eThemes: An Internet Instructional Resource Service
Many studies indicate that computer technology has the potential of changing teachers' pedagogical practices. This paper describes a major initiative to support teachers in integrating Internet resources into the instructional process while shifting their instruction to a more constructivist approach. Referred to as eThemes, this service accepts requests from teachers, finds Web sites that meet the requirements specified in the requests, and creates an archive of quality Internet resources for easy access and searching. It minimizes teachers' resource-seeking time and maximizes their resource-using time in their instruction to enhance teaching practice and student performance.
. . . the real promise of technology in education lies in its potential to facilitate fundamental, qualitative changes in the nature of teaching and learning. 1
Is the "real promise" of technology in education being fulfilled? The literature indicates that computer technology has the potential of changing teachers' pedagogical practices. 2 However, such changes are not automatic; teachers must be supported as they transform their teaching to take advantage of computer technology and digital information resources.
Supporting teachers in the process of changing their instructional practice is a multifaceted effort. Performance expectations must be communicated; teaching and learning resources must be available; rewards and incentives must be provided; and knowledge and skills must be developed. 3 This paper describes a major initiative to support teachers in integrating Internet resources into the instructional process while shifting their instruction to a more constructivist approach. 4 The article begins with the background of the project followed by the challenges being addressed; specific attention is given to improving resource availability while minimizing the demand on teachers' time. Evaluative data regarding the project are included, providing a context for future efforts to facilitate change in teacher practices.
Like educators across the nation, Missouri teachers are working to change their instructional practices to incorporate technology in their teaching, the goal being to improve student performance as measured by state performance assessments. In 1997, MOREnet, the primary Internet Service Provider (ISP) for K-12, higher education, and public libraries in Missouri, launched the Multimedia Interactive Networked Technologies (MINTs) project. Consisting of selected classrooms in six schools in the greater St. Louis area, MINTs was designed to raise student performance and change teacher practice through the infusion of technology into the classroom. By placing state-of-the-art technology in the hands of teachers and students and eliminating the technology barriers traditionally experienced by schools, this project encouraged a new way of teaching - a way that engaged students by making resources available in a learning environment that fostered cooperation, collaboration, problem solving, and higher order thinking skills.
The accomplishments of the MINTs project received national recognition; the project was awarded the 1999 Computerworld Award from the Smithsonian Institution. At the state level, the project was considered so successful that it prompted the Missouri Commissioner of Education to launch a statewide initiative to change the way Missouri was thinking about educating its K-12 students. This new initiative was dubbed eMINTS-Enhancing Missouri's Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies. In the fall of 2000, the eMINTS project involved 188 third and fourth grade teachers in eighty-eight school districts throughout Missouri. Each teacher's classroom had a teacher workstation with desktop video, a SmartBoard and projection system, student workstations with a 2:1 student-to-computer ratio, and a fast Internet connection. As described below, this significant investment in hardware and networking was necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve the dual goals of changing teacher practices and improving student performance.
Like any large-scale, systemic change effort, eMINTS was confronted with many interrelated challenges, including:
1. communicating clear expectations and feedback to the teachers,
2. providing responsive technical support,
3. developing teachers' knowledge and skills, and
4. making high-quality teaching and learning resources accessible.
A brief overview of how these challenges are being addressed is offered in the following paragraphs, as is an in-depth look at the complexities of providing high-quality teaching and learning resources to eMINTS teachers and their students.
The eMINTS teachers are expected to use technology to support teaching and learning consistent with a constructivist framework. The project adopted Learning with Technology: A Constructivist Approach as a means of setting and communicating performance expectations for teachers. 5 Online discussions, periodic training sessions, and individual consultation are used to help communicate the expectations.
Technical support for the project is available at two levels. At the state level, MOREnet ( www.more.net) provides the Internet service to the participating school districts. At the local level, the school district's technical personnel are available to resolve technical problems in the classrooms. MOREnet also provides technical training to the school district technical staff, with special attention given to the technology used in the eMINTS classrooms.
EMINTS teachers' knowledge and skills (technical and pedagogical) are developed through a range of activities consisting of over one hundred hours of professional development per year. This training is supplemented with one-on-one consulting provided by MOREnet staff distributed across the state. Additionally, informal, teacher-to-teacher training is common throughout the eMINTS project.
The technology resources available to eMINTS teachers included software, hardware, and networking. A word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tool, browser, and keyboarding tutorial was installed on modern workstations (two students per computer). The software was selected to decrease the likelihood that drill and practice applications would dominate. EMINTS networking consists of a T-1 line to each participating school district, with the district being responsible for the wide-area and local-area networking to the building and classrooms.
One of the lessons learned from the MINTS project was that teachers were quick to integrate Internet resources in their instruction, primarily in the form of Web sites related to teaching units. However, we also learned the technology infrastructure for tapping into Internet resources was inadequate in terms of sustaining changes in teacher practice. While the teachers valued Internet resources for supporting teaching and learning, three resource-access barriers were identified: (1) limited search skills on the part of teachers; (2) lack of teachers' time to find and maintain resources (such as "fixing" broken resource links); and (3) minimal resource sharing among eMINTS teachers.
These three barriers are not unique to the eMINTS project. Balas and Snow pointed out that without mastering several Internet search techniques, information seekers may get unexpected or inconsistent search results. 6 The complexity of the resource finding task is exacerbated by the fact that Web content increases by more than 3.2 million new pages and more than 715,000 images every twenty-four hours. 7 To illustrate this point, a keyword search of "Missouri History" using Yahoo! returned nineteen matched categories and 204 matched sites in early November 2000. Four weeks later, the same search returned twenty matched categories and 222 matched sites. Information overload and content reliability on the Internet become untamed problems for educational professionals who utilize Internet resources. 8 In fact, according to an Internet user survey conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology, Internet users ranked broken links as the second most frequently cited problem on the Internet. 9 The critical point here is that maintaining a current list of high-quality Internet resources is a difficult and time-consuming task, which most teachers are too busy to carry out. 10
Even if all eMINTS teachers had the required search skills and the time to apply them, the practice of individual teachers finding and maintaining an inventory of Internet resources is grossly inefficient. For example, in the eMINTS project, there are approximately ninety-five third-grade teachers, all of whom use the same state-mandated standards ( www.dese.state.mo.us/standards) to guide their instruction. A common component of the third grade curriculum is Missouri history. Little is gained by having each third grade teacher individually find, review, and catalog Internet resources for Missouri history.
The skill, time, and resource-sharing barriers described above were identified through focus group interviews with MINTS and eMINTS teachers and resulted in the generation of a solution considered to be quickly scalable to other grade levels and transportable to other states.
The Solution-Internet Instructional Resource Service
The need to minimize teachers' resource-seeking time and to maximize their resource-using time gave rise to a new venture-the Internet instructional resource service. Referred to as "eThemes ," this venture is described below from service, process, and technical perspectives.
eThemes Service Perspective
As a service, eThemes accepts Internet resource requests from eMINTS teachers. Graduate assistants with library science and educational technology backgrounds serve as Internet resource scouts for the eMINTS teachers. The scouts find Web sites that meet the requirements specified in the request, and distribute their search results in a way that is accessible to all teachers (including teachers not involved in the eMINTS project). Since its launch in late 1999, the eThemes service has fulfilled nearly two hundred resource requests, cross-referencing approximately one thousand Web sites appropriate for third and fourth grade learners to the Missouri student performance standards. The resource scouts are trained to use many Web search engines and online databases, thus increasing the likelihood that helpful resources are found. A "link checker" is used daily to find broken links, enabling the resource scouts to isolate and resolve broken link problems before they appear in the classroom. Periodically, the existing resources are reviewed and updated with the most current Internet Web sites available.
eThemes Process Perspective
As a process, eThemes is a means of finding, organizing, and managing Internet resources for teaching. As depicted in figure 1, the eThemes process starts with a request by an eMINTS teacher. Once the resource request is received, a resource scout is assigned to search Web sites that match the criteria of the request. Then, an eThemes resource record that contains the information of matched Internet resources is created and published in the eThemes database. Meanwhile, an e-mail notification is sent to the requester who then reviews the resources found by the scout and potentially provides feedback for the resource scout to consider in revising the search. Once a resource record is published, other teachers can access and search the database for resource records that can be used in their instruction.
eThemes Technical Perspective
As a database, eThemes is a Web-based system that uses Oracle database software to:
1. collect and catalog resource requests from eMINTS teachers;
2. organize and display the Web sites found by the resource scouts that match the resource request; and
3. provide efficient search processes so that all teachers can quickly locate high-quality Internet resources linked to the Missouri student standards.
These three functions are supported by the three primary modules in the eThemes database-Request Fulfillment, Resource Search, and Resource Administration (see figure 2 for eThemes'main menu).
The Request Fulfillment module keeps track of the requests that eMINTS teachers make for resource scouting services. A request record contains information about the content and format of the Web sites the requester wants a scout to find. Figure 3 shows a request example. The output of a request is a resource record (simply called "resource" in eThemes). An eThemes resource is a collection of Web sites and information describing the scope of the collection. Figure 4 shows a resource example.
The Resource Search module allows a teacher to use keywords, names, grade levels, and Missouri education standards to help teachers quickly find Internet resources they want. The search results can be sorted by their relevance to the search query or by the alphabetic order of the resource names. Figure 5 shows the search menu.
The Resource Administration module is the place where the service team manages their services. The administration module contains the functions for a scout to create and revise an eThemes resource based on a request. The module tells which requests are new, which requests are assigned to whom, and which requests are fulfilled. In addition, it has a link checker that checks broken links on a regular basis with an automatic mechanism to inform the service team and the link users. Also, a monthly usage report is generated for the management to track the eThemes services. Figure 6 shows the administrative menu.
eThemes Formative Evaluation
The eThemes service, including testing the functional prototype, has been in operation for approximately one year. To evaluate the quality of the service (including technical functionality), nine focus group interviews with participating eMINTS teachers were conducted by the Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis at University of Missouri in the summer of 2000. The results of the evaluation are summarized below.
Value of the eThemes Service
The most common benefit attributed to eThemes was that the service was a timesaver for teachers. One teacher indicated she needed information on China and projected that the search ". . . would have taken me days or weeks." Instead this teacher used eThemes and commented she appreciated the time saved. During another interview, one teacher commented that many hours could be spent trying to find specific graphics. The evaluator asked for an example and the teacher commented she needed a moving wagon graphic and that she had submitted the request to eThemes. The interview was stopped to allow the teacher time to check her e-mail to see if the eThemes had answered her request. The request had been filled, and she was delighted with the results.
Beyond the timesaving quality, virtually all of the interviewed teachers had positive things to say about the usefulness of the materials that they received. The teachers reported receiving multiple sites that could be used in their lessons, and many reported receiving more materials than they expected.
Central to the value of the eThemes service were the activities of the resource scouts. Many teachers relayed how cordial the scouts were. Several teachers were impressed by the responsiveness of the scouts and
appreciated their efforts to provide useful and appropriate Internet resources for their students. By and large the teachers were satisfied with the turnaround time for resources. The following comment is typical, "Anytime I've requested anything from them, they've been fast." The scouts are perceived as an important resource for teachers, especially as teachers develop new lessons using Internet resources.
Possible Areas for Improvement
In addition to underscoring the valuable service provided by eThemes, the formative evaluation served to point out areas needing improvement. First, the teachers' opinions about access to the eThemes archive vary widely. Some teachers thought that the archive is easy to understand and work through. These teachers went to the Search module first because chances are that whatever they were looking for had already been collected. However, another teacher commented she accidentally found the archive, and one teacher said that she did not know what the others were talking about, that she had never accessed an archive.
Second, while most participants agreed that the subject matter of the Web sites was appropriate for their students, some felt the sites need to be more thoroughly researched for content appropriate for an elementary school audience. However, opinions varied widely in terms of what guidelines could be used to determine if a given Web site was appropriate.
Third, several participants thought that access to "hot lists" of sites used by other teachers would be valuable. A hot list would be comprised of those sites contained within a given eThemes resource and found to be particularly valuable by teachers who used them in teaching. Although eThemes was referred to as an excellent resource, the teachers said they still had to figure out the links and see what was appropriate. If another teacher used the site, however, they felt more assured that the site was classroom ready.
Changing teaching practice to impact student performance is a complex task involving new expectations and feedback, appropriate rewards and incentives, up-to-date knowledge and skills, and the tools and resources needed to fulfill the expectations. The eThemes service described in this paper rests within the context of a comprehensive effort to change teaching practice in Missouri. Early indications are that the challenge is at least as great as anticipated at the onset of the eMINTS initiative. While the investment has been significant in terms of money, time, and resources, eMINTS has generated several valuable resources, such as eThemes, that are readily scalable across the entire K-12 curriculum in Missouri, and with slight modification to all states that have identified student performance standards.
Missouri is not alone in its efforts to provide ready access to Internet resources. For example, the California Instructional Technology Clearinghouse ( http://clearinghouse.k12.ca.us) parallels eThemes in some respects. The same can be said for TrackStar ( http://trackstar.hprtec.org) supported by the High Plains Regional Consortium for Educational Technology. What differentiates eThemes from others is the recognition that Internet resource access involves much more than connectivity, a computer, a browser, and a database of Web-site information. eThemes is an integrated, responsive set of services and support that meets the needs of teachers using Internet resources. Indeed, eThemes appears to be about building relationships of credibility between the scouts and the teachers while providing a service that supports changes in teaching practice and improvements in student performance.
1. President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology Panel on Educational Technology, Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997).
2. Henry J. Becker and Jason Ravitz, "The Influence of Computer and Internet Use on Teachers' Pedagogical Practices and Perceptions," Journal of Research on Computing in Education 31, no. 4 (summer 1999): 356-84; J. H. Sandholtz, C. Ringstaff, and D. C. Dwyer, Teaching with Technology: Creating Student-Centered Classrooms (New York: Teachers College Pr., 1997); B. Wilson et al. Technology Making a Difference: The Peakview Elementary School Study (Syracuse, N.Y.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology at Syracuse University, 1994) ED381149.
7. UCLA Center for Communication Policy, "Surveying the Digital Future:How the PC and Internet Are Changing the World," 2000. Accessed Oct. 13, 2001, www.ccp.ucla.edu/pages/InternetStudy.asp.
9. Georgia Institute of Technology, GVU's 9th World Wide Web User Survey, 1998. Accessed Oct. 13, 2001, www.gvu.gatech.edu/user_surveys/survey-1998-04/reports.
10. T. J. Waldhart, J. B. Miller, and L. M. Chan, "Provision of Local Assisted Access to Selected Internet Information Resources by ARL Academic Libraries," The Journal of Academic Librarianship 26, no. 2 (2000): 100-109.
Feng-Kwei Wang ( email@example.com) is Assistant Professor and John Wedman ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is Director of the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, University of Missouri-Columbia.