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Science kids surf the Net: Effects on classroom environment

Dan Churach
St Mary's College, Broome

Darrell Fisher
Curtin University of Technology

This study marks the first attempt to examine the extent and nature of Internet usage and its impact on the constructivist learning environment and students' attitudes towards science. The authors hypothesise that Internet usage and online connections in secondary science classroom could prove to have enormous positive impact on partially alleviating the process-versus-content dichotomy.

The study included a sample of 431 students in five Hawaii Catholic high schools and data were collected using site observations, student interviews, teacher interviews, and a survey. The survey consisted of an inventory of student Internet usage and a previously validated classroom environment questionnaire, the Constructivist Learning Environment Survey. The paper reports the associations found between student Internet usage and the constructivist classroom environment with a special emphasis placed on qualitative findings revealed through observation and interview. One intriguing finding is the almost total acceptance by students of the Internet as an educational resource. Student interview data suggested that this new technology has moved past the innovative stage and into the mainstream of daily educational routine. The authors have found that student attitudes, as well as individual feelings of self-control and personal relevance seem to be enhanced by the use of the Internet, allowing students to construct unique meaning on a personal level.


The Internet in schools

When one considers that the half-life of a college graduate engineer is now estimated to be four years, the age of life-long learning certainly has arrived (Davis, 1996). Thus, the foremost role of a teacher today should be to teach students how to learn. In that regard, there has probably never been a piece of technology more fittingly applicable to this constructivist philosophy of education. Early on teachers learn that the effectiveness of web browser tools such as Mosaic, Internet Explorer, or Netscape must by necessity be built on constructivist orientations to teaching and learning (Collier & Le Baron, 1995). More and more, the responsibility for learning shifts to the learner who turns to technology for content, freeing the teacher to focus on the process of learning and interpersonal relationships (Davis & Botkin, 1994). This explosion of technology requires that students become active learners, that classroom teachers become co-learners (Loader, 1991). This study looked at the impact of a particular piece of technology that has exploded on the secondary school scene in the short span during the 1990s, the Internet used with both email and world wide web browser software. In particular, the extent and nature of Internet usage and its impact on the constructivist learning environment was investigated.

Constructivism

Piaget (1973) asserted that
The basic principle of active methods will have to draw its inspiration from the history of science and may be expressed as follows: to understand is to discover, or reconstruct by rediscovery, and such conditions must be complied with if in the future individuals are to be formed who are capable of production and creativity and not simply repetition. (p. 20)
In that respect, constructivism is an epistemology that views knowledge as being 'constructed' (or generated) within the learners' minds as they draw on their existing knowledge to make sense of perplexing new experiences (Hardy & Taylor, in press; von Glasersfeld, 1993, 1995). This view contrasts with objectivist views of knowledge as an independent commodity of unquestionable truth status that can be conveyed through language from mind to mind. To these transmissionists, scientific knowledge exists totally independent of one's mind and is forever static and unchanging. It follows that from this point of view, there is a scientific truth that, given enough time and the proper tools, all reasonable humans will find independent of cultural or social restraints (Taylor, Fraser, & White, 1994). Here the teacher embraces the role of the authority whose sole purpose is the transmission of these truths to their students. However, much of this objectivist view of knowledge has been rejected during the past several decades (Kuhn, 1962; Feynman, 1985; 1988) as constructivism replaced the metaphor of knowledge as product with knowledge as meaning, and the metaphor of learning as reproduction with learning as meaning-making.

From a constructivist perspective, learners construct knowledge from perplexing experiences in two ways. As they attempt to make good sense of their new learning experiences they construct their ideas or understandings from, and in relation to, their existing network of concepts. This process of conceptual assimilation involves incremental knowledge growth and only a small degree of perplexity for the alert and motivated learner with appropriate background knowledge. One of the challenges facing a good teacher is, therefore, to provide learning experiences that enable students to appraise critically the quality of their background knowledge without this foundation, the connection with and between new ideas and understandings is likely to remain tenuous or shallow. This critical self-reflection results in a restructuring of relationships between major concepts in the student's background knowledge. The challenge for a good teacher is to find ways of engaging students in the emotionally uncertain experience of sustained critical self-reflection, evaluation, and reconstruction. It is quite possible that the usage of the Internet can enhance this constructivist approach to learning.

Classroom learning environments

The idea that social and psychological environments have significant impact on individual performance is not new. Lewin (1935, 1936) first suggested the idea that the interaction of an individual's unique characteristics with her or his environment is among the basic determinants of human behaviour.

The association between learning environment variables and student outcomes has provided a particular rationale and focus for the application of learning environment. In a meta-analysis which encompassed 823 classes in 8 subject areas and representing the perceptions of 17,805 students in 4 nations, Haertel, Walberg, and Haertel (1981) found enhanced student achievement in classes which students felt had greater cohesiveness, satisfaction and goal direction and less disorganisation and friction. Other literature reviews since then have supported the existence of associations between classroom environment variables and student outcomes (Fraser, 1994).

In recent years science educators have led the way in investigating the effect of learning environments on st udent behaviour and achievement in school settings (Fraser & Walberg, 1991). Studies of junior high and high school students show that supportive relationships with teachers and classmates and an emphasis on student participation in well-organised classrooms promotes student morale, interest in subject matter, and a sense of academic self-efficacy. There is further evidence indicating that a constructivist classroom environment of the model characterised in the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1995) is associated with a variety of desirable student outcomes (Huffman, Lawrenz, & Minger, 1997; Fraser, 1994; Tobin & Fraser, 1990; Fraser & Tobin, 1989). It was therefore considered appropriate to examine the effect of the use of the Internet on the constructivist nature of the learning environment.

Measuring learning environments: Constructivist learning environment survey (CLES)

If one accepts the idea of educational constructivism, it follows that exemplary teachers are ones whose students perceive their classes as more "involving" (Tobin & Fraser, 1990), but a tool was needed by which to appraise this inclusive environment. A new classroom environment instrument was designed to assess the degree to which constructivist principles are implemented within individual classrooms. The questionnaire was named the Constructivist Learning Environment Survey (Taylor & Fraser, 1991; Taylor, Fraser, & Fisher, 1997) and made it possible for teachers and researchers to monitor the development of a constructivist learning environment in science (Taylor, Dawson & Fraser, 1995). The initial development of the CLES was guided by four criteria (Taylor & Fraser, 1990).
  1. The authors wanted it to be consistent with von Glasersfeld's (1981, 1988) "radical" theory of constructivism in which students participate in the management of their own learning activities.

  2. It had to be worded in such a way as to obtain each respondent's perception of her/his own subjective perception of the classroom environment independent of the views of classmates.

  3. Its construction had to be efficient enough so that it could be administered and scored in a quick and easy manner. The revised CLES used in this study has only 30 items.

  4. The instrument had to be deemed salient by researchers, teachers, and students. This was accomplished by conducting interviews with teachers, researchers, and students at the secondary level.
The CLES is composed of five scales of six items with each scale designed to measure a student's individual perception of her or his constructivist science classroom learning environment. The five scales are Personal Relevance, Uncertainty, Critical Voice, Shared Control, and Student Negotiation. Students are asked to respond how often the behaviour occurs in their classroom. The response options are: almost always = 5, often = 4, sometimes = 3, seldom = 2, almost never = 1. The inventory is scored by adding the six items and calculating an average score for that scale with a range from more non-constructivist (towards 1) to more constructivist (towards 5). As a student perceives her or his classroom environment as more constructivist, the average score would be higher (closer to 5). Table 1 contains a brief description of each scale with a sample item from each.

Following small-scale qualitative studies, the new CLES was found to be valid and reliable in its statistical characteristics through two large-scale quantitative surveys of classroom learning environments in Australia (Taylor, Dawson, & Fraser, 1995) and in the USA (Dryden & Fraser, 1998). However, this study describes the first use of the CLES in Hawaiian schools.

Table 1: Description of scales and sample items for each scale of the CLES

Scale Description Sample Item
Personal relevance Relevance of learning to students' lives In this science class I learn about the world outside of school
Uncertainty Provisional status of scientific knowledge I learn that the views of science have changed over time
Critical voice Legitimacy of expressing a critical opinion It's okay to ask the teacher "Why do we have to do this?"
Shared control Participation in planning, conducting, and assessing of learning I help the teacher plan what I'm going to learn
Student negotiation Involvement with other students in assessing the viability of new ideas I ask other students to explain their ideas

Methodology

Research Questions

The research study explored four questions concerning Internet usage in Catholic schools in Hawaii.

The sample

The sample was composed of 431 students in five high schools in the Hawaii Catholic School Department and the survey was given to these students between November, 1996 and January, 1997. Follow-up student interviews were conducted with about 10% of the students. School visits, classroom observations, and teacher interviews were carried out throughout most of this academic year from October 1996 through to May 1997.

The personal experiences of the teacher-researcher included the experiences, observations, and reflections on student use of the Internet in secondary chemistry and physics classes conducted during the early years of the Internet explosion. It should be noted that the researcher of this study serves on the Catholic Schools of Hawaii Science and Technology Committee along with several of the participating teachers in this study. Additionally, at the time of the study, he was science chair at one of the participating schools and knew personally several dozen students and every teacher involved in the study. In light of this, the study can be considered to be an action research project in the fullest sense of the term (Kyle, 1997). Site observations were carried out periodically over an academic year, with a high degree of communication between the sample teachers and the primary investigator. Some three dozen students representing all five high schools were interviewed in depth in an attempt to determine the effect of the use of the Internet in their science classes.

In order to obtain some quantitative data each of the 431 science students the sample responded to a survey questionnaire consisting of two parts: part one inventories the student's Internet usage categorising amount of time used, location of usage, and how the student uses the Internet; and part two is the 30-item Constructivist Learning Environment Survey (CLES). Additionally, the ten teachers whose classes were a part of this study completed a 15-question teacher survey concerning the personal Internet habits of each.

The first part of the questionnaire was used to try to give us some quantitative picture of the extent to which the students were using the Internet. This included questions categorising the terminal location(s) at which the student used the Internet, the total time the student used the Internet, and the stated intention the student had while using the Internet. Eight question required simple yes or no answers (e.g., "Do you ever use the Internet by yourself? Do you use the Internet in this science classroom? Do you use the Internet at any other computer or terminal in the school? Do you us e the Internet at home?). A yes answer was scored as 1 and a no answer scored as 0. Two questions inquired about time of usage and required progressive answers (e.g., How many times a month do you use the Internet? How much time per session do you use the Internet?). These two questions were scored from 1 to 5 and 1 to 4. Consequently, the minimum Internet usage total was scored a 0 for the nine students in the 431-student sample who indicated they had never used the Internet. The maximum Internet usage score was 17. Though it was not possible to actually weight these Internet scores, an ordinal ranking of student totals assume that a higher score was associated with greater Internet usage.

Classroom observations

This study represents "action research" in the sense that the primary researcher was a member of the Hawaii Catholic Schools Science and Technology Committee with several participant teachers. Additionally, he was on unpaid educational leave from one of the schools involved in the study. Though none of the students surveyed and interview here were current students of the principal investigator at the time data were collected, the researcher did know several of the interviewees and a few dozen were former students of his. However if one understands action research to be "engaging in enhanced normal practice in collaborative groups, and then making public to others not in the groups their new knowledge and understanding of educational situations" (Feldman, 1996, p 536), then this project must be considered to include action research. In that sense, the fact that the principal investigator was a long-term secondary educator in the system under study, greater access was gained to the schools and classes. In that respect, it was possible to bridge the gap between university researchers and classroom teachers in the sense that the researcher was in fact a fellow teacher (Cox & Craig, 1997).

In a sense this project was contrived out of necessity, a necessity of teaching in a less-than-perfect world. Having spent several decades trying to walk the tight line between the centralised requisites and individual interests, these researchers - along with many contemporaries - managed to juggle a mixture of the two demands. Of course the real test of the true educator becomes finding a way to manoeuvre the majority of science students through the maze of standardised requirements without crushing the last vestiges of any innate interest in personal discovery the novice scientists may possess. Surprisingly, the task is not impossible and is aided by an eclectic collection of student-initiated investigations, science fairs, group projects, and the like.

During the 1995-96 academic year in Hawaii, the participant researcher, for the first time, had access to the Internet in a chemistry-physics laboratory. Initially, several computers with Internet connections were requested, but because of financial restrictions, only one unit (a P-75 IBM compatible computer with a 56.6k direct line connection to the Internet) was acquired. Initially a less-than-satisfactory outcome was anticipated because of a lack of terminals, but an unexpected, more positive result was observed. Almost immediately the classroom Internet terminal became a kind of modern day pot-bellied stove around which students and faculty tended to gather. Besides the obvious academic promise of unlimited resources and instantaneous communication, the availability of an Internet site in the classroom allowed the teacher the unexpected bonus of establishing more personal contact with students. The educational applications of this new technology have permitted these students to go beyond the bounds of their textbooks and to construct individual meaning in the designated field of study. Excitement level were raised in these young people as they made new friends and developed new relationships with their classmates on campus and (via email) with their counterparts at other schools throughout the Hawaii Catholic School System. At every step of the way, all seemed to display a strong urge to share the latest discoveries they make "on the net." Suddenly, there seemed to be a reversal of just who was popular. For the first time in the researcher's teaching career he watched as a "computer-nerd" kind of student who did not generally interrelate well with others suddenly become more and more of a social focus, since he knows how to do it and his classmates want him to share his knowledge with them.

These anecdotal observations seem to confirm the findings of Maor (1993) who aptly said, "...it is not the computer itself which facilitates inquiry learning; the facilitative role of the teacher is essential for students to utilise the computer as a tool of scientific inquiry."

The participant researcher has seen student Internet usage aid in the development of student cohesiveness and collaboration and engendered within the students an excitement about science and willingness to interact with cohorts both in their own school and at sister institutions. No doubt this development of a "scientific community" of learners contributes a great deal to positive outcomes in secondary classrooms (Smithenry & Bolos, 1997). One of the projects undertaken the year before this study was conducted was the Big island Science Odyssey in which 24 year seven and eight students, 8 year 10, 11, and 12 students, and 6 teachers were brought together from a dozen schools throughout Hawaii for a four day intensive science field trip of the Big Island of Hawaii. Part of the experience of that project was giving each student an email address accessible from their own school (and from home for those with home computers). Students worked cooperatively before the experience and seemed to continue their long distance conversations long after the project was completed. A separate web page for the BISO was designed and students were encouraged to contribute their own work to its content.

A lack of computers did not seem to cause any problem. Contrarily, a high student-to-computer ratio actually seems to enhance interpersonal activities. This lack of computers in the researcher's own school and other schools in this study caused students to often times work in small groups of two or more. This unanticipated finding of the increase in human interaction using computers has been noted before. In one study of microcomputer-based labs it was found that cooperation among students was greatly promoted (Linn & Songer, 1991). Margaret Cox (1992) found the same thing - collaborative learning was enhanced by the use of database and simulations because students shared computers.

In four of the five schools in the sample, traditional high school semester schedules were maintained in which students had an array of five to ten teachers with whom they had contact each week. The fifth school followed an intensive scheduling program and students came into contact with as few as three teachers during any given trimester. Nonetheless, the principal researcher was cognisant of the fact that many times individual students' Internet applications were set by the high use or low use of their teachers, certainly in relationship to there science classes.

A prime example of this can be found in comparing one teacher who used the Internet extensively with one who used it very little. The teacher who totalled the highest Total Internet Usage Score (17 out of 17) was a physics teacher known as "the technology guy." He went out of his way to provide the equipment, expertise, and class time needed for his students to utilise the school's Internet facility to a maximum. Here students were posting laboratory results on the school's home page, taking physics quizzes at home via an Internet connection, and doing corroborative research with students on other islands. He had the fourth highest CLES average score (his 56 students had a five-scale CLES average of 3.50). A conversation with one of his physics students helps put this into perspective:

Q: When you have questions - just something you're curious about - are you able to find answers in this class whether it's in the curriculum or not?
A: Yep - I can use the 'net.
Q: How's that? How has the Internet affected that? Has it helped or hasn't it done anything?
A: Well it's helped, because with the labs and stuff, you can do what you want. And the class leaves you free to kind of be the master of your own domain. Some of the reports that we have to do I have had problems with and if I see other people's work (posted on the physics home page) I kind of see how to do it.

Conversely, one biology teacher with the lowest Total Internet Usage Score (6 out of 17) almost never referred to the Internet in her class and when she did, it was only with a remark mentioning that it could be a possible resource for more investigation. She ranked last in CLES average (her 46 students five-scale CLES average = 3.05) and classroom observations found her approach much more traditional, lecture-textbook oriented. A young man in one of her classes was interviewed:

Q: Do you enjoy your science class?
A: (Loud sigh) No, not really. I don't see what it has to do with anything. Like why do they make you take these classes, anyway?
Q: Do you see the Internet as having any effect on you in this class?
A: Are you kidding? All we do here is follow the text book and colour pictures. I don't think she even knows the Internet exists. Nah, the Internet don't have no effect on me in this class...

After many hours of on site observations and interviews with teachers and students, the researcher can point to much anecdotal evidence that the role of the teacher had a great deal to do with student Internet usage. Because of the small sample size (in three schools where multiple teachers were in the study), some students had two teachers for different science classes simultaneously.

Several teachers were very creative in their use of the Internet in their science classes. Some may use the Internet as an extension of self, enabling them to reach more students than they ever could otherwise. One teacher in this study does just that, posting assignments, exams, laboratory results, etc. on the school's home page on the Internet. Another physics teacher worked with his students at "reverse engineering" kayaks and mountain bikes. After finding the objects they were after at certain Internet sites, the pupils would check angles, compare proportions, and glean all they could in an attempt to design their own, functioning models. In at least two cases, teachers posted class notes on the Web allowing them to spend their time in more personal sessions with students. This certainly allows for more efficient faculty time and allows students to carry "class time" beyond the normal school setting and school hours. In the long run, this may point the direction education is going with teachers providing experiences for students without always having to bring them all together at the same time (Wagner, 1996).

Many students use the Internet more than they think they do. Frequently, students made statements that showed a lack of using the Internet for school work. Instances of getting notes from or posting homework to a school's home page, communicating by email, and using the WWW for science project resources were overlooked by students as "using the Internet for school." Because of this it is possible that students underestimated their own Internet usage and in seems that the girls were more apt to do this than the boys.

In the few short months between data collection (mostly in January-February 1997) and the time interviews were conducted (April-May 1997), many students reported an increase in Internet usage. For that reason the study of any population is akin to studying a moving target. Again girls seem to have "discovered" the Internet preferentially over the course of a few months.

Interview data, site observations, and the researcher's own in-class experiences seem to indicate that there is a difference in how boys and girls use the Internet. Boys tended to play more games than the girls and in many instances spend hours involved to competitive games. Girls on the other hand seem to use the Internet more for interpersonal communications (e.g., email and chat rooms). It was difficult to find much difference in usage between boys and girls as far as academic or classroom activities were concerned.

Survey results

Validation of the CLES Questions

The results from the survey provided information for the selection of interviewees and therefore is reported before the interview data. This was the first use of the CLES in Hawaii reliability and validity figures were checked. Alpha reliability figures (see Table 2) were calculated for the present sample in order to provide further cross-validation information supporting the internal consistency of the five CLES scales and with the individual student as the unit of analysis. Of the five scales, only the Uncertainty scale had a reverse score item (worded negatively) and this may have contributed to the lower result for that scale. Generally, it can be concluded that the CLES does have satisfactory reliability for use with this population of students. It is noteworthy that the value range in this study, and the fact that the Uncertainty scale has the lowest reliability, is almost the same as those reported by Taylor, Fraser, & Fisher (1997). The seven-item attitude scale was found to have a Cronbach alpha reliability of 0.89.

Table 2: Internal consistency (Cronbach alpha coefficient), means
and standard deviations for the CLES (n=431)

CLES scale
Cronbach
alpha
Mean
Standard
deviation
Personal relevance
0.81
3.73
0.70
Uncertainty
0.64
3.41
0.61
Critical voice
0.88
3.52
1.00
Shared control
0.91
2.51
0.90
Student negotiation
0.92
4.00
0.86

As mentioned previously, as a student perceives her or his classroom environment as more constructivist, the mean CLES score on each scale would be higher (closer to 5). The mean scores in Table 2 indicate that the students in the science classrooms where the Internet was in use did perceive quite a high degree of personal relevance, they were able to interact with other students, they experienced the relative uncertainty of science and they shared control of the setting of learning goals and assessment criteria. Overall, the majority of students in this sample viewed their science classes as quite constructivist in nature.

Associations between CLES scores and internet usage

It is noteworthy that much of the previous research with the CLES (as well as other classroom environment research) has been correlational in nature and investigates associations between various outcomes and different dimensions of the environment. Because of this, one needs to be cautious in not attempt ing to draw strict casual relationships (Fraser, 1994). Nonetheless, certain trends and tendencies can be pointed out from the use of the survey. As depicted in Table 3, weak but significant correlations were found between student Internet usage and four of the CLES scales. Uncertainty, Critical Voice, Shared Control, and Student Negotiation were all positively associated with Internet usage.

Table 3: Associations between CLES scales and internet
usage in terms of simple correlations (r)

Scales

Internet usage

Personal relevance

0.10

Uncertainty

0.11*

Critical voice

0.12*

Shared control

0.17**

Student negotiation

0.15**

*p<0.05   **p<0.01   n=431

One may have expected stronger correlations here, but the broad spectrum of the sample may have precluded that result. Sherry Turkle (1984) points out that computer hackers illustrate another facet in man's emerging relationship with machine. Their response to the computer is artistic, even romantic. Certainly computer use means different things to different people. She draws an analogy between the computer and a Rorschach inkblot test, emphasising the powerful projective medium students find in PCs (p. 14). Unlike the stereotype of a machine with which there is only one way to relate (e.g. math drills, industrial applications), the computer is partner in a great diversity of relationships and is as many different things as there are people who use them. It could be argued, that in light of this, the variety of approaches employed by various teachers and individual students in the sample, the across-the-board positive correlations may be more than expected.

Interview data

Personal interviews were held with 36 of the 431 students involved in this sample. Three of the students actually were in two of the classes in the study. The time spent by the researcher interviewing students proved very revealing. Several studies comparing computer-based learning with non-computer methodologies do not always provide great insights to what goes on with students employing instructional technology. Even situations where pre and post tests are used, a great deal of detailed analysis of student interactions with hardware, software, and fellow students is needed (Berger, Lu, Beltzer, & Voss, 1994). For that reason these follow-up interviews were conducted to give great insight to the answers recorded on the questionnaire administered earlier in the academic year. Interviewees were selected because they either responded that they used the Internet a great deal or very little. To maintain a balance, the investigator also spoke with several "average" Internet users.

Below are some of the responses individuals gave during the interviews including the context in which they were offered. These responses are representative of the whole of all the interviews conducted and indicate that student perception of the Internet may be more favourable in interview than in the questionnaire results. A possible cause for this could be either the failure to be more specific in Internet-based questions and that the interviews were carried out three to four months after the in-class surveys were administered.

Between the student interviews and classroom observations within the sample schools, the researcher found time and again that the broad majority of students were enthusiastic with their use of the Internet for academic class-related activities. Somewhat surprisingly though, in many cases individual students, even those with high Personal Relevance scores on the CLES, did not always relate their Internet usage to course objectives.

For example, there was a female physics student in a co-educational school who had very high CLES scores including a 4.83 in Personal Relevance and 4.50 in Critical Voice. This young woman had a high interest in the sciences. She had done well at the state level competition with her science fair project and was an all around excellent student. Her interview was revealing in that she tended to use the Internet for school work much more than she ever thought she did when she filled out the questionnaire.

Q: Did you feel you had a chance this year to explore areas that were of interest to you, or was it all just what the textbook said?
A: Well to a point you could, like in discussions you were pretty much able to go where you wanted to with it, but then you still had to cover the basics.
Q: Your science fair project was related to physics. Would you say you used the Internet at all for that?
A: I used it a lot.
Q: Okay. Well in terms of having control over what you wanted to learn - did the Internet have anything to do with that... in your physics class?
A: Well... the stuff I used the Internet for wasn't really for physics. Like I learned how to make the Wheatstone bridge. And I just didn't think that was for physics...

Since the schedule called for electricity and magnetism to be covered the end of the academic year in her formal physics curriculum, she actually had no idea she was applying physics principles to her science fair project. When the researcher asked her if she was aware of the fact that the Wheatstone bridge was actually mentioned in her physics text (though far back in the book!), she was surprised. The interview continued:

Q: In general, do you enjoy your science class and look forward to being here and would you recommend it to someone you know next year?
A: Yeah, I liked it.
Q: That's good - physics can be stressful. Did the Internet have anything to do with your liking this class?
A: [The student nodded her head in the negative, indicating it didn't, but then spoke.] Well actually, getting the notes from the Internet is helping a lot.
Q: Oh, have you been using it for that? You didn't even tell me that.
A: And that's really useful.
Q: I wonder how many of your classmates are doing that?
A: Pretty much we all are. You can have the notes in front of you and underline, make comments... listen to class... You know, I never thought of the notes as being on the Internet... And the assignments are there, too...

In this school, the physics teacher had pasted class notes and assignments on the school's home page and this young woman used them as a resource extensively, never thinking that she was using the Internet. Another woman at the same school, but taking an organic chemistry class, had a similar response during the interview. She too scored high in the CLES scales of Personal Relevance (4.00) and Shared Control (3.50).

Q: Do you feel that if you have a question on your mind that you can learn about that in this science class??
A: Yeah.
Q: Do you use the Internet at all to do that?
A: No... no, not really...
Q: Let me ask you a question. You did a very big science fair project this year and won all kinds of prizes with it. Did you use the Internet at all to research that?
A: Aha. [She nodded her head in the affirmative.]
Q: Did that cover part of your organic class or was that something you were interested in? [The topic she worked on dealt with transgenic (genetically engineered) papaya plants and was entitled Vitamin C Analysis of Nontransgenic and Transgenic Papaya.]
A: Well, organic a little bit, with the vitamin C.
Q: Who chose the topic?
A: I did.
Q: Okay. So I imagine it's something you're interested in.
A: Right.
Q: How much did you use the Internet to do your research here?
A: I used it a lot, because this is so new you can't go into the library and find anything, so...
Q: Now think of what you're saying to me. You're telling me that yes, you have some control over what you want to learn, but the Internet has nothing to do with it. And yet now you're telling me...
A: But I thought you meant for the class.
Q: I didn't say for the class, I said for what Katie wants to know about...
A: Oh yeah, I see what you mean.

Many students seem to think that if they enjoy a topic they are working with it must not have anything to do with course content! In yet another class, this one an all-boys physics section, the teacher had students write all their laboratory reports on the school's home page. This way they could corroborate with each other and compare their findings to those of classmates. In several interviews here though, again the students often didn't realise posting their results on a web page with "using the Internet for school activities." The researcher found this unconscious use of the Internet as a tool in learning science over and over again in field investigations and speculate that a re-designed questionnaire may better quantify this usage.

Usage of the Internet seemed to contribute a great deal to the students experiencing the uncertain nature of the sciences and the variances introduced by socioeconomic and cultural and differences. A boy at another co-educational school scored high in Personal Relevance (3.83) and Uncertainty (3.33).

Q: In this class, would you say that you learned that science is more universal and unchanging - the same everywhere - or in this class would you say that you learned that science is more cultural dependent and uncertain?
A: Yeah, yeah - it's changing. There's other schools that had home pages and it was really different when we had to read their schools and the description of the area around them. These were like in Russia and the islands...
Q: You kind of answered exactly what I was going to follow up with as to what effect the Internet has. So in that case, the Internet must have had some effect, because...
A: Oh, it had a big effect.
Q: You said Russia?
A: Yeah Russia and the USA - Wisconsin, Ohio...
Q: Would you say in general to your academic experience that the Internet has been positive, negative or nothing and why?
A: It's like meeting people, like from other lands. You don't know how they are and they don't know how you are before hand. You can exchange environments.
Q: And you have been able to do that using the Internet?
A: Yeah.

Yet another girl, this one in a physics class at an all girls school, related her excitement at communicating with "real scientists." This young woman had a maximum 5.00 in Critical Voice and Shared Control and a 4.33 in Personal Relevance.

Q: You say you did reports... What did you do your reports on?
A: There was one on how come rain drops don't kill us when they fall. So I went and I signed up on a science page so I could get in there and ask questions. And the other one was why do pregnant women lean backwards.
Q: That's good, too. Now were those topics assigned to you?
A: Yep. We all had to do that.
Q: So everybody took those topics. You used the Internet for that, but didn't really pick the topic?
A: Yeah.
Q: Would you say that in your high school career - in your academic career - would you say that the fact that the Internet exists has been positive to your education, negative to your education, or didn't matter to your education and tell me why?
A: Positive.
Q: Okay, tell me why.
A: It made it easier to research things, because I didn't have to go to the library or if I wanted to I could hook up to the library and find books. And pictures - nicer, cause you can find pictures on anything without having to look through books. And then the interaction - like if I needed to do like my research for the physics class, I wrote a scientist and he emailed me back.
Q: That's really interesting. I'm going to ask you questions about this because you seem to use the Internet quite a lot. Tell me how you found the scientist to write to.
A: I looked up raindrops and I then I went through all these pages until I finally found the Science Emporium or something like that and there was this email address at the bottom saying 'questions.' I shook my head, yes I do. And I just wrote him, a real scientist.
Q: Neat. How long did it take to get an answer?
A: It took me a little over the week, I think. I started early...

At times students would use the Internet as a starting point and then spin off of that to find an answer to their question. One chemistry student at a co-educational school did just that. This young man felt little in control of his learning (a 1.33 CLES score in the Shared Control scale), but high scores on the other CLES scales (between 3 and 5). In his case, it seemed the only time he felt he had any power over what he wanted to learn was when he used the Internet.

A: The only time I felt that we got to choose was probably when we had projects, because we got to chose our own topic. But other than that, we had to just learn whatever the teacher wanted us to.
Q: Okay. Tell me in terms of the projects how the Internet affected you if at all.
A: It helped a lot, because I could get like information and facts - a place to start.
Q: What was your topic?
A: Iron and cereal.
Q: What did you find out?
A: Well we found out that cereal with vegetables in it - like rice and corn - they had the most iron like compared to other cereals.
Q: Did you do that experimentally.
A: Yeah.
Q: Titrations?
A: Well, we burned the cereal and made different solutions and then mixed the cereals with the solutions and, depending on what colour the solution turned after the cereal was mixed in we could tell how much iron was in it.

Finally one young lady at an all-girls school was taking two science classes involved in this study simultaneously. She had one of the highest CLES scale scores in the entire sample with three 5.00 totals (Personal Relevance, Critical Voice, and Student Negotiation). She said that because of work in her science classes, she had increased her use of the Internet dramatically in the few months between filling out the student questionnaire and the time of the personal interview.

Q: Back in January, you said you were using the Internet once or twice a month - not too much. No, it says your were using it less than once a month. Would you say your habits have changed any since then?
A: Yeah, because of this class?
Q: Oh, okay - so because of this class you are using it more?
A: Aha. And our teachers are requiring like projects that require that we go on the Internet. And it's so much easier than to go look it up or if we can't find information in school that we need and we can find it on the Internet.
Q: You say your teachers, so it's more than just this class?
A: Yeah - like history and English, too.
Q: Are you kind of a science person?
A: I love science.
Q: How relevant is this class to your life? ...In terms of relevance, how much does this relate to your everyday sort of thing? Is it all in the textbook, or are there things that are very practical about...
A: Well I use this class - I mean when I associate with other classes - because they get me into the Internet. So I know more when I use it in other classes, I can help other students. In chemistry, we deal with Link Way and this class [Exploring Earth in Space], so it's much easier for me in chemistry when we did Link Way projects.
Q: What's Link Way?
A: It's a computer program. We make our own program. You know how there's computer programs in the computer? But we make our own. We think up everything, the buttons, we write up the page. We find out information and put it on...
Q: Does the Internet have anything to do with this?
A: Well the information I get from it - most of the information we get is from the Internet.
Q: So for Exploring Earth in Space, the Internet is almost a textbook in a way?
A: Yeah... But it's hard using the Internet sometimes for information because you don't know - it's not published work - so you don't know if it's actually accurate sometimes.
Q: Good. That's perceptive of you to know that. ...That's a very good point.
A: So we sometimes have to use textbooks to just back up information.
Q: To verify?
A: Yeah.
Q: Now I'm curious here. What makes you say that? Did you learn that on your own or did your teacher talk to you about that?
A: Well both, because we were talking about - I asked her if we should use the books, too. Because a lot of the information we just don't know who puts it on there... like Heaven's Gate... [This was only a few weeks after the tragic cult mass suicide took place in Southern California.]
Q: So your Internet usage has really undergone a dramatic change, hasn't it?
A: I never, never used the Internet before. Using the Internet is easier sometimes, but it can be stressful when it takes too long. [laughing]
Q: This is interesting, because you have really - in the past few months, you have really begun using the Internet a lot more, haven't you?
A: Yes.
Q: Would you say that your whole educational experience - science in particular - is better, worse, or the same because of the Internet and why?
A: Better... It would be... better in some ways... because I learn knew things. But what I might be learning from the Internet - like I said - might not be always be true. That brings up different ideas... yeah, I learn from the Internet and I think it is good for students...

It seems that the common thread running through all these interview notes is the fact that students seem to use the Internet to find out what they need to know when they need to know it. All the schools in this sample were highly academic institutions and the classes were structured in such a way as to cover the material needed to prepare students for standardised exams. In many ways, it is somewhat surprising that the average CLES scores were as high as they were in this sample. That said, the lowest overall score was found for shared control, and this can be explained by the fact that the teachers in this sample tended to stick to a structured curriculum aimed at the aforementioned standardised exams. Consequently if any area within the constructivist learning environment needs a boost, it would be that of shared control. Possibly that is just the area that receives the greatest benefit from student Internet usage. Considering the correlation data mentioned earlier in this paper, the highest association found between Internet usage and any CLES scale was that found with shared control (0.17 p< 0.01). Why? Because in spite of the tendency for adherence to a structured curriculum, nearly all the teachers in the sample called on their students to develop individual science projects. As indicated in the interview excerpts above, this seems to be exactly the area that the Internet proves most useful, offering the student the chance to be in control of her or his own learning.

Additionally, the Internet allowed for increased communications between students and teachers, students and other students, and students and off campus researchers. This communication allowed teachers to better distribute "facts and figures" via posting of notes, glossaries, and assignments on the schools web page. From the student's point of view, they were better able to verbalise findings, ideas, and questions by sharing experimental results, academic questions, and problem solutions using the both email and web pages.

Summary

The following generalisations concerning teacher methodologies are based on the classroom observations, interviews, and the student-teacher responses to the survey.

Of the ten teachers involved in this sample, all but one had at least one Internet-connected computer in her or his classroom.

Though there was a variety of approaches to integrating the Internet in classroom work, all teachers at least referred to it as a possible resource for research or exploration.

One class was written specifically to use the Internet and students met in an online computer lab at least one day a week.

Several teachers integrated Internet usage into more traditional class structures by posting notes, laboratories, and assignments on the school's home page, and communicating with students by email.

The specific method any of the teachers in this sample used in their classroom did not seem to have as great an effect on their students as did a positive attitude in respect to using the Internet as a tool. When demonstrated, this positive attitude seems to set the tone for constructive use of the Internet by students.

Generally, this research seems to confirm the idea that student Internet usage has a positive effect on classroom environments in science classes within the schools in this sample. The CLES does have internal consistency (Cronbach alpha scores) and may be used in confidence in Hawaiian schools and positive associations exist between student Internet usage and the CLES scales of Critical Voice, Shared Control, Uncertainty, and Student Negotiation. Classroom observations, and personal experiences support these findings. In other words, science classes that have higher student Internet usage seem to be more constructive in nature. Students have accepted the use of the Internet to such a degree that they often don't know they are using it. Furthermore, Internet usage seems to be much more social than one may imagine. These finding vary between boys and girls, and yet both sexes are affected positively by their individual use of the Internet. Finally, the role of the teacher played a large part in how valuable Internet usage was to the student. It was the individual teacher that seemed to be instrumental in keeping their students focused on the task at hand, whether that was accomplished through assigned projects or simply made part of the on going structured curriculum.

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Authors: The authors encourage communication and discussion concerning this project. For more information or further questions please contact them at the following addresses:

Darrell Fisher, Key Centre for School Science and Mathematics, Curtin Universi ty of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6845
ifisherd@info.curtin.edu.au

Dan Churach, St Mary's College, PO Box 3105, Broome WA 6725
churach@tpgi.com.au

Or visit the Curtin University of Technology Key Centre for School Science and Mathematics Education Web Site at http://www.smec.curtin.edu.au/

Please cite as: Churach, D. and Fisher, D. (1999). Science kids surf the Net: Effects on classroom environment. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1999. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1999/churach.html


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