USP and the Centro Universitário Senac, Rometo Tori has children who are examples of how much the Internet has forced experts to seek ways of using digital technology in the learning process. “If the school doesn’t take the Internet into the classroom, then the students will. For some years I have been seeing my own children, who are in elementary school, doing research on the Internet and working in teams at a distance, using instant communication programs. And it wasn’t the school that asked them to do it this way, neither did it encourage them; it was something natural and obvious to them.”

Therefore, he suggests, the discussion should not be “if the Internet should or should not be adopted in the classroom”, but rather “how?”. Tori says that this has to be done in a way similar to what would apply to any other media, i.e., with planning and monitoring. “Even when you teach a lesson using a blackboard and chalk you have to plan it. The blackboard doesn’t do the teaching itself; neither does the Internet.” The chief difference between the Internet and the majority of the media used in education today is its interactivity, he adds. “This being the case, it doesn’t make sense, for example, to sit the students down in front of a browser and expect them to pay attention to an explanatory lesson.”

For the professor, the media must be adjusted to fit the teaching method that the teacher wants to use in each  learning activity. Since a pedagogically well planned course is not based on a single teaching technique, he explains, there will be times when the Internet will play a prominent role and others when it can, or even should be, dispensed with altogether. “We cannot forget the inverse phenomenon to that of ‘taking the Internet into the classroom’, which is ‘taking the classroom to the Internet’, which is also making large strides and has been producing great results, whether in distance-learning or as support for classroom-based education.”

In São Paulo, in order to study this topic, USP set up its Laboratory for Investigating New Learning Scenarios – School of the Future, a research center linked to the Deputy Dean’s office. Its function is to investigate how IT and communication can be incorporated into education. The coordinator, Sílvia Fichmann, explains that the project includes a group of researchers from several fields of knowledge. “What is being proposed is that there should be a change in educational paradigms, since the transformations caused by the digital revolution demand a change in the perception of educators with regard to learning, a new attitude and a new way of teaching in which the student plays an active role and the professor assumes the role of mediator”, she observes.

Operating for almost ten years the School of the Future develops projects for both public and private institutions. Since 2000, for example, it has been working with Tonomundo, which is trying to train and develop elementary school teachers for public schools in 16 Brazilian states. IT and communication technology, says Sílvia, are tools that contribute to the students assimilating different learning styles in an autonomous way. “The problem is that teachers are not prepared for this change and for using technology as an educational tool and they insist on using the same old teaching practices and traditional resources.”

According to the educator there are various obstacles to teachers using the Internet as an educational tool, including the lack of equipment and Internet connections in most schools, apart from the fact that those that do have them find it difficult to maintain them. In addition, there is no reformulation of the school curriculum, proposing activities that use technology, no possibilities for teachers to retrain and a heavy school timetable that makes IT laboratory activities unfeasible. “The Internet should be used as a complementary research source and teachers should guide students on how to find and select relevant information and use it in their work”, Sílvia suggests.

César Nunes, PhD, associate researcher at the School of the Future, says that there are three major positive areas where the Internet can be used in the classroom: accessing all types of information, exchanging data with colleagues and experts and publishing the material produced by the students themselves. The combination of these characteristics allows for student-centered teaching, in which students become responsible for collecting, validating and organizing the information, developing their communication skills and learning by doing and producing their own material. “These fronts prepare the student for present-day society in which everybody must be a knowledge producer and not merely an absorber.”

As a teaching tool, the Internet has a crucial advantage  compared to other media, such as printed media, radio or TV: the vast potential for interactivity inherent in the hypertext structure. This is emphasized by Fábio Massaharu Nogi, Master in Social Dentistry from USP, with a thesis entitled “The Internet as a teaching-learning support tool in legal dentistry”. Representing information in hypertext, he says, is a break from the statistical and linear sequences of the traditional media. “A whole range of possibilities in the process of obtaining information become available,  allowing the user to interlink the information in accordance with their own interests and needs, by browsing and constructing personalized sequences in their search.”

For Nogi, the network can be used in the teaching-learning process in different ways and by using very different approaches: browsing through the web, researching websites, e-mail, discussion groups, or video-conferencing. Forums, simulators and consulting databases are some of the examples of the resources offered and mentioned by him that can be used in the classroom, thus helping make lessons more dynamic and interactive. “This wealth of possibilities makes it feasible to include the Internet in educational projects with varying degrees of complexity and dependence, as a function of the level of knowledge and preparation of the teachers and the other members of the working team.”

Nogi argues that it is useless to equip oneself with the most sophisticated and innovative technology if these advances do not result in concrete benefits for the student’s learning process. “Popularization of the Internet brought about an increase in the supply of on-line courses, although many of them do not have the basic pedagogic foundations that enable more active and collaborative learning on the part of the student”, he warns. He says that this is the old and traditional posture of the one-sided transmission of teacher-centered knowledge that favors the uncritical accrual of knowledge, except this time disguised behind the mask of an innovative technological resource.

Ten years after the start of the mass use of the Internet, some educators consider that its influence or presence in school education has not been noted to any great extent. Existing uses are still very limited and do not explore the Internet’s true potential, as José Armando Valente emphasizes. In many schools use has been limited to a search for information in websites made available by the institution. To contain the distortions and poor use of this tool, he suggests that it should be at the service of the problem-solving process and project development, as well as being a means of interaction between students and between the student and experts.

Sílvia Fichmann adds that, unfortunately, what the School of the Future has found is that most teachers still do not use the Internet appropriately for the purposes of education. “The Tonomundo project is one of those where we see an evolution in this sense, because it forms part of a virtual learning community and develops activities  in order to realize  the true potential of the computer and the Internet as educational tools.” The debate still has a long way to run.