Telecommunications in Our Classroom: Boondoggle or a Powerful Teaching Tool?

Boris Berenfeld <>
TERC, Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA


The author discusses current trends in educational uses of the Internet. To become an integral part of the learning experience, the Internet should be accepted by a broad audience of teachers, educators, and policy makers. To foster this acceptance, the author suggests a new metaphor-the infosphere-a term that implies the growing unity, interdependence, and accessibility of information produced by humankind. The presentation focuses on selected features of the infosphere that have proven to be of educational value, patterns of their implementations, and the rationale for linking students to the infosphere.

Will the information revolution matter to schools?

The telegraph, telephone, radio, and television revolutionized the flow of information on Earth, made a global village of our planet, and penetrated into all sectors of society except for one: the school. Recently, the fax machine moved paper as never before and appeared in our homes and businesses, big and small. Yet has anyone heard of fax-based curriculum? Now, as we are in the midst of the widely-heralded Information Revolution based on computer-mediated communications (CMC), will this technologies matter to classrooms?

Although the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 mandates advanced telecommunication services be affordable to schools, the legislation alone cannot ensure that CMC technologies will become accepted by educators and parents. History tells a quite different lesson. The Telecommunications Act of 1934 set a national goal of making available "to all people of the United Sates ... communications service with adequate facilities of reasonable charge.." and generally achieved this goal. Ninety four percent of American households have basic telephone services, the highest ratio of the world, but has anybody lately tried to phone to a classroom? Moreover, schools until now have had to pay the same rates for telephone services as businesses.

The current administration's efforts and growing public interest can help the Internet reach schools, but educators must promptly identify promising pedagogical features of CMC and implement them into school practice. If beneficial, the implementation successes will bring the much-needed justification for the multi-billion dollar investment required to link each learner to the Internet's advanced functionalities. If the benefits of advanced telecommunication services are not revealed right away, and if classroom CMC serves to only download an occasional file or a nice multimedia image, both educators and the public might assume that wiring classrooms is a boondoggle rather than an opportunity to revolutionize teaching and learning.

The promise

The dynamics of the educational process rest on two essential components: communications and resources. Knowledge must be communicated to students, which in typical classroom settings is done orally or via blackboards. To broaden students' access to information resources such as books and libraries are integral to learning.

Information technologies can so enhance classroom communications and resources that, when properly applied, they can transform conventional pedagogical paradigms and create new and powerful contexts for learning and teaching. Connected classrooms potentially offer open-ended, dynamic, discovery-oriented learning experiences. The more advanced the classroom use of telecommunications is, the greater the potential to change the learning environment, the teacher's role in the classroom, the flow of information to students and overall classroom dynamics; each can evolve to form more natural and much richer learning processes.

Leveling the playing field--access

The February 1996 report by the National Center for Educational Statistics (Advanced Telecommunications, 1996), indicates that 50 percent of public schools in America have access to the Internet, up from 35 percent only a year ago. Seventy-four percent of the schools without access intend to obtain it in the future.

Although the majority of connected schools still use modems, 43 percent report considerably faster connections, including T-1 lines. Besides using e-mail, 83 percent of schools have access to resource location services (e.g., Gopher) and about 80 percent of all connected schools have World Wide Web access.

There is a great interest among teachers to bring CMC to classrooms-only 5 percent of all schools reported a lack of teachers interest as a major barrier to acquiring or upgrading advanced telecommunications; only 19 percent of schools listed concern about students accessing inappropriate places as a major barrier to advanced telecommunications.

Leveling the playing field--usage

Providing sufficient hardware and wiring so that classrooms can participate in telecommunication activities does not ensure students will benefit from this connectivity. According to Advanced Telecommunications (1996), only 21 percent of those schools with Internet access report that students use the wide area network to a moderate to large extent.

The study shows a significant difference between Internet usage in poor and affluent schools. Thirty percent of affluent schools provide users with access to wide-area networks, compared to only 19 percent for poorer ones.

Although smaller than socioeconomic status, there is also a gender difference in assess to computers in schools, with boys having more access than girls. Academically more able students tend to use computers more often and broadly than less able students who tend to use computers for drill and practice (Becker, 1994; Sutton, 1991).

Implementation challenges

In the process of connecting schools to the Internet, educators are confronting many issues, from finding a local provider, to wiring the school, to purchasing appropriate hardware and software, to insuring sufficient quality access to permit the use of the most advanced telecommunication capabilities.

Moreover, even when classrooms are wired and students and teachers can telecommunicate, this does not mean that they will or that if they do, their efforts will be enriching. Successful implementations address many issues, such as integrating CMC into curricular contexts and teacher preparation and support. And even if all these issues are considered, there remains the issue of online student behavior. Responsible CMC is critical, and therefore proper online ethics should be taught to users as part of the broader topic of information literacy.

Clearly, advanced classroom connectivity requires a greater and more enduring commitment than many may have anticipated. No one, not even policy-makers, know for sure how many tens of billions of dollars this effort will cost or, for that matter, exactly where all the money will come from.

At a time when education is already besieged by other needs, can we justify spending billions of dollars to link classrooms for "advanced telecommunication services?"

Advanced telecommunications services call for an inspiring metaphor

Despite the current publicity, the Internet is poorly understood by the public. In order to convey a sense of this vast digital grid, observers have relied on a number of metaphors. Each metaphor, however, addresses only certain features of the online domain. We should ask whether these terms sufficiently communicate to educators and policy-makers the sweeping potential that the Internet offers.

A popular metaphor is "cyberspace," which its creator, writer William Gibson, defined as a "consensual hallucination of visually realized data achieved through plugging into a global computer network" (Gibson, 1984). The public has been informed that cyberspace is populated by virtual communities, online discussion groups, "town meetings," and even "electronic pubs." Although intriguing, cyberspace is an exotic phrase that perhaps best serves science fiction, from whence it came.

The "information superhighway" suggests an infrastructure in which information travels over electronic highways, much as cars and trucks negotiate interstate highways. It invokes images of speeding trucks hauling large loads of data in heavy traffic, not of a friendly place where parents would want their children to play.

The "electronic marketplace" implies a domain for transactions of goods and services. Connectivity offers far more than digital shopping malls.

One popular description is the "information age,", for it describes not the Internet itself, which is hardware, but its currency: information. At the core of the information age, uniting all information and data resources, will be computer-mediated communications (CMC). The information age implies a time for a revolution in the information environment.

The biosphere and the infosphere

The new information environment needs a metaphor that implies the growing unity, interdependence and accessibility of information produced by humankind and to this end the author (Berenfeld, 1996) proposes the infosphere.

For an appropriate analogy to grasp the new information environment as a cohesive and integrated flow of knowledge, let us consider the concept of the "biosphere," a term coined in the beginning of this century by Russian geochemist Vernadsky (1929) to describe the "envelope of life" as an interdependent planetary web. The concept, in effect, summarized all that was known in the natural sciences and asserted the unity of life and the space it inhabited.

The infosphere summarizes advances in nearly all human endeavors. Technologically, the infosphere traces back to the telegraph and radio, the first computers and monitors, and the Internet and the World Wide Web. Yet with its far-reaching global impact, the infosphere is also the product of political and cultural change. Sputnik, manned lunar landings, and the first photograph of the entire Earth, a fragile blue orb in space, encouraged all people to think globally. The collapse of the Berlin Wall broke down many political barriers to the infosphere, and the widespread adaptation of telecommunications technologies by science and commerce nurtured the infosphere at its birth.

This new communications environment is becoming increasingly dynamic as more and more users not only access the plethora of online data, but contribute to it as well (Hunter, 1995). For educators, this revolutionary flow of information forces a rethinking of traditional learning paradigms.

This presentation will discuss the features of the infosphere that have proved to be of educational value and outlines the basic trends in their adaptation into instructional practice.

What the infosphere offers classrooms

Due to the latest developments in Internet technologies, especially for the World Wide Web, we are seeing an explosive growth of the infosphere. As is often the case in the early stages of rapidly-growing systems, the infosphere appears chaotic, unstructured, and even somewhat frightening. In light of parental concerns and the high costs to establish classroom connectivity, a question must be asked: is there anything useful besides sending e-mail and accessing databases that can help teachers teach and students learn?

Examination of available online resources and classroom usage reveals five general educational functionalities of the infosphere (Berenfeld, 1996). They are presented below in ascending order of pedagogical sophistication and potential impact on student learning and school change.

1. Tele-access

Tele-access is the use of online resources in learning, including online libraries, databases, museums, satellite data and other classrooms. The latest space shuttle photos, paintings inspired by Shakespeare plays, pending congressional legislation, or foreign language resources for forty languages are available to students via the Internet.

When students conduct online searches, they are tapping into information that is real-world oriented and nearly unlimited. Rather than digesting precanned answers, they are constructing their own knowledge. and they can do so with equal facility at home and in class.

2. Virtual publishing

For the first time in history, the ability to publish no longer depends upon owning a printing press. Once the province of scholars and large companies, publishing is now an option for classrooms by means of virtual publishing on the World Wide Web. Virtual publishing can authenticate learning by setting students' scholarship in the real world. On the networks supported by Global Schoolhouse and International Education and Resource Network (I*EARN), students from different countries publish results of their collaborative projects, including news magazines, literary journals, environmental and human-rights newsletters.

Virtual publishing is hardly limited to text documents. Students can include graphics, video, sound and animation in their publications, as well as the hypertext links of digital books.

3. Tele-presence

Tele-presence enables students to experience events at remote sites. Students near an ecological disaster or in the path of a hurricane can serve as eyewitnesses for their peers by issuing firsthand accounts, or students can collect data from remote probes, whether the probes be on school grounds or on the moon.

When used with video technologies, CMC allows students to actually see and hear events as they happen remotely. Classes can journey on real expeditions, participate in real experiments and, in effect "look over the shoulders" of working scientists. For example, in the "Live from Antarctica" project, students accessed scientists' diaries and field journals to learn how they "lived, worked, and played" at the South Pole.

4. Tele-mentoring

With telecommunications, mentoring becomes a rich and viable teaching option. Many sites on the Internet, such as professional groups and bulletin boards, are responsive to student inquiries. By serving as mentors, scientists and scholars can answer questions and provide classrooms with resources beyond textbooks and the individual teacher's expertise.

An example of tele-mentoring is the online Ask-a-Geologist program sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior in which students ask questions of professional geologists.

Though generally associated with teacher development and adult education, tele-courses are a variation of tele-mentoring and are currently in development for K-12 students (Tinker and Haavind, 1996).

By exposing students to experts, scholars and people of achievement, tele-mentoring provides learners with positive role models, particularly for those students to whom positive role models are not readily available. Such relationships can reward not only students but the mentors themselves.

5. Tele-sharing

In their totality, the various functionalities of the infosphere enable students to share all forms of information in a variety of ways. Tele-sharing often begins with simple e-mail chats between "keypals." It advances to "one-to-many" and "many-to- many" communications, and then blossoms into the sharing of resources, ideas, experiences, data and findings.

This transition from simple communications to cooperative learning offers relevancy and the analytical challenge of comparative studies. Further, it calls upon students to engage in deeper social interactions. Such learning implies an equality among participants rather than the traditional vertically-structured, teacher-student relationship.

Presently, the most ambitious tele-cooperative project is Global Learning and Understanding to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE), which was initiated by Vice President Al Gore. The program forges a partnership between students worldwide and leading scientists to monitor key environmental parameters.

From online cooperation to tele-collaboration

Tele-collaboration is one of the most sophisticated deployments of classroom telecommunications. Although collaborative problem-solving offers the most beneficial educational opportunities, Harris noted that "educational problem solving projects are, as yet, the least common kind of Internet-based activity that involves precollege students" (Harris, 1995).

One of the first large-scale telecollaborative projects was the InterCultural Learning Network, which was started as a collaboration between classes in Alaska and San Diego to produce a newspaper called The Computer Chronicles. Students from different cultures used each other "as resources for learning more about themselves and the social, cultural, and physical world" (Riel, 1987).

Tele-collaboration goes beyond the sharing of data. In the Global Laboratory Project, an international, telecommunication-based project developed by TERC with support from the National Science Foundation, students investigated local and global environments. After sharing their findings on a project-wide database, students collaboratively identified environmental phenomena, discussed research plans, and together conducted distributed investigations using the same protocols, methodologies, standards, and tools. One of the students' discoveries was a dramatic rise of carbon dioxide levels in their classrooms over the course of the school day. One class even managed to persuade its school's administration to replace the ventilation system (Berenfeld, 1993).

The following table proposes (Berenfeld, 1996) how functionalities offered by the emerging infosphere can change the organization of instructional settings, teachers' roles, and the flow of information not only to students but, remarkably, from them as well.

Table 1. Various CMC Functionalities and Their Classroom Characteristics

                                       Classroom                           Sources of        Information 
CMC functionality    Classroom usage   organization    Teaching strategy   information       flow
Tele-access          Accessing and     Single          Conventional        Teacher, online   One way to the 
                     retrieving        classroom       coupled with        resources, and    student
                     information from                  facilitating        textbooks
                     remote sources                    student use of
                                                       online resources

Virtual publishing   Posting           Single          Part conventional   Teacher- and      From the 
                     materials for     classroom       and part serving    text-based        classroom
                     broad-based                       as class publisher  with online 
                     online access                                         resources

Tele-presence        Accessing "live"  Single          Conventional        Online            From the source 
                     events or         classroom       coupled with        resources         into the 
                     "eyewitnesses"                    guiding and         supplemented by   classroom, with 
                                                       coaching students   textbooks and     elements of 
                                                                           the teacher       interactivity

Tele-mentoring       Accessing online  Single          Conventional        Teacher and       Two-way 
                     experts           classroom       coupled with        textbooks         interactivity 
                                                       facilitating        augmented by      between student 
                                                       interactions        an online         and mentor
                                                       between students    mentor
                                                       and mentors

Tele-sharing         From cross-       From groups     Facilitator for     Community         Information  
                     classroom         of classrooms   tele-cooperative    members and       flows from the 
                     cooperation to    working on      work and            online resources  classroom as 
                     cross-classroom   shared tasks    collaborative       supported by the  well as into it
                     collaboration     to tightly-     knowledge           teacher and  
                                       knit classroom  construction        supplemented by 
                                       communities of                      textbooks

Patterns of classroom uses

How do these educational functionalities of the infosphere find their way into classrooms? The more advanced functionalities require high-quality connectivity, which are in short supply among many schools. Whereas some schools enjoy powerful computers and high-bandwidth connectivity to the Internet in every classroom, others have obsolete computers relegated to computer labs. In addition, there are great discrepancies in teachers' expertise and experiences; some navigate the Internet effortlessly while others struggle to get online during lunch.

Though presently there is only limited research into how advanced online functionalities are adapted into classrooms, the following patterns have become discernible.

Beginner pattern: from extracurricular use to curricular augmentation

Often, telecommunication-based activities are introduced into school life first in extracurricular activities, then, after an exploratory trial period in which teachers gain experience in instructional telecomputing, they are brought into formal classroom courses.

The easiest way to introduce telecommunications into formal courses is through curricula-augmentation. Teachers supplement their existing curricula with online activities. A science class could augment its astronomy curriculum by downloading the latest images from the Hubble telescope or a sociology class could access population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Teachers need not revamp either their curricula or their teaching practices to augment courses with telecommunications. Although the overall teaching strategy remains conventional--teacher and textbook centered--students now have routine access to online resources and are exposed to an array of information sources and opinions that demand their critical thinking.

Intermediate pattern: from augmentation to curricular inserts

Teachers who successfully augmented their curricula with various online functionalities take the next step by inserting specially designed telecommunication-based curriculum modules into traditional courses. Worldwide, thousands of elementary-school teachers insert modules from NGS Kids Network, jointly developed by TERC and the National Geographic Society, into their traditional instructions (Julian and Wisky, 1994). Middle and high school teachers involved in the Global Lab project use specially-designed tele-collaborative curriculum units as inserts into regular science courses (Tinker and Berenfeld, 1994). Teachers implement the Global Lab units generally one day a week on a part-time basis.

There are diverse reasons for this transitional implementation pattern. Insufficient or inadequate access to the Internet may limit the levels of connectivity that teachers can offer. Also, there is a dearth of full-course curricula designed to fully implement advanced telecommunications features. In addition, many teachers lack the training, experience or confidence to abandon conventional teaching practices in favor of new and unfamiliar ones.

Advanced pattern: telecommunication fully integrated into curricula

In telecommunications-integrated curricula, the infosphere becomes integral to classroom instruction. The curricula are designed to fully exploit its advanced functionalities and information flows both to and from students. Learning becomes less dependent on the centrality of teachers, and the teacher's role transforms from the "sage on the stage" to the "guide on the side."

Clearly, teachers find using CMC in daily instruction more challenging than merely downloading some files or sending e-mail for extracurricular activities. Daily usage requires that schools, in addition to providing students with sufficient CMC access, must redefine their pedagogical goals, restructure their curricular offerings, provide teachers with training and support materials, and obtain tools for students' collaborative data-collections. Often teacher-inspired grass-root efforts lack the resources to provide the support and curricular framework that CMC-based learning demands.

The National Science Foundation, federal and state governmental agencies, and nonprofit research organizations have developed a number of large-scale test-bed and demonstration projects to encourage and support schools' efforts to advance their classroom implementations of telecommunications (Hunter, 1992).

The new learning environment begets a new learning paradigm

A common rationale for linking classrooms is to prepare students for future work. Indeed, we see increasing demand for "knowledge workers" versed in telecommunications, but the workplace of the near future will not demand the mechanical skills of turning on a computer and modem; as the technologies advance, getting online may be no more difficult than using a telephone. The emerging infosphere is changing how we work and how we find, access, analyze, process, and exchange information. These information access and management skills, as well as the ability to critically evaluate information, demand a new type of literacy: information literacy.

Yet linking students to the infosphere will do more than prepare them to compete in 21st century economies. The literature reveals many common rationales for using the infosphere to meet advanced pedagogical goals. The most frequently cited are described below.

Bringing real-world relevance into the classroom

Ironically, schooling, which is said to prepare students for life in the real world, is tremendously isolated. Learning is compartmentalized behind closed doors. Telecommunications expand the learning context by bringing the real world into the classroom. Students and teachers can establish interactive connections with anybody or any source, making learning more relevant to their lives, interests and concerns.

Helping students perceive knowledge as constructed

When linked to the infosphere, students can access an astounding array of data and human resources, and this turns learning into a dynamic process. Students can develop a more accurate view of the scientific community. They can actively participate in their learning and engage in open-ended construction of new knowledge.

Providing students with an effective model of lifelong learning

When students research vast arrays of multimedia information, apply credibility tests to assess what they find and learn telecommunication techniques such as the "art" of World Wide Web publishing, they will develop skills they can rely on for the rest of their lives.

Bolstering social, communication, and critical-thinking skills

Students can enhance their communication, social, and collaborative skills as they interact and learn with other classrooms or online mentors. They also will ply their critical-thinking skills when called upon to collaboratively solve problems and perform analyses via telecommunications.

Meeting emerging standards for inquiry-based learning

Though there is a widespread call for project-based learning, even innovative teachers struggle to implement student investigations. CMC can powerfully enhance inquiry-based learning by enabling teachers either to join ongoing projects or to develop their own.

Increasing the authenticity of the learning environment

By directing students to access such resources as rare historical archives, eyewitness reports or digital museums, teachers increase the authenticity of the learning environment. Telecommunications create enhanced pedagogical settings in which students can communicate, cooperate, conduct distributed experiments, and build upon each other's knowledge. In this context, students are learning in the real world like adults.

Putting a human face on learning

Using online resources, teachers put a human face on many aspects of learning, whether it be communicating with other classrooms or with experts and scholars who serve as mentors.

Finding role models for students

By electronically bringing professionals, scholars, explorers, educators, writers, poets and scientists into classrooms, teachers expose students to positive role models.


The infosphere offers a vast palette of learning resources that would be beyond the means of even the wealthiest schools to obtain any other way. When online, all schools are on an equal footing in their ability to access the same resources.


In summary, the impact of today's telecommunications revolution on schools can go vastly beyond replacing the old blackboard with a shiny modern whiteboard. It has a potential to revolutionize the very nature and dynamics of the conventional classroom experience.

As a part of the infosphere, classroom learning may become more student-centered, interactive, experiential and collaborative, all goals long-cherished by many educators but never before attainable. Instead of being passive receivers of information, students can manage and synthesize it and even contribute to the infosphere. Furthermore, education should not be confined to dedicated locales known as schools; learning can be lifelong and always accessible.

For the first time, we can truly believe in preparing generations of students for the future. And also for the first time, students can benefit from the newest technologies rather than be the last to use them.


Boris Berenfeld is a senior scientist for TERC of Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. He is co-principal investigator for the GLOBE program and is co-founder and principal investigator of the Global Laboratory Project.


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