Students living in the far reaches of North America are plugging into the Internet and overcoming their rural isolation by joining students thousands of miles away for online class projects. These students are learning about other cultures, communicating with scientists and participating in research projects with other schools through a program coordinated by Canadian federal and provincial governments.
The Ministry of Industry Canada is investing the equivalent of about U.S. $38 million in a series of network access programs, including School Net. School Net is a program designed to "facilitate getting all schools and libraries online by 1998," said Elise Boisjoly, School Net director. The federal role is mainly to act as a catalyst for provincial governments, with private-sector partnerships, to hook public institutions to the Internet and provide some educational content, she said. "We work with teachers at the grass roots to build their own information on the Internet," she explained.
The Canadian educational system is similar to that in the U.S., with most school authority residing at the provincial and local level. But there are some things the federal government can do, like creating frameworks and helping bring the private sector into partnerships with school districts. The ministry works with telecommunications companies to wire schools and secure reduced rates for Internet access. This is especially significant in huge rural areas of the country because telecommunications costs can be prohibitive. Internet service in much of the Northwest Territories is a long-distance call away, making online connections much more expensive than in an urban area.
"Cost is a major issue," said Boisjoly. "There have been a lot of [budget] cuts in the provinces," she said, adding that many school districts don't have the money to connect to and use the Internet.
Another issue is getting teachers comfortable with the technology. Teachers, like much of society, are relative newcomers to the Internet. To teach the teachers, School Net has trained some instructors to go to schools and mentor teachers in using technology with students. These support teachers report to a School Net board -- made up of teachers, administrators, higher education representatives and federal officials -- which monitors and guides the national program.
The federal government also began providing a Web page last September for providing teachers with ideas and guidance on using the Internet as a classroom tool.
"There is a lot of information on the Internet, and some of it is valuable," said Boisjoly. "The key is finding that information rapidly." School Net continues to compile a database of information resources for teachers to use in class, such as addresses of educational sites. There are also sections on the database for teachers to conference on various subjects.
School Net is bilingual, with teachers communicating in their choice of French or English. Canada is working with France on agreements to get more content for the country's Francophone population, as most Internet information is in English.
"We try to build a database to be searched and to share ideas with other teachers," Boisjoly said. "It could become a database for teachers on any subject they want."
While an important part of School Net is getting school buildings wired, an equally important part is bringing the Internet into the curriculum, rather than allowing online access to be a diversion from traditional lessons.
Teachers are coming up with some interesting projects to fill modern educational needs. One example is a weekly treasure hunt used by students to practice research skills on the Internet. Students search the Internet for answers to questions, such as who discovered X-rays and when. Staff members at a Quebec high school post new questions each week and acknowledge students who correctly answered the previous question.
Getting familiar and comfortable with online data is an important skill for students to learn for the future, when information will be an important part of the economy, Boisjoly explained. "They need proper skills to be ready for this market," she said.
Most provinces and territories are implementing school Internet programs and investing millions of dollars to get buildings wired, acquire equipment and develop content for classroom use. British Columbia, for example, is investing about U.S. $75 million over five years to help get schools online. The goal is to connect all provincial schools by the turn of the century.
The province has a Web site , which includes resources for supporting classroom lessons and Internet projects. A listserve for educators is also available, as well as ideas for Internet projects in the classroom.
Newfoundland's STEM~Net is another example of provincial-based programs for schools. The relatively rural province, located above Quebec and Nova Scotia along the Northern Atlantic, is aggressively getting classrooms involved in online projects and programs. Most of the schools have a local access provider, but one-third use long-distance tolls to connect to the Internet. "Until we conquer the cost problem, we probably won't grow more than what we are now," said Harvey Weir, executive director of STEM~Net.
But what the province does have going is impressive. All 450 schools have Internet access from at least one computer, and there were over 200 classes with some 6,000 students participating in 60 projects last spring. About 90 percent of the 10,000 educators in the province have Internet accounts, and half of them go online on a regular basis, Weir said.
STEM~Net was started in 1993 as a platform for educators to communicate, and the Web site has gradually expanded to include curriculum. The next step will be to make sections of the site for student use. "We started with teachers because they have to provide the leadership," Weir said.
Newfoundland also has a number of distance learning programs using the Internet. With many of Newfoundland's schools in remote areas, and some one-room school houses, a very limited number of classes can be offered. A teacher uses the Internet to send lessons and assignments to students spread across the province. The Internet is a great tool for these remote schools because it eliminates the barrier of distance from data on various subjects which, until recently, were available in library collections affordable only to schools closer to urban areas. The one-room schoolhouse collections just aren't large enough to allow students to do in-depth research with current material.
And it's not just students. A problem for a teacher at a remote island school or a location where everything is flown in is "professional isolation," where the latest educational developments rarely arrive. The Internet connection in Newfoundland is helping to alleviate this condition. "Teachers couldn't do research in school," Weir said. "Now they can use the Internet to add to the textbook."
Teachers also use the network for continuing education and professional development, and there are even some working on master's degrees over the network.
Training teachers to use the Internet is important because they then pass research and critical thinking skills on to their students. Because there is so much data available on the Internet, a researcher has to be able to narrow it down to the material relevant to the research at hand, and be able to identify reliable and verifiable sources, something that computers have yet to teach. "This is the teacher's craft to be able to do this," Weir said.