Fulfilling a Need

Where We Are Today?

It has been estimated* that in October 1995, the world-wide consumer Internet consisted of between 23.4 million and 35.4 million users on more than 10 million computers in 173 countries. In the twelve months since then, the number of users and Internet hosts is believed to have doubled, and the number of domains quadrupled. This trend is expected to continue. Despite a shift away from US dominance to Europe, Canada and Mexico, with notable increases elsewhere too, the United States and Canada then accounted for no less than 68% of the Internet hosts worldwide; Western Europe had 22%; and the rest of the world shared the remaining 10%.

The lives of millions of people are changing rapidly: speedy and timely access to information has brought a world of opportunity to communities that once had difficulty seeing beyond their municipal boundaries. Remote parts of the world are now accessible. Some classrooms have been turned into laboratories of experiential learning using new, interactive instructional tools. Networks of interconnected people are exchanging ideas across cultures and political boundaries. Potential adversaries who might never meet anywhere but on disputed grounds have a new and peaceful forum for productive dialogue.

But what are millions of people in a world of billions? And who has access to the world? And what are some classrooms when almost half of the earth's population (or nearly 3 billion people) is under 25 years of age? Who are the interconnected people who can reach across space into the cultures of foreign civilizations?

Reliable global demographic data are scarce, but 1995 surveys of North American Internet users showed

  • for people over the age of 16, as little as 11% (24 million) have used the Internet at home, work, or school, while only 17% (37 million) have access to it;
  • the user population is predominantly:
    • young- to middle-aged: averaging 34 in the US and 29 in Europe
    • affluent: $59,000-a-year salary
    • employed in education, computer-related, professional or management jobs
    • educated: over 53% of users have completed at least four years of college
    • male: 79% of users
    • politically moderate: 30% of users
  • students from households with incomes above US$75,000 are seven times as likely to have a networkable home computer as those from households earning less than $20,000;
  • white high school students are three times as likely to have a networkable home computer as African-American and Hispanic students.

Trends do show that the average user age and income are dropping and gender distribution is evening out.

Nevertheless, Internet use is not officially restricted, and regardless of terms like "global" and "worldwide," it is neither: there are still many impediments to its universal applicability, like cost, accessibility, and technological know-how.

What Is Being Done About It?

Many programs and enterprises are breaking down the barriers to Internet access around the world. They specifically target educational groups as primary benefactors of interconnectivity. Some interactive technology design leaders that have spearheaded programs are:

United States Government officials also have pledged to get involved. Among many other initiatives:

  • President Clinton, in his 1996 State of the Union address, called for spending $10 billion over the next six years to provide every classroom in the country with an Internet terminal;
  • Governor Edgar has a similar vision for the State of Illinois;
  • the State of Maine has made $35 million available in an attempt to lead the nation in educational technology advancements;
  • the National School Network organized by the BBN Corporation and funded by the National Science Foundation of the US, all about school connectivity.

For students, one of the most exciting applications of the Internet in education is as a prompt for virtual expeditions, explorations, investigations, and discussions, all of which provide occasions for shared inquiry. Unique interactive educational tools have been developed that offer special learning opportunities and first-hand experiences to students around the world through sites on the World Wide Web. Students can vicariously experience things over the Internet that are otherwise out of reach. These tools enhance a curriculum by focusing on social studies, history and current events, creative writing, global issues, community problems, and cross-cultural understanding. Some examples are:

  • Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC)'s MayaQuest '97, which, through computer links to classrooms around the world, let followers direct a team of cyclists around the ruins of ancient Mesoamerica, chat with other kids and educators, view images from the journey, and learn about the ancient Maya and contemporary Central America;
  • GlobaLearn, a venture that utilizes four-wheel-drive vehicles to travel through various regions of the globe, posting daily reports to their Internet site, along with pictures, videos, and data designed to provide the content for social studies curricula;
  • Cycling for Conservation, a five-month South American cycling expedition, will explore water-related environmental issues facing the Americas today and their interactive educational Web site will link students from around the world to the trek;
  • 2 Chicks, 2 Bikes, 1 Cause: Two women on a 4,400-mile bicycle trek, dedicated to educating and creating awareness about breast health while celebrating life;
  • Ocean Challenge and Class Afloat have an education program offering semesters at sea aboard a modern tall ship and a Web site that connects students, teachers, and families around the world to the sailing student body.

Some adventures like these also have been turned into interactive adventure educational tools, like those found in CCCNet's Project Zone of innovative, collaborative, curriculum-based projects that combine the unique features of the Web with solid instructional content.

In addition, there are many other groups that use the Web as tools for collecting and disseminating information about educational resources on and off the Internet.

These efforts have been aimed at increasing the reach and appeal of the Internet, for if we do not encourage and provide universal access to it, we may fall short of realizing some of the many potentialities of students, of our society and our world.

And yet...

There is a great deal more work to be done. The statistics show the degree to which online access is limited to certain populations in North America and even more so in other parts of the world. No effort should be spared to continue the processes of

  • introducing computers to people who have never used one, or improving basic understanding when limited training is all that is available
  • providing opportunities for people who can benefit from collaboration to network in the interest of sharing, cross-cultural and informational exchange, and cooperative understanding
  • helping to develop the powerful educational applications of the Internet by seeking out and offering information in pertinent, timely, targeted and continuous ways.

* Estimates are from Matrix Information and Directory Services, Lawrence H. Landweber and the Internet Society, the CommerceNet/Nielsen Internet Demographics Survey, Network Wizards, the Georgia Institute of Technology's Graphics Visualization and Useability Center, Internet World and the United States Department of Education.

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