Collaboration and Technology

by Antonio C. Lasaga


At the same time as the collaboration between universities and schools intensifies across the country, telecommunications is fundamentally transforming the manner in which the collaboration is pursued. The field of electronic communication has already begun to play a dominant role in the exchange of ideas and data. Local links (e.g. ordinary cables, a fax, or a modem) between similar computers have usually enabled the transfer of information or the sharing of software and printers. However, the need for a much more powerful global link between local networks led to the development of "Internet," which is a network of networks using a standard communication protocol called TCP/IP. In a sense, the "Internet" provides an information superhighway that links the smaller roads built from the simple local networks.

The first Internet, ARPANET, arose from research supported by the department of defense. Today, the US government spends billions of dollars a year to provide the satellite and cable coverage needed to physically link computers around the nation and the world. In particular, NSFNET (National Science Foundation Network) provides the major backbone connecting universities and colleges around the nation. Today, the Internet is a huge world-wide network of networks comprising thousands of networks interconnecting more than 500,000 computers ranging from the smallest PC to the most powerful computers on earth. This information superhighway is now travelled by more than 15 million people and is truly turning the world into a "global village."

The electronic superhighway is becoming an essential element in catalyzing the collaboration between universities and schools. The possibilities in this domain are just now being explored and the current activity is but a shadow of what is to come. Already, there are tens of thousands of elementary school students around the world engaging in global communication through the Internet. Even the White House is accessible to the students via the Internet and President Clinton has already sent some replies to students. Armed with even the humblest of computers, the students and teachers can communicate across the planet and share in a virtually unlimited wealth of resources.

An example of a vibrant forum using electronic communications is the KIDLINK network. KIDLINK has been in operation for several years. During 1991 and 1992, KIDLINK had 6200 children from 45 countries participate in a global dialogue. Students can communicate with each other using KIDCAFE and teachers can discuss projects in KIDPROJ. The students answer four questions about themselves to enter the system: 1) Who am I? 2) What do I want to be when I grow up? 3) How do I want the world to be better when I grow up? and 4) What can I do now to make this happen? In fact, recent studies have analyzed the responses according to gender and found some interesting conclusions. The global chats can introduce many different cultures and languages to these kids in the global village, in addition to providing new friends. Teleconferencing can be achieved through IRC hookups. IRC (Internet Relay Chats) can link many students and their teachers into a live global exchange on any topic. For example, such IRC's have taken place during the launching of several of NASA's Explorer missions. KIDLINK enables the discussion of current topics with many different countries. In some cases, the discussion is occurring before the newsmedia can cover the issue.

For example, the historic trek through Antarctica carried out earlier this year by Sir Rannulph Fiennes and Dr. Michael Stroud o raise funds for multiple sclerosis was followed closely in KIDLINK with the help of Ham Radio operator Peter Daly, who was in communication with the Antarctic team and then relayed the messages on KIDLINK. The team set a record for the unaided crossing of the Antarctic continent. Current projects on KIDLINK include a discussion of war and peace in the world today; a global discussion group on children's rights focusing on UNICEF; Environment 2093, which asks the students to imagine the world 100 years from now and to write about it, including a discussion of pollution; a travel project in which students first describe their area and plan a 3-day visit for guests their own age and then go on to carry out a virtual trip to other places in the world with the help of students from those areas (which involves further dialogue between the students and teachers); use of daily satellite pictures of the world (which can be downloaded free of charge) to carry out weather forecasting.

Because professors and school teachers can be in constant communication using the network, the possibility of jointly discussing particular projects is significantly enhanced including discussions between "experts" on one continent and teachers on another. The access to huge databases, pictures from all around the world (including the exchange of scanned pictures of the students themselves), and educational software as well as the ability to talk to new friends can help transform the classroom into an exciting place. University faculty can help in formulating the various projects, suggesting contacts, analyzing the data, and preparing reports. Computers can also be used in the visualization of data and in simulations of the real world. The development of new curricula by teachers can be enormously aided by tips and suggestions from other teachers around the world. Just now, there are proposals to establish user groups within KIDLINK for teachers in specific subject areas including the creation of a network of people who can serve as contacts.

As exciting and promising as the use of high technology in the classroom is, there are serious problems to overcome before the huge potential comes to fruition. The number of ways of using Internet and computers in enlarging the classroom can be quite overwhelming to many teachers. In addition, teachers often lack the computer skills needed to use important operations such as ftp (file transfer protocol) and telnet. Therefore, the various options available to teachers must be clearly explained and there have to be some instructions on the use of computers that do not assume any computer literacy. Teachers must feel comfortable with the use of the network before they can effectively pass that information to the students (students will pick up the techniques quite fast!). This is a particularly important area for future collaboration between university and schools.

Full access to the Internet is still a major problem in applying the high technology to classrooms around the world. Universities, which in many cases provide the only access to the Internet for schools, again can play an important active role in the introduction of telecommunications to future generations. In addition, access to the Internet requires a PC and a modem in the classrooms as well as an account on a university computer. Unfortunately, many schools lack the resources to provide even the PC's in the classroom. In some instances, there are computer resources in the school but the usage of the computers is quite constrained. This is another important area for collaboration between the university faculty and schools.

As we look to the coming of a new millennium, the traffic through the electronic superhighway will change dramatically. Just as real highways promote the growth of cities, the electronic superhighway will promote the growth of academic endeavors, and in particular the teaching of students in the K-12 grades of our schools. The choices are so numerous and the possibilities so great that the challenge for us in the future is to chart an optimal path not only to provide adequate access of our children and teachers to this wonderful high technology, bu also to collaborate on developing the most efficient use of telecommunications to enhance the understanding of history, geography, science, environment, politics, cultures, and most importantly the students' views of themselves and their world.


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