As more and more American schools have been given the chance to install computers and connect to the Internet over the past few years, they've simultaneously been given a new challenge. While the E-rate and other programs may supply the necessary hardware, wiring and connectivity, the question of how to actually bridge computers with curriculum has largely been left unanswered.

According to the ninth World Wide Web User Survey conducted last year by the Georgia Institute of Technology's Graphic, Visualization and Usability Center, one out of every four visitors to Internet sites is either a student or an educator seeking curriculum ideas, research tools, information on publications, or opportunities for professional development. The reason is simple. When it comes to technology, teachers consistently face either a total lack of information or an overwhelming number of options from which they are unsure how to choose.

In response to this dilemma, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) instituted a program called the Digital Classroom www.nara.gov/education/classrm.html. In becoming a source of online material for teachers, NARA is attempting to make history more interesting to students while simultaneously giving teachers an easy, trustworthy place to begin learning how to integrate computers and curriculum.

"The mission ... is to provide ready access to essential evidence that documents the rights of American citizens, the actions of federal officials, and the national experience," said Lee Ann Potter, an education specialist with NARA who is managing the Digital Classroom project. "Through the Digital Classroom we are providing educators and students with this access to the federal records in NARA's archival holdings across the country."

Changing Times

The Digital Classroom was developed in 1996 to provide information to teachers about NARA's 20-year-old education program. But at that time, the Digital Classroom consisted only of a list of NARA workshops, ordering information for their educational publications and a few sample lessons.

But last year, recognizing the increasing role computers are playing in classrooms, NARA set out to become a more valuable resource for teachers. This February, it released its first set of online materials for teaching American history. The materials include nine lesson plans that use digitized documents -- including everything from paper documents to original photographs, maps and sound recordings -- to teach middle- and high-school students about the role of the U.S. Constitution in history. In doing so, NARA has become one of the first government agencies to offer actual lessons teachers can use to instantly integrate technology with curriculum.

"As Internet uses (and expectations) by educators and students changed over the past three years, the Digital Classroom also changed," Potter said. "We are now reaching far more educators and students than ever before with our goal of encouraging the use of primary-source documents as teaching tools."

Hitting the NAIL on the Head

NARA's Digital Classroom currently covers American history from the 1750s until the beginning of the Civil War. By June, the site was expected to include over 30 lessons encompassing the entire span of the nation's development. Each lesson provides links to images from NARA's collection of photos and documents, a description of the historical context for the documents, a bibliography and suggestions of activities for students.

Meanwhile, the NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL), a searchable database, contains information about a wide variety of National Archives holdings across the country. Teachers can use NAIL to search record descriptions by keyword or topic and to retrieve digital copies of textual documents, photographs, maps and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.

While there's no denying the wealth of information in NAIL, some teachers have complained that the documents are missing the background materials needed to use them appropriately in class. "NAIL contains more than 120,000 digital images of