Venezuelan Education in the Web (the RENa Web Site)

Edmundo VITALE <evitale@ula.ve>
Maria AUXILIADORA MALDONADO <mauxi@cptm.ula.ve>
Red Académica de Centros de Investigación y Universidades Nacionales (REACCIUN)
Venezuela

Hazel FLORES <hazel@cptm.ula.ve>
Universidad de Los Andes
Venezuela

Abstract

Venezuelan education has been undergoing certain changes, especially in curriculum. The use of computers and the Internet is having a great impact on classrooms. The Academic Network of Universities (REACCIUN) has undertaken a project that involves the connection of Venezuelan public schools to a local network and also the creation of an educational Web site [RENa, www.rena.e12.ve] for primary school children. At the moment, the educational Web site has finished the first of three phases, which aim to cover curricula from first to ninth grade. The first phase, for first to third grade, has been evaluated, with good results. This Web site has tried to meet the educational needs of children ages 7 through 9 and to be easy for them to navigate.

Contents

Introduction

The computer, digital memory, multimedia, and the Internet are revolutionizing education and communication. We have gone from the pen to the personal computer and from the personal computer to cyberspace. Schools are discovering that the Internet is a useful tool that gives them the opportunity to improve learning. The Internet, which makes it possible to acquire up-to-date information easily, is seriously being taken into consideration in education at all levels, including primary education. Venezuela is now putting computer labs in schools.

Venezuela first began introducing technology into schools about five years ago, with projects such as CENAMEC, Simón, and Escuelas Integrales aimed at enhancing education in primary schools. These projects have come to an end, and very little evaluation was undertaken to verify their impact in the few schools affected by the programs. But they have opened up a new path for education in the country and catalyzed a reassessment of the Venezuelan school curriculum.

Rice, Rice, Wilson, and Bagley (1999) explain that many educational reforms are supporting active approaches to learning and replacing traditional methods. The recent reform of Venezuelan education has aimed to support this constructive principle of learning, and the use of technology supports this reform. This means that learning through technology will transform the classroom into a space for learning, not merely a space for receiving information (Andrade Londoño, 1996).

Venezuelan education is homogeneous and centralized, and it covers a wide geographic area. But the quality of education is uneven, especially when one considers the differences between public and private schools and between rural and urban areas. Because of this imbalance, implementation of information technology cannot take place quickly and evenly throughout the country, and some of those who will be the future professionals and leaders of the country will not have the necessary preparation. As a consequence, the gap that already exists between developed and developing countries will continue to widen.

However, in Venezuela some efforts are being made by the government and some institutions to integrate information and communication technologies into schools on a large scale (Project Escuelas Integrales Bolivarianas). Computer labs will help schools use the Internet to improve education. It is the ideal moment for educational changes, which will affect the future economic and cultural development of the country (Pérez Calderón, 1996), helping to prepare the future workforce.

Background of RENa

The project RENa was created two years ago to connect schools (public and private) to local and international networks (the Internet) with the purpose of incorporating information technology and communication into the nation's educational system. It seeks alliances and agreements among and commitments from three types of organizations: innovative schools, the vendors of educational software, and national universities. It also seeks to organize the Venezuelan School Net, with support from telecommunications and Internet companies and a shared responsibility with the Ministries of Education and Science and Technology.

Presently RENa is working on producing online educational content (Web site http://www.rena.e12.ve) for the three stages of basic education. A space has been created in the Web for primary teachers and children from first through ninth grade. The Web site is centered on satisfying the needs of children in the first (first, second, and third grades), second (fourth, fifth, and sixth grades), and third (seventh, eighth, and ninth grade) levels. The site addresses searching for information, curricular coverage of the new educational plan on a national scale, and the production of information. The site will allow teachers to keep up-to-date with educational changes, school-related events, and other news and activities and share this information to improve education.

Desired situation

The RENa Web site intends to:

Benefits:

Structure of the Web site

The Web site has been divided into three parts. The first, on the home page, offers users general information about how to chat with other schools, how to use the Internet, what RENa is, what Web sites are related to RENa, and other topics. The home page has a special space for teachers with up-to-date information on research results, programs from the Ministry of Education, and news related to education and teaching. There is a space for teachers and students to present their queries on any educational subject, discuss their problems, and offer solutions and help to people at other schools. There is also a series of links to Web sites of other institutions related to RENa and information about RENa and REACCIUN. Finally, the home page links to the site map of RENa, which gives an overview of everything the site offers.

The second part of the Web site is related to the Venezuelan educational curriculum. It is structured especially for children and covers nine subjects: science, citizenship, geography, history, language, art, mathematics, technology, and sports. Each subject area has various components in common, such as "Did you know that," where children can gain general knowledge; "For your teacher," which outlines the current curriculum for teachers and has activities for teachers to use in their classes; and "Biographies," which helps children learn about famous people who have contributed to Venezuelan and world history.

In general, these subject areas have their main body of information, which has been divided to cover the demands of each curriculum requirement and individual needs (Cox Ledfrod and Hattler, 1997). Primary curricular information is supplemented by exercises, extra information, experiments, and pointers to relevant sites. Other important information, such as what to do in fires, floods, and earthquakes, is also covered.

The third part of the Web site is devoted to getting to know Venezuela. Information here will appeal to children and tourists alike. This information can also be accessed through the geography study area. A map of Venezuela welcomes visitors. Selecting one of the 23 states on the map will lead to general information on the state (e.g., culture, recreational issues). Photographs of the country and its people appear.

Another issue that was taken into consideration is the age group of the children who would visit the site. The site needed to be child-friendly but also appeal to all visitors; therefore, two main characters were created, a boy and a girl. These children can be seen in the home page of RENa and, along with their friends, guide visitors through the Web site. Some topics have moving images, others have exercises, and soon there will be a possibility of including interactive software and sound in the Web site.

Phases II and III

The site is totally different from other known educational sites, which was one of its original aims. Phases II and III of its development will incorporate strategies that aim to enhance the teaching and learning process, especially focusing on teaching children to think about, analyze, and understand concepts and physical phenomena in a more practical way through demonstrations. Nevertheless, the site is not completely finished; three phases were planned to cover each age group (levels one, two, and three of basic education). Currently, the second stage is being carried out.

Phase II is aimed at children ages 9 to 11. The structure of the site will be the same as the structure of the current site, even using the same characters. Depending on the educational demands of this new group, there may be more text than images or more complex information than on the current site.

Phase III will have an entirely different layout. This phase may cover not only the age group 12 to 14 but also 15- and 16-year-olds. Plans are to change the layout to appeal to adolescents and to give adolescents accurate information on topics related to their curricular demands. Specialists in each area will provide the content for physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, and other topics. This site may also publish research and highlight projects undertaken by students, which will help motivate and train future researchers in various areas.

Evaluation

It is important to demonstrate that high-technology approaches improve student learning in an efficient manner. Demonstrating this is a challenge, even more if we accept that learners build their knowledge through internalizing facts. However, there are explicit means to undertake this task. There is the learner's ability to actively reproduce what has been learned and the time the learner takes in assimilating information.

The Museum of Science and Technology of Mérida has experience comparing learning through multimedia with learning by oral explanation and learning by reading. The Museum of Science and Technology seeks to ensure that science and technology are distributed throughout the culture and used well. Therefore, the museum took an interest in the RENa Web site. The museum evaluated the site's content and observed if it corresponded with RENa's institutional and educational objectives.

An interdisciplinary group was formed to evaluate various aspects of the Web site. The team included a linguist with a master's degree in educational computer science, a computer engineer with a master's degree in educational computer science, a social communicator, an educator, and a psychologist with a master's degree in reading. Each professional performed an exhaustive evaluation of Phase I of the Web site. Results are discussed in the following section.

Description of evaluated issues

Content

Style

Impact on users

It is preferable for students to use the Web site on their own, but the site can also be used as the main teaching resource, just like a textbook. To use the site as the main teaching resource, however, the teacher must be trained to use this tool in the classroom and with students. Children can learn to use the site in a few hours, and the site can be used with various children at the same time, if necessary. A teacher's manual should be created to guide instructors in use of the site.

Technical design

The Web site runs smoothly with no programming errors. The order of the material is coherent, so one can move through the site efficiently. Animations appear quickly, and when the site is used through a CD-ROM version, demands on RAM memory are small. Time spent waiting for something to be executed should be shortened. If a procedure will take more than 20 seconds, users should be notified.

Instructional design

The information is presented in an open-ended sequence allowing the coverage of objectives. These objectives can be complemented with activities such as "Did you know that" or experiments and craft activities. Proposed activities and teacher's strategies are consistent with the basic theoretical information.

Elements are well distributed on the screens, images clarify objectives, and characters are original and attractive. These images do not distract the user once they are familiar. The images transmit an appropriate quantity of information and clarify ideas without it being too obvious that the images are adapted to the message. Additionally, the appearance and sequence of images are relevant. The speed of presentation of these images is adequate, and the visual effects encourage learning and memorization of information.

Considerations on the evaluated Web site

The evaluators considered the Web site praiseworthy, especially when compared with multimedia from Spanish-speaking countries like Spain and Colombia. These countries' multimedia products were not right for Venezuelan needs, partly because of their linguistic style. On the other hand, it is evident that users of multimedia and hypertext develop greater auditory and visual dexterity. This improved dexterity helps the children to search for information more efficiently, but this improvement could not be assessed with this sample of children because they did not know how to use the tool.

According to Reinhardt (1995), the new technologies used in education do not only increase intellectual productivity but also accomplish a qualitative change in the nature of learning. It is important to study these new ways of thinking to enrich the current pedagogical tendencies, especially in socially disadvantaged groups.

When software is used as multimedia in the curriculum, verbal intelligence and logical-mathematical development improve. These are the principal factors of formal thinking and the essential foundation of research -- aspects in which students traditionally fail, according to Twigg's (1994) research. It is equally important to improve reading skills because reading encourages students to accept new semantics; have different thoughts; expand, speculate upon, and extrapolate from ideas; and better synthesize information.

Future purposes

It is expected that in the future the RENa Web site will be published in a different format or mechanism (e.g., CD-ROM) for those schools that cannot connect to Internet. RENa also plans to add to the Web site a club for children, a space for teachers and children to have discussions, interactive games, a list of schools connected to RENa, and e-mail and chat services.

References

Andrade Londoño, E. (1996) Ambientes de Aprendizaje para la Educación en Technología. Revista educación en technología, Versión Electrónica, Vol. 1, www.geocities.com/Athens/8478/

Cox Ledfrod, C., and Hattler, J. (1997) Making Connections: Social Studies Methods and the Internet, www.webcom.com/journal/table9.html

Pérez Calderón, U. (1996) Elementos para el Desarrollo de una Pedagogía de la Technología. Revista Educación en Technología, Versión Electrónica, Vol. 1, www.geocities.com/Athens/8478/

Reinhardt, A. (1995) New Ways to Leam. Byte. March.

Rice, M., Rice, K., Wilson, E., and Bagley, W. (1999) Social Studies Teachers and Technology: Activities for the Constructive Classroom. CSS Journal, Computers in the Social Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3, www.webcom.com/journal/table9.html

Twigg, C. (1994) The changing definition of learning. Educom, No. 2.