The deployment of such technologies into the Australian education environment has been very limited to date, yet it is in this environment that perhaps the most striking developments can be undertaken, and the essential basic groundwork accomplished for the longer term productive integration of information technologies into our society. Accordingly there is much that has to be accomplished to ensure that we can sensibly realise the opportunities such technologies offer to the classroom and the children. At this stage the efforts to utilise communications networks within the K-12 educational environment are largely pioneering efforts carried out by dedicated individuals, which bear many of the hallmarks of experimental projects rather than of widescale programs. However there are valuable lessons to be gleaned from these efforts in terms of selecting appropriate paradigms for subsequent wider deployment.
One such pioneering effort is the Australian Capital Territory Education Information Network (ACTEIN) program, a local university initiative to introduce the Internet to primary and secondary schools in the Australian Capital Territory. The physical connectivity is based on low cost accessible technologies, and most schools use IP dial-up as their access to the Internet. The program's main direction is not the provision of Internet access itself, but in attempting to address the issue of how the Internet can be put to work in the classroom, consequently the ACTEIN Program has a strong emphasis on technical and training support to accompany the Internet access. Internet trainers visit the schools on a weekly basis until the teaching staff feel confident in the use of the software and navigation of the Internet. Further support is provided through mailing lists and user group meetings. The entire effort of training is directed at both basic literacy skills in navigating the Internet's resources, and also at developing the human skills to meet and work with others on the Internet, providing a high level of personal motivation and commitment through a rich set of personal contacts and shared activities.
One of the most immediate initial results of this program is the confirmation of the value of electronic messaging (e-mail) as the basic glue of the worldwide Internet. Teachers and Students from the program's schools are exploring this networked world from the base of their classroom by exchanging e-mail with other classrooms around the world. A steady daily stream of messages is now being exchanged with classes around the world, with the children exploring points of similarity and difference in their respective environments. The immediacy of the interaction is a particular attribute of the e-mail network, where delivery of a message occurs within a matter of seconds, and responses generally received by the next morning. Such immediacy of contact allows the rapid formation of trust and familiarity, and both teachers and children have quickly formed friendships with individuals scattered around the globe.
If the scope of the K-12 Internet was simply that of keypals drawn from around the world it would still be a valuable addition to the school environment. However there is a vast array of additional resources and services which are valuable as both a teaching resource and as a resource to the children. The K-12 Internet also includes a large selection of network mediated projects that the classes can participate in. Indeed the most difficult part of this activity has been in choosing which project to participate in! Teachers are encouraged to organise their own projects and share involvement in the project with their peers around the world.
In addition to using computer networks for keypalling activities there is a vast wealth of information freely available across the Internet, with much of this information of relevance to activities undertaken in the K-6 environment. Both students and teachers have the ability to browse the many electronic libraries and databases on-line to the Internet, retrieving diverse information formats which integrate text, pictures, sounds and movies into the information response.
Teachers have found that Internet facilities can been effortlessly incorporated into the curriculum at all levels. At the simplest level it provides a basis for meaningful journal writing. It also provides an outlet for the publication of stories and can be incorporated into the mathematics, science and social science curriculums.
This interaction can take many forms and it is perhaps a unique aspect of the internet that there is no single paradigm for the classroom. From the Australian view point one of our more interesting interaction recently has been between a set of Australian 5 and 6 year olds and a Zoo in the United States. A Koala was donated to the Indianapolis Zoo which then found its with a Koala and little or no information about Koalas in their reference material. The children answered their Internet plea to provide information for the thousands of visitors annually to the Zoo. The children have provided a unique set of resources which the Zoo is using within their Koala exhibit. All the material (with the exception of the Koalas!) has been collected and dispatched using the Internet.
There are many projects available over the Internet for the K-12 environment. Many ideas for projects arise out of class to class contact and these are perhaps the most beneficial as they are of direct interest to both the classes and teachers involved. One such project that has arisen from class to class contact is that of sending QuickTime video across the network as a video-gram. Plans have been made to send QuickTime video of a science experiment between Australian and United States schools