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Taking Back the Net
Part 3 - Monday
© 1999 Gary S. Stager

In a recent online article,Technology in Schools: To Support the System or Render it Obsolete, Seymour Papert states the following…


I imagine a teacher saying:

"Those dreams are fine. I'm sure that will happen someday. So will vacations on Mars! Meantime, what do I do Monday? I have a class of kids who are not technologically fluent, who don't have free access to computers and whose parents (and our school superintendent and our President) insist that they compete with the kids from Korea on passing tests that measure knowledge of fractions. So I'll do the best I can with the few computers I've got to improve their scores, give them some fun on the web and make sure they know how to use Microsoft Office."

My answer is that if you have a vision of Someday you can use this to guide what you do Monday. But if your vision of where it is going is doing the same old stuff a bit (or a lot) better your efforts will be bypassed by history.

But using the Someday vision to guide Monday might mean you have to stand the usual criterion for judging progress in education on its head: you have to stop trying to improve the functioning of the old system. Instead lay down the seeds for something new. Maybe this will result in decreased performance according to the traditional measures. Remember that the first airplanes were not so good as stagecoaches as means for getting around. But they were destined to revolutionize transportation. (Seymour Papert)

The conclusion of the "Taking Back the Net" trilogy is concerned with how schools actually use the net to benefit teaching and learning — for Monday and for Someday. Educators may look at Internet use on a continuum from enhancing the existing curriculum to revolutionizing schooling. We begin by thinking about how the net may be used to enhance and expand the study of traditional school subjects.


Let’s first be sure we understand the necessary communication tools.

Virtual Community Infrastructure

A variety of software tools and modes of communication are required to ensure the greates quality of interaction between the greatest number of learners. These tools allow for either asynchronous or synchronous communication.

Synchronous communication occurs at the same time. All users must be online simultaneously.

Asynchronous communication occurs at different times. Your contribution to a discussion waits for others to respond at their own convenience. Schools typically provide one or two asynchronous experiences, but few offer synchronous communications as well.

Since some people’s individual personalities and learning style favour one form over another, schools would be well-advised to offer synchronous and asynchronous opportunities.

There appears to be a taxonomy of social interactions found online.

  • Talking
  • Sharing
  • Collaborating
  • Constructing

Talking to one another via email or chat is the simplest form of online interaction and constructing something together requires the most sophistication. However, each step of this ladder may support the development of an online community of practice.

Whether schools maintain their own network infrastructure or take advantage of outside resources, asynchronous and synchronous communication should be part of the social mix.

What lurks in the mind of schools?

Whenever I discuss the opportunities afforded by online learning with P-12 schools. The same questions are raised.

Q. We should start scanning stuff right?

A. Schools are preoccupied with the flasher curriculum — expose and cover or the bulimic curriculum — binge and purge. The future of education should be concerned less with covering a mountain of material and more with a focus on learning powerful ideas in a personally meaningful context. Schools should think less of digitizing lectures and beaming them to passive participants and think about ways to use the net to increase social interaction and extend the democratic process of learning within a lively community.

Q. How do we give a test?

A. It’s easy to give a test electronically. The real question is why would you want to? I am optimistic that the digital future evaluates students based on their portfolios of work, rather than high-stakes testing.

Q. What if a kid takes a class without paying for it? Shouldn’t we protect our intellectual property?

A. Let me get this straight. Your concerned that your advanced physics class is so compelling that kids will be sneaking into class to learn? This is a problem? Remember, nobody gets credit or a diploma without being enrolled in your school. As long as someone isn’t disruptive, you should welcome their participation in your learning community.

Schools are obsessed with control and ownership while the net thrives on democracy and sharing. Information wants to be free. Schools should err on the side of publicly available information unless there is some reason to keep that data secure. Common sense dicates that school records and financial information should not be on the same network as the kids’ work. Everything from student work to tuck shop menus and sport schedules should be on the Internet, not Intranet, so others may have access to it. If you’re in school the sport schedule is of little use because you can ask someone who knows. A parent at work might want to know what time to pick their daughter up after sport and would benefit from this information being available outside the perimeters of the school. One could imagine children collecting lunch menus from schools around the world in order to analyze global dietary habits. This is only possible if information is set free.

Trivial questions about preserving the cursive handwriting industry and preparing kids to sit written exams are not worthy of discussion.

Asynchronous technology

Email (one to one or one to many)

Email is the "killer app" of the Internet yet many schools are reluctant, for a variety of reasons discussed in previous chapters, to make it available to all students and teachers. Email allows kids access to their teachers, peers and experts all over the world.

Free web-based email allows students to manage their own email resources and have access regardless of where they happen to be — at school or in the world.

An extensive, yet far from exhaustive, list of sources of free email services may be found at

Listservs (one to many)

A listserv allows subscribed members of a community to receive an email message written by one member and intended for all others to receive. A listserv member sends and email to a particular email address and every subscriber to that list gets the message. Listservs are cheap to maintain, but suffer from not being archived (searchable in the future) and they don’t handle mixed media (web pages, graphics, sound) particularly well.

You can either program a good email client like Emailer, Eudora Pro or Outlook to behave like a listserv or look for free ones on the web. One source of free listservs can be found at

Newsgroups (many to many)

Like listservs, newsgroups allow lots of people to communicate with one another. The newsgroup has the extra advantage of being archived, threaded and capable of displaying web pages. This means that you can search a newsgroup for old messages, follow the development of a discussion and share actual web resources with fellow members of your community.

A browser or newsreader software may be used to participate in newsgroups.

Check out the ways in which Pepperdine University uses class newsgroups for collaborative learning and communication.

Since newsgroups are archived and public they allow a conversation to be opened-up to the world. Experts, former students, children in other classes, parents, other teachers and kids from other classes around the world. Everyone benefits from having a wider variety of perspectives to consider.

Newsgroups are the most robust of the asynchronous technologies, but require a server with a newsgroup serving software loaded. If this is too difficult or expensive for your school, all sorts of free web-based threaded discussion "bulletin boards" are available. Check out the free web-based "Board Room" bulletin board software available at In exchange for an add, beeseen, offers all sorts of net tools that don’t require programming or the employment of an MIS department.

Web-based bulletin boards/newsgroups have the following added advantages over server-base newsgroups:

  • Anyone with a web browser can participate in a discussion
  • Kids can create their own threaded discussion for their own collaborative purposes without the necessity of a teacher building the space for them. Now kids can work on a collaborative project over the weekend without mum having to drive them across town.

Web Pages

The web provides learners with a historical opportunity to share their ideas, creativity, work and questions with a global audience. As a result, the web will quickly become the dominant way of sharing information and presenting work to a teacher and the world. A small amount of web space can go along way as children use the web to build a personal portfolio of their work. The web increases school accountability by making student work public and may win newfound support for a school due to the increased transparency of the learning process.

Running an assignment through the spelling checker became standard procedure for students in the eighties. I now require my students to check each web page with before submitting them for assesment. Websitegarage is a free tool that checks for bad links, spelling errors, good HTML and bloated graphics in a web page.

Again, if a school is unable or unwilling to provide students with adequate web space, there are plenty of places to turn for free web space. See for sources of free web space. The hypertext nature of the web allows you to string together free web space on multiple servers. 20 mb here… 10 meg there… allows for a lot of publishing.

The growing ability to add functionality to web pages through plug-ins and streaming technology will make the process of publishing on the web more dynamic, creative and personal.

The brief history of the Internet in schools is riddled with tales of servers running out of space the weekend CATs are due and over zealous network administrators changing passwords without notice. Technologically fluent students are quite comfortable saving their work somewhere on the web and alerting their teachers as to where they may find it.

Synchronous Technology

As stated earlier, some people like interacting in real-time. For them synchronous communications technology is especially appealing. Synchronous goes by names like MUDs, MOOs and MUVEs. These virtual worlds are primarily text-based, although some use graphics. Recreational MUDs, MOOs and MUVEs often allow participants to assume aliases and magical powers. Educational spaces designed for virtual communication, like Tapped-In, approach the shared "space" from a less whimsical perspective.

Tapped-In (many to many or one to one)

Tapped-In is a virtual school campus dedicated to teacher professional development. Pepperdine University owns a virtual building on the Tapped-In campus. Each student and faculty member may have their own office and decorate it in any way they wish. There are also traditional spaces such as classrooms, hallways and footpaths where users may congregate. Although virtual, the recognizable metaphor of a school campus requires users to make deliberate actions while in the environment.

Going into even a virtual classroom and sitting at a table with colleagues feels like going to a meeting in R.L. (real life). The only people hearing the discussion are at that table or in that particular classroom.

While you may casually bump into others in Tapped-In, most sessions are scheduled via email and have a particular purpose. Each Tapped-Inclassroom and office has a white board on which notes may be left for others and virtual tape recorders may be used to transcribe a session. A teacher may go from table-to-table or room-to-room to monitor student collaboration. Tapped-In guides assist users with questions about navigating the environment and you can type WHO to find out who is on campus at any time. Best of all, students may meet in environments, such as Tapped-In, whenever they need to collaborate.

Tapped-In costs nothing to join. Go to the site, log in as a guest and check it out. You may apply for an account if you find the visit valuable.

Chat Rooms (many to many)

Chat rooms are the bane of most adults’ existence. They just hate them (except for the millions on-line chatting). Teenagers just love chatting in R.L. and online. Chatting online is not a particularly evil recreation, but the informality of the technology makes it less suitable for serious work.

We should not get too agitated by a kid’s desire to chat. It demonstrates their willingness to use the computer in a highly intimate personal fashion. However, it may offer little to the formal educational process. Rather than banning chat rooms, I would leave students with the burden of proof. If a discussion about a serious topic is to occur in a chat room, then students should not miss that learning opportunity. Be-seen allows you to create your own chat rooms as well. Other similar opportunities exist on the web. Consult your search engine.

Teacher Netiquette

Teachers need to be careful in the guiding the creation and evolution of online communities. Being too authoritarian, talkative or narrowly focused may have a deleterious affect on the quality of social interaction. The better the social interaction, the better the learning.

It costs nothing in server costs or teacher time for students to occasionally stray from the official subject matter or share personal information online — even gossip. This binds and fortifies the community of practice. Counting postings as a form of assessment is like grading kids by how many times they raise their hands. You need to be sensitive to each learner’s personality online — it may be different from the one they exhibit in R.L.

You should violate a student’s online privacy only under the most extreme circumstances. Think of the online world like a professional conference where all of the participants are respected colleagues. You may interact with some and not others. If a conversation is boring, you may join another or grab a snack. Just don’t tell others what the experience of learning online should feel like. The personal construction of such learning metaphors is critically important and should not be violated. The experience will "feel" differently to each member of the community.

How can you start using these technologies and modes of interaction today?


Due to popular demand, Taking Back the Net has been held-over for one more issue. The lost chapter has been found and will be at HotSource soon. Tune in next month for the exciting conclusion entitled, Someday!

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