Preparing Teachers for Effective and Wise Use of the Internet in Schools

William J. Egnatoff <>
Faculty of Education
Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L 3N6
Tel.: +1 613 545-6000-1-7290
Fax: +1 613 545-6584


The Internet has caught the public in its expanding web. It is beginning to reshape other media and is now making its way into schools. Government, industry, and the public expect students to be proficient with computers and now with the Internet, which they see as the way of the future. How do teachers prepare to guide their students wisely and effectively in using the Internet, a medium to which they are just gaining access? To adapt the medium for education, teachers need training and support. Recent literature indicates that this need is largely unmet. Some reports advocate massive spending on infrastructure, training, and support, and others describe new programs in faculties of education and in school boards that begin to meet teachers' needs. One such program is Industry Canada's SchoolNet Support Teachers Pilot Project, in which newly qualified teachers provide in-school support that is carefully adapted to the needs of individual teachers and that is in line with school board goals and priorities. An evaluation study examined the program from the point of view of teachers, principals, coordinators, and the support teachers themselves. The study affords a close look at how a dedicated group of educators are coping with the awkwardness, irritation, and promise of the Internet in the face of budget cuts, a packed curriculum, and changing public expectations.

The Internet in school: The way of the future

The Internet has caught the public in its expanding web and has begun to alter some people's sense of community, ways of work and play, and even how they deal with government (Harasim, 1993). Although fewer than 1% of people in the world use the Internet, that portion is growing rapidly, especially in North America and Europe. The moment that security of financial transactions can be guaranteed, the Internet will likely make another leap in size as it becomes an electronic shopping mall. Television and radio stations (CBC Radio), newspapers (Globe and Mail), financial institutions, and many businesses are beginning to present information on the World Wide Web (Web Site Guide, 1996) and are inviting comment from readers. People who have a computer and modem can have Internet access from home for a fee comparable to that charged for basic telephone service, and so can work or study free of some of the restrictions of workplace and timetable. Government bureaucrats now make extensive use of electronic mail and one can even send email to members of parliament. Many Canadian government departments have Web pages. The Internet is beginning to open up to the general public some of the power of telecommunications that has allowed capital and labor to flow so freely across borders, threatening democracy and the nation state (Saul, 1995; Drohan, 1996). In order for people to bring the Internet, touted as a medium of global communications, to the rescue of community and democracy, they need to understand whose values control the new telecommunications media, the nature of which is changing on a time scale measured in months.

The Internet is beginning to reshape other media in several ways. First, it provides new content for other media to carry because it is a topic of great current interest. Second, it offers an extension of existing media because those media can refer to resources and services available through the Internet. Third, it offers a new channel by which readers and viewers can participate in social dialogue for which the old media provide some background. Fourth, in the near future, it will carry personalized versions of newspapers, news reports, and other media material.

Internet development is coupled with changes in the way media are carried, which affects what resources and services are available to the public and how people work with media (McCarten, 1996). As commercial enterprises turn slowly to the Internet as a marketing medium, new enterprises are growing rapidly to provide Internet services and products (McFarland, 1996). One product available now is a telephone that can be connected to a computer to use the Internet for long-distance calls, bypassing the regular carriers. Television cable companies and telephone companies are converging on the same markets and are beginning to operate services that integrate what was formerly separate. Combined offerings of cable television, Internet access, and video on demand are on trial in strategically selected residential areas and in some schools.

The Internet is now making its way into schools. In March 1996, Industry Canada and Stentor, a Canadian alliance of telecommunication companies, announced plans to connect all schools in the country to the Internet by the end of the 1996-97 school year, one year ahead of earlier plans (Stentor Partnership, 1996). By the end of the 1995-96 school year, some school boards, using their own resources, will have provided Internet access to every classroom in every school, and many other boards will follow in the next year. The announced program of connection could help school boards that are in areas of low, widely dispersed population, provided that careful attention is paid to the quality of the connection.

For more than a decade, many boards have provided telecommunications channels (in addition to telephone) for services such as administrative support (finances, library catalogues and cataloguing, communication), but are only recently extending those channels, first to all teachers, and then, cautiously, to students. Computers are still scarce in light of the aim of having one up-to-date, fully networked computer for every four or five students. The Yukon achieved that ratio (although primarily with old computers) at least two years ago (Fournier & MacKinnon, 1994, p. 53). British Columbia has set its target at one computer for every six elementary students and one for three secondary students (Technology in British Columbia Public Schools, 1995, p. 1). Other provinces also have ambitious plans for bringing more computers into the classroom and for connecting schools to the Internet.

Industry, government, and the public expect students to be proficient with computers and now with the Internet. The Conference Board of Canada (1996) has published what it calls "employability skills" that reflect the skills, attitudes, and behaviors that industry would like to see in its employees. Among these is the requirement to "use . . . information systems effectively". In Ontario, the Royal Commission on Learning (1994) identified four driving engines of large-scale reform in education--a new kind of school-community alliance, early childhood education, teachers, and information technology. The Information Highway Advisory Council (1995) spoke often of education in its report, linking the use of information technology with Canada's economic future. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (1995) "considers that, in certain circumstances, telecommunications service tariffs that discriminate in favor of educational or health service entities may be desirable, and not anti-competitive (p. 45)." The work of Industry Canada in getting computers into schools (Computers for Schools, 1995), in providing access to telecommunications in remote areas (Community Access, 1995), and now in its more direct involvement with educators through Canada's SchoolNet/Rescol Canadien, is receiving strong support and considerable attention in the federal government. Through strategic targeting of educational projects such as SchoolNet, the Canadian government is contributing to a national focus on science, technology, culture, and heritage and is helping to bring together a wide range of educators and other stakeholders to collaborate in making telecommunications part of daily reality in every classroom for all students. It is quite common to hear teachers say, "It's the way of the future."

The Internet as a new medium for teaching

The Internet is part of the "way of the future," but how does it fit with the media of the past and present as a support for teaching and learning in schools? How can its use help students reach beyond the school walls, bring in resources, engage in productive and enriching dialogue, and publish their finest work? In what sense does it serve an instrumental purpose and in what ways is it expressive of modernity and concern for the future (Olson, 1988)?

Use of the Internet in schools is a modern extension of past and current educational use of communications media. Freinet (Clandfield & Sivell, 1990) developed a cooperative learning pedagogy in France that made extensive use of publishing and of written communication between classes in regions differing geographically and culturally. Some teachers have had pen-pal programs, though few have made correspondence as central as in Freinet's work. Many teachers draw on newspapers in social studies and in developing student's abilities to select and report on interesting current events. Some newspapers offer support for teachers in this use and make available space for student publication. For decades, teachers have drawn on radio and television broadcasts (TVOntario) produced for classroom use. Now teachers are turning to the Internet for similar resources and activities.

Over the past decade, a small but growing minority of teachers and classes have used the Internet and other digital telecommunications networks for a wide range of purposes such as informal dialogue (key pals), cross-cultural studies, discussion and debate on social issues, consulting with professional scientists and authors (Writers in Electronic Residence), finding information on particular topics, collaborating on research, organizing and participating in quizzes and scavenger hunts, publishing online newspapers (NewsWave) that include creative writing and art, designing and conducting surveys and opinion polls, publishing documents of national importance (Books of Remembrance), following expeditions, engaging in cross-grade tutoring, and participating in role-playing simulations. Examples of these are described on the Web (K-12 Classroom Projects). In many of these activities and projects, the Internet is a treasure house of information and a medium for highly purposeful and creative communication and publishing.

Using the Internet in the ways just listed demands much of teachers--long-term commitment, overcoming many technical obstacles, and acquiring considerable technical knowledge. Teachers not only need a general knowledge of computers and computer networks, but also need to learn to use e-mail, gopher servers, the file transfer protocol (FTP), and the Web. If they wish to publish materials on the Web, they need a rudimentary knowledge of standard hypertext markup language (HTML). Teachers also need a sense of the structure of the Internet, of what constitutes acceptable use, and of how other teachers have used it.

On top of the technical requirements of pressing the Internet into service, teachers face deeper questions. What values does Internet use in the classroom express? What does it mean for an educator to use the Internet wisely and effectively? Does it mean following the suggestions of the Conference Board of Canada's industry voice, producing information-literate workers who will conform to corporate norms? Does it mean developing media literacy so that students can read between the lines and understand how new media and new information technology shape reality (Franklin, 1990)? Does it mean critically examining whose values control the medium? Does it mean cultivating an ethic of caring (Noddings, 1992), in which quality of relationship (with others, nature, the human-made world, and ideas) is central? Does it mean equipping students to shape the new medium so that they are not simply swept along by its internal logic (Ellul, 1964)? And what does "effective use" mean? Getting more students more involved in political activity? In good design? In scientific investigation? In humanitarian effort? In preserving cultural heritage, honoring history, and cultivating the arts? In spiritual growth? Is effectiveness a matter of teaching the same stuff more efficiently, as measured in total cost per unit learned per student? If teachers are to address these valuative questions on top of all the technical and instrumental concerns, then they should be offered adequate training, support, and opportunity for professional development.

Internet training and support for teachers

How do teachers prepare to guide their students wisely and effectively in using the Internet, a medium to which they are just gaining access? Teachers have received little preparatory support for using computers as they exist today. Of 219 teachers consulted in a recent Canadian needs assessment (McLeod, 1995), 118 teachers believed they required more computer instruction. Training has often focused primarily on technical matters and needs to deal as well with pedagogical concerns (Bennett, 1993; Siegel, 1995). An integrated support program using carefully trained peer mentors is described by MacArthur, Pilato et al. (1995). A well-rounded program of preparation is matched to school resources and curriculum and includes technical and pedagogical training, examining what other teachers have done, ready access to guide materials, opportunities for peer collaboration, and ongoing support from experienced classroom teachers, librarians, support staff, and principals.

Training, support, and professional development activities only have value when the technical infrastructure is in place. Ministries of education and school boards are trying to install the resources needed for Internet use at the same time that education budgets in many provinces are being reduced. Fournier and MacKinnon (1994) suggest that one new, fully networked computer be provided for each four students every three years--a goal far beyond the current reach of most school boards--but the authors acknowledge that simply having networked computers in place and working well will not ensure proper use. Once teachers are aware of the potential of the Internet, they are keen to include its use in their repertoire of teaching techniques, but they do not have time to mess about unproductively without guidance. They need enough equipment to provide convenient access, and they need support that is well adapted to their teaching situation.

Often the most effective training and support comes from teachers themselves. About one-third of the teachers consulted in McLeod's study (1995) indicated that they were teaching computer skills to their colleagues. The new medium can be of considerable service to teachers in seeking and offering peer support (Bascia, 1994, 1995). Using e-mail and computer conference systems, teachers request information and guidance from distant and often unknown colleagues and publish resources and notes on their experience. In this way, they take initiative and responsibility for their own professional development. In Ontario, approximately 40,000 of the province's 130,000 teachers have accounts on the Education Network of Ontario (1995), part of an initiative of the Ontario Teachers Federation called "Creating a Culture of Change" (Bascia 1994, 1995). In Newfoundland nearly all teachers have access to STEM~Net, "a high-quality computer network for educators in Newfoundland and Labrador . . . to support teaching, curriculum and professional development activities related to their work" (TILE, 1994). Canada's SchoolNet is encouraging peer support though a moderated list,, and through the SchoolNet Grass Roots Project, which offers modest funding in exchange for reports of successful telecommunications-based learning projects. All of these programs and systems help teachers help themselves in exchanging information, in questioning underlying assumptions, and in realigning values and practice.

In addition to knowing how to use Internet resources and knowing what is available, teachers need to figure out how to organize the classroom depending on the resources available; how to plan, develop, undertake, and assess telecommunications-based activities and projects; how to justify their work to parents and the public; and how to collaborate on all of this with colleagues. Much of this they can figure out on their own once they have initial support and guidance, based on well-developed ministry and board policy. Excellent guides have been written by experienced teachers on planning, organizing, and conducting telecommunications-based projects in schools (Walker, 1994; Andres & Rogers, 1995). Warren (1995) advises paying attention to the aim, rationale, context, objectives, participant requirements, time line, student assessment and project evaluation, contact information, logistics, and follow-up. Little work has been done in the area of assessment and evaluation of telecommunications-based learning; the author is supervising an M.Ed. thesis that is a case study on such work.

In faculties of education, where access to Internet resources is provided to all teacher candidates, it is possible, with considerable effort, to establish habits of using the new media. At York University, all teacher candidates are given access to a computer conference system that they use extensively for peer-moderated discussion of the practicum. That discussion spills over into course work and helps keep the whole B. Ed. program moving ahead (Crossland & Egnatoff, 1996). In some teacher education programs, teacher candidates are able to provide leadership in the use of computers during their practicum simply because they have had more opportunity to work with computers. Faculties are also working diligently to use telecommunications to support close collaboration with schools in the preparation of new teachers. These efforts are the beginning of a continuum of professional development for both new and experienced teachers, including faculty instructors themselves.

A recent survey report (Crossland & Egnatoff, 1996), provides information on the availability, organization, content, and scope of various Canadian teacher professional development programs emphasizing telecommunications and information technology. In some cases, programs of support are related to work on distance education, for which instructors need special preparation. The British Columbia Open Learning Agency has programs that include a three-day residential training program coupled with on-site or telecommunications-based support. The Open Learning Agency views professional development as the teacher's responsibility and staff development and training the responsibility of the organization. Some provinces have major networks designed to increase communication and peer-mediated professional development and support. The survey of such programs was conducted to set in context a particular pilot program, the SchoolNet Support Teachers Pilot Project.

The SchoolNet Support Teachers Pilot Project

The SchoolNet Support Teachers Pilot Project was a collaborative experiment in supporting teachers wishing to enrich their students' learning through the use of new telecommunications tools and resources (Egnatoff, 1996). The project began in September 1995 as a four-month pilot to provide training and professional development for interested teachers. The sponsors--SchoolNet and six school boards--extended the project for the entire 1995-96 school year.

The project employed a "SchoolNet Support Teacher" in each of six urban-region school boards of which two were francophone and four anglophone, and three were public and three Roman Catholic separate. These boards varied greatly in size, computer resources, and support, but were all highly committed to making the project work well. The project had four distinguishing characteristics:

For the work to be sustained, it was felt that the project needed to address four areas of concern:

The SchoolNet Support Teachers were expected to deal primarily with the first three areas of concern. Board-wide matters were to be a concern for the project team to address as a whole, with the guidance of Partners, an organization contracted as project facilitator.

The entire project had three objectives:

The work of the support teachers included many tasks of the sort normally done by coordinators, special assignment teachers, and resource teachers. One of the SchoolNet Support Teachers conducted a detailed survey of computer resources, use, knowledge, and needs which the board used to assess and reconsider its resource allocation. With varying emphasis, all support teachers introduced teachers--in hands-on workshops, presentations, and small-group or individual tutorials--to the Internet and to various ways of working on it; developed guides to Internet use; developed acceptable use policies; taught in the classroom along with the regular classroom teachers; trained teachers who would later train their peers; started teachers and classes on Internet projects; collaborated across boards to share resources; made presentations to parents, board officials, and trustees to bring the work into focus and to assure continuing support; and provided reports for the author's evaluation study.

Findings from the evaluation study of the first half of the project attest to its success. The success was due in part to the work of Partners, a coordinating agency that drew together all the stakeholders to plan and coordinate the work and that ensured that the results were well known to the public and to those who set and implement board policy. The success was due in equal measure to the high degree of collaboration of teachers, principals, coordinators, SchoolNet staff, and, most important, the SchoolNet Support Teachers themselves.

The promotion phase of the project began just prior to the writing of this paper. Organizers of a related project in Alberta that began in the spring of 1996 studied the SchoolNet Support Teachers Pilot Project and adapted its approach. Several other variations are under development elsewhere in Canada.

Findings of the evaluation study

Partnership was a key to the success of the project. The project grew out of the agenda of the Training, Research, and Evaluation committee of Canada's SchoolNet National Advisory Board, which represents government, business, and educational stakeholders. Partners invited the boards to collaborate and worked behind the scenes to ensure that the project ran smoothly at all stages.

The SchoolNet Support Teachers began with little specialized training, but quickly learned on the job, took initiative, and were very soon providing strong leadership. Collaboration emerged naturally within a few weeks of startup, taking the form of sharing resource documents, discussing solutions to common problems, and sharing accomplishments and approaches in bimonthly meetings.

The coordinators and support teachers worked very well together, often learning from and with each other, and working side by side. Having indefinite plans turned out to be an advantage because it required the support teachers to take ownership of their work. Even though the support teachers quickly became quite independent, they nevertheless kept the coordinators well informed of the work. Several coordinators were in attendance at any given project meeting. The support teachers worked very much for the board, with only minimal direction or guidance from SchoolNet staff.

The support teachers conducted their own research and kept their own records of teacher progress according to the needs of the boards. Report writing helped them see what they had accomplished and sharing those reports gave them a sense of being part of an enterprise whose significance went beyond the boundaries of the individual boards. In the words of one superintendent, the support teachers helped get the board vision "over the mountain" from board office to classroom.

Initially, it was expected that after a few weeks of training and support, some teachers would be ready to use telecommunications as part of curriculum projects, a strong wish of the SchoolNet staff. For most participants, a focus on projects had to be postponed until the infrastructure was more secure and until basic skills and knowledge were more highly developed. Project work was more evident in the second term.

The support teachers found that the teachers they encountered were keen to use telecommunications when infrastructure development, training, and support were well coordinated. In one board especially, knowing that new equipment was coming and that the network would be connected was a strong motivator. Participating teachers all agreed that it was very important to have support from a qualified teacher when it came to working with classes and planning learning activities. Teachers also agreed on the value of sustained support rather than isolated workshops.

Many telecommunications activities worked well because the support teachers, like all dedicated teachers, did a lot of work behind the scenes. This included preparing guide materials for teachers, editing HTML documents produced by students, arranging for Internet access services, assisting with software installation and LAN setup, and keeping up an e-mail dialogue with teachers and students.

Evidence of sustainability began to appear towards the end of the second month, even though it seemed clear that the boards would not be able to support a SchoolNet Support Teacher on their own, especially given impending layoffs due to government cutbacks. The project very quickly took on a life of its own. Once the basic design was established in consultation with the partners, all the players pulled their weight and did their own work. Because board leaders were involved, and because the support teachers were self-starters, the researchers were able very quickly to focus on the research without worrying about project management or animation. Many expectations were realized without deliberate planning. That happened in large measure because there was a commonly understood purpose.

Summary: Preparing teachers for the Internet

The teachers with whom I have the privilege of working are willing and open to change, provided that they have opportunities to prepare that fit within the heavy demands of teaching. They have no time or energy to skip a beat, but they welcome training and support that is attuned to their particular situation and that fits within the rhythm of their professional routines. They do not want their students simply doing the same work in the same way with the new medium. They recognize the need for change to prepare their students for the world ahead of them.

This paper mentioned only superficially several important issues concerning the changing world, all of which have serious implications for education. These include threats to democracy caused by the fluidity of capital and labour, problems of increasing inequity of access to the very resources claimed to be the way of the future, changes in sense of community and place, and the impending change in classroom and school as the Internet enters the mainstream of education. It has not entered yet, but seems to be coming more quickly than any other change in the entire history of education, and that makes teachers highly vulnerable.

For the next several years, teachers deserve focused support to prepare themselves for rapid change that goes hand in hand with telecommunications, change that is turning people from highly valuable careers such as child-care worker, tradesperson, and musician to seek a new niche involving computers and higher pay. If we expect the education system to help society deal with such change, then we have to invest heavily, spending as much on support for teachers as we do on computers. The investment should not be driven by technological advance, but by the desire to encourage and support teachers as responsible professionals. They deserve the best tools we can give them because they hold our future citizens in their hands. They need a strong professional community so that they can reach greater heights. What we have now is much talk about possibility, many demonstration projects, much excitement, and crippling budget cuts in contrast to our luxurious overspending in the post-war decades. Certainly, the Internet is not itself an agent of change; it will not cause educational reform. Just as certainly, it is a harbinger and vehicle of change. We will lose a great opportunity for the improvement of the quality of education if we do not support teachers in whatever way they need to use the Internet wisely and effectively.


This work is based in part on work completed under Industry Canada Contracts No. 67HPE-5-2224 and No. 67HPE-5-M266. The views expressed are those of the author.

The author wishes to thank the many people who contributed to this work: staff of Canada's SchoolNet, leaders of Partners, an Ottawa-Carleton partnership organization, the six teachers who served as SchoolNet Support Teachers, the many educators who contributed information about their work, and the three research assistants Anne Beveridge, Christine Robertson, and Andrea Crossland who worked on these contracts.


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