I Learn, Therefore I Am: Descartes Ideology in Cyberage

Winter 1998 Masthead

Siamak Vahidi
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

Cogito, ergo sum [I think, therefore I am]

When René Descartes (1596-1650), the great French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist wrote this famous statement, his world was at a point of great change. He was one of the vanguards of the scientific revolution. Similarly, our young generation is also at a changing point of time, and will be considered vanguards by generations a few centuries from now. The great change in our time is mass communication and its ever increasing ease and availability to deliver knowledge to the general public. That is why, with such abundance of knowledge at our fingertips, we should encourage in our students—in similar spirit as Descartes—the notion that “I learn, therefore I am.” But, this is only half of the story, the second half will come later.

The basics of this mass communication is simple; whether schools or homes are in urban or rural areas, all that is needed is a personal computer, a modem, and an Internet service provider and students can reach the world. Today’s “technokids” are growing up with computers as an everyday part of their lives, so the question faced by both educators and parents is how to teach them by means of mass communication? The answer is simpler than what we might expect, and education is rising to the challenge by using mass communication as an integral part of students’ curricula. With the advent of the World Wide Web (WWW)—the Internet, the vehicle of mass communication—the computer has brought a new dimension of learning for students.

According to a recent survey by the National Center for Educational Statistics, 95% of public schools in United States will be connected to the Internet by the year 2000. In short, this means that education has become, and should be, a joint effort between students, teachers, parents, communities, institutes, and corporations working together. Use of the Internet is a way this collaboration can be achieved. Possible ways of using the Internet to involve students in the act of learning are many and varied. What follows are some examples of more important ways that the Internet has become an instrument of learning in classrooms and homes.

Research—The Internet has become most useful and efficient for conducting authentic research. Home, school, or local libraries may no longer be able to provide for the diverse research interests of students, a problem easily solved with the use of the Internet. The benefits of using the Internet for research are many fold. They include:

a) Readily available, any time of the day. Powerful search engines such as Yahoo [www.yahoo.com],1 Excite [www.excite.com], and Lycos [www.lycos.com] can sift through numerous web pages and supply the listings of sites with information regarding the search query from “abacus” [www.ee.ryerson.ca/~elf/abacus] to “zoology” [www.york.biosis.org/zrdocs/zoolinfo/zoolinfo.htm Link no longer active]. Two things to consider when using search engines are 1) try to reduce the number of finds by giving specific keywords&#151multiple words are more advantageous, and 2) do not get discouraged on the first attempt, try different wording or even rearrange the order of the wording of the query.

b) Up to date. The posting of scientific or current events can be literally a few minutes old. When Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) first broadcasted the Mars Pathfinder mission [mpfwww.jpl.nasa.gov], 37 million people logged on their computers to watch the live broadcast of the robot tracking the Mars landscape. The project was so popular that the JPL coordinators had to create several mirror sites to accommodate the great number of people visiting the site. This site still updates information on Pathfinder, but only once every few days.

Studies of meteorological and geological events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, lightening strikes, and earthquakes can be monitored at regular intervals. One such site is maintained by the United States Geological Survey, Geologic Division [quake.wr.usgs.gov] which updates information on earthquakes in the United States and some other countries within an hourly bases.

Current Awareness Program [www.landmark-project.com/ca] provided by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in partnership with The Landmark Project is a monthly bibliography of the most recent educational and technology related literature from an extensive collection of journals. A short citation of the articles is given so educators can easily find information on their topic of interest.

c) Collaboration. There are many projects developed by different organizations that are geared specifically for students in conjunction with the Internet. Maya Quest [www.mecc.com/mayaquest.html] provided by The Learning Company is an interactive Internet exploration which follows a team of researchers who travel through the rainforests of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala in search of ancient and yet unfound Maya cities. Through the use of the Internet, researchers receive help on-line from archaeologists, experts, and even classroom students from around the world to locate these undocumented cities.

Another Internet interactive project is conducted by Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) [www.globe.gov]. This is a worldwide network of students and teachers who conduct environmental observations at or near their schools and report their data via the Internet to scientists. In return, scientists use GLOBE data in their research and provide feedback to the students to enrich their science education.

A program from Global SchoolNet Foundation called “Where On The Globe Is Roger?” [www.gsn.org/roger/index.html Link no longer active] invites children to learn about history, culture, and geography, while they electronically travel with Roger Williams as he drives his truck from continent to continent around the World.

d) Enhancement. Educational television programs such as Nature, Nova, and American Experience on Public Television [www.pbs.org], National Geographic Explorer [www.nationalgeographic.com], Bill Nye the Science Guy [billnye.com], History Channel [www.historychannel.com], and the Discovery Channel [www.discovery.com], as well as magazines such as Natural History [www.amnh.org] and National Geographic have wonderful web sites which supplement stories covered in their programs and articles. They provide more details on certain stories, sometimes requiring interactive participation of viewers, and the possibility of chatting about the stories on-line with other interested individuals. These sites should be visited often since they are updated on a regular basis.

e) Stimulating. With the use of pictures, animations, video clips, and sound clips, students become enthusiastic and eager to learn more. Library of Congress [www.loc.gov], with the mission to preserve the record of the past for the sake of present and future, has a comprehensive record of American history and creativity, some of which are in audio and video2 format.

Inner Learning On-line [www.innerbody.com] provided by Informative Graphics Corporation is an ideal site for students studying human anatomy. It is an informative site for fun, interactive, and educational views of the human body using animations, 100’s of graphics, and thousands of descriptive links.

Westward HO!… [town.pvt.k12.ca.us/Collaborations/WWHO/howto.html Link no longer active] is a stimulating game of adventure, drama, comedy, tragedy, and fantastic learning as users hit the Oregon Trail and head west! This project was conceived by two on-line teachers, Kathleen Ferenz and Leni Donlan. Classes from different schools are involved in this experience which involves interactive participation between students, collaboration between teachers, powerful learning, integrated curriculum, and great fun.

Expressing views—The Internet is the perfect means for children and students to express their opinions on issues that effect them and their world. Children’s Express [www.ce.org] provided by Children’s Express Foundation is designed so that children can voice their opinion about current affairs. This site is run by children, and the topics of discussion are chosen monthly and comments are posted for all to read.

Kidlink [www.kidlink.org], provided by Kidlink Society, is aimed at involving as many youth through age 15 as possible in a global dialog. This work is supported by 38 public mailing lists for conferencing, a private network providing a “chat room,” and volunteer teachers and parents living throughout the world.

UNICEF Voices of Youth [www.unicef.org/voy] allows young adults to voice their concerns and share ideas about important world issues. Topics of discussion include solutions and actions on child rights, children in war, child labor, and children and urbanization.

Teleconferencing—The Internet can also provide for live communication between students and researchers. Videoconferencing has the added advantage of allowing students to become familiar with their collaborators. Project OWLink, a distance education project [www.rice.edu/armadillo/Owlink Link no longer active], is a collaboration between Southwestern Bell Telephone Corporation, Rice University, Houston ISD, and South Texas ISD that involves students and teachers at separate and diverse Texas sites in project-oriented work with each other and with experts in the field. The project is an innovative experiment in the combined use of videoconferencing and Internet technologies in the K-12 setting.

Live from Antarctica 2 [quest.arc.nasa.gov/interactive/livefrom.html Link no longer active] was one of the many programs run by NASA which connected classrooms with Palmer Station in Antarctica. Students used the Internet, E-mail, and telecommunication via CU-SeeMe software to visit with the researchers there. Researchers discussed science and extreme living conditions that make their jobs a true adventure. This project was active from January to March 1997, however, there is a wealth of information available on this site. NASA is continually conducting different programs-check this site for current and future programs.

A program from Rice University called “Ask-the-Scientist” [space.rice.edu/hmns/dlt/video.html Link no longer active] offers schools (and the public) the ability to participate in CU-SeeMe videoconferences. A scientist is available every week for an hour over the Internet to answer questions about exciting new discoveries. Their schedule should be checked frequently for the list of speakers and dates.

Telementoring—Through the use of E-mail and the Internet, students can easily get in touch with experts who are willing to coach them in their areas of interest. Hewlett-Packard has an E-mail mentor program [mentor.external.hp.com Link no longer active] for one-to-one mentor relationships between their employees and 5th-12th grade students and teachers throughout the United States. Their goal is to motivate students to excel in math and science and improve communication and problem solving skills. Students are encouraged by their mentors to pursue their interests and link these interests with their daily school experience.

Telementoring young women in science, engineering, and computing [www.edc.org/CCT/telementoring] is a project provided by Education Development Center. It is in its second year of a three year project that draws on the strengths of telecommunication technology to build on-line communities of support among female high school students, professional women in technical fields, parents, and teachers.

The Electronic Emissary [www.tapr.org/emissary Link no longer active] is a telementoring project based at the University of Texas at Austin. It is a “matching service” that helps bring together students, teachers, and experts in different disciplines, for purposes of setting up facilitated curriculum-based, electronic exchanges among them. Classroom interaction is supplemented and extended by exchanges that occur asynchronously via E-mail among teachers, students, on-line facilitators and experts.

Lessons and activities—Developing on-line curriculum is fast gaining popularity among educators and parents. National Wildlife Federation [www.igc.apc.org/nwf/atracks/activity.html Link no longer active] offers educational lessons and activities about air, water, habitat, endangered species, and people and environment. These lessons include background information, fun facts, things students can do, and more.

A food safety program called “Safe Food: It’s Up to YOU!” [www.exnet.iastate.edu/Pages/families/fs Link no longer active] is prepared by Iowa State University. The lesson includes modules about food handling, consumer information on purchasing and storing food, food contamination, and environmental factors effecting food.

Amazing Space [amazing-space.stsci.edu] is an education on-line program provided by The Space Telescope Science Institute which is responsible for the scientific operation of the Hubble Space Telescope. Starting in the summer of 1996, elementary through high school science teachers from across the country have teamed up with scientists and engineers from the institute to develop interactive lessons for the Internet.

The famous oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard is the founder of the JASON Project [www.jasonproject.org], which is part of the non-profit educational organization the JASON Foundation for Education. After receiving thousands of letters from children who were excited by his discovery of the wreck of the RMS Titanic, Dr. Ballard and a team of associates dedicated themselves to developing ways that teachers and students all over the world can take part in global explorations. The goal of the foundation is to excite and engage students in science and technology, and to motivate and provide professional development for their teachers through the use of advanced interactive telecommunications.

Other activities—Last but not least are two more areas that the Internet can be beneficial to children. First, it encourages them to start a hobby or interest at an early age. Often children’s future careers start as a childhood hobby or interest. They learn through their hobbies and take the responsibility for learning. The Internet with its limitless boundaries provides an excellent resource for children to explore and extend their hobbies and interests. Second, it teaches them how to create web pages. The other side of the Internet is the art of creating web pages. While students are engaged in this activity, they will learn the following: programming in Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), designing layout of a web page, using digital cameras, using a scanner to digitize pictures, manipulating graphics and image processing, and drawing and animating computer graphics.

One of the greatest advantages that learning through the use of the Internet offers is that it provides a hands-on and minds-on experience. Students feel as though they are actually part of the learning process as opposed to just reading, turning pages, and note taking. In addition, students come with a variety of different learning styles, unique from each other, and the Internet provides a diverse medium to match those styles. And this is where the second part of the story lies: the act of teaching. There is a saying that we cannot take credit for capabilities we have, for that is what we are born with, we only need help finding what those capabilities are. Educators and parents should strive—again in Descartes’3 spirit—in the idea of “I teach, therefore I am” and with this ideal in mind help their students and children fulfill their capabilities.

In closing, there are few other important points to consider. With its vastness, the Internet is still an uneven resource, there may be a myriad of information on certain subjects and none on others, however, this is also an unlimited frontier with the great promise of ever expanding. Expect problems, bad communication lines, slow transmission rates, discontinued links, graphically loaded sites, and a variety of different third party software formats. Beware of the content, getting bombarded with advertisements, misinformation and disinformation, and inappropriate and discriminatory materials. Nevertheless, the positive aspects of the Internet far outweigh its negative aspects, and these can only get better.

1All sites were active as of publication of this article.
2With most audio and video clips certain “plug-ins” are required in order to play them back.
3To learn more about René Descartes visit these web sites [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rene_Descartes, and www.renedescartes.com Link no longer active].


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