The Impact of the Route 99 Website on Education at Downers Grove North High School

Matt Marengo
10 May 1999

Since the beginning of my senior year, I have had the opportunity to take part in what has become the culmination of my learning experiences in the past four years of high school, the creation of the Route 99 web site. Through the creation of this site, I have been able to observe first-hand the impact of the integration of a web site into the classroom experience. The most important part of this site is its large amount of student-created content, by which I mean web pages created by students other than me, many of whom have little to no experience in web page creation. The primary form of student content on the site is the informational maps section, in which each county that Mr. Graham passes through is student researched and student presented as a web page. As I linked these pages together into a cohesive product, I was able to discern how the use of the Internet had affected the way students researched, and the way they constructed a product. When researching for their web sites, students used other aspects of the Internet for a hypermedia rather than a linear medium research technique. They also conducted email interviews to truly connect with people in the counties they were researching. The one negative aspect of research on the Internet that I noticed is that it simplifies plagiarism. After conducting their research, students would then construct a finished product different from just another paper in just another class. I saw improved motivation to create attractive and well made web sites, though many did restrict themselves to a single form of page design. Overall, my experience with the educational aspects of www.route99.org have taught me that the addition of a web site into the classroom is quite beneficial, as it helps teach students methods of research and product development that will be extremely important in the future.

As technology proceeds at an exponential rate, students must be taught to take advantage of it as a tool to further their own education. The Internet has been endlessly compared to the printing press as a new and improved way for information to be spread, and students can take advantage of it as a research medium. During the research phases of the county web page creation in Mr. Graham's classes, students had to go to outside web pages for information, and refer to them via hyperlinks. Every web page employs hypermedia links which allow a user to instantly refer to another source of information. This contrasts sharply with linear mediums of research, such as textbooks, videos, and encyclopedia and magazine articles, which are meant to be taken from beginning to end. This allows for the assimilation of information in a markedly different way:

When we observed our N-Gen [Net Generation] sample surfing the Net, they typically participate in several activities at once. When surfing over some new material, they hyperlinked to servers and information sources all over the place. (Tapscott 142).
The impact of this type of research is observable in the student-created web pages on the counties. Each student would employ several sites in the research, referring to them as next steps for users interested in more information. This tended to allow for a broad view of the counties in terms of government issues, geography, and socio-economic make-up. Yet no page went into much detail, and thus had a much more horizontal, rather than vertical, look at these areas and the people within them. This is, however, typical for a web site that attempts to attack a broad area, such as a county. A user is given a broad base of knowledge, with hyperlinks to more specific sites. Thus, the students have impulsively built pages which are very much like those found throughout the web. After observing this pattern, I have theorized that research using hypermedia lends itself best to a hypermedia presentation, as it yields information that has new levels which invite exploration through links.

Students also conducted a more personal type of research through email. With the use of a technology that allows instant communication without the personal pressure of a phone call, research could be facilitated through true experts on the counties, the residents. Many students felt the need to thank the teachers and students that they came into contact with during the creation of their pages for the information and guidance they received. While research through third party web sites allows individual nonlinear learning, email connections promote learning as a social construct, which is an incredibly important concept. According to Tapscott, "The computer has shifted form a tool to automate and manage information to something broader„a communications tool" (137). The site will also soon have an interactive message board which will allow students and educators across the country to exchange ideas and opinions about Mr. Graham's trip. Hopefully, students who established email connections to people in their counties will now have a new public medium on which to communicate and share information.

A problem upon which I have spent much time in thought is plagiarism on the student web pages. Many students include pictures and even text from other web sites they encounter during their research. Credit may or may not be given, but this does not matter in a legal sense. Our web site is strictly non-for-profit and thus the worse case scenario for these minor counts of plagiarism is a request from the webmasters of these third party sites that we remove the material. Plagiarism has always been around, but as Freedman points out, "...it is easier to download papers than to steal from old-fashioned sources like Cliffs and Monarch Notes or the encyclopedia" (1). While the use of graphics from other web sites is nowhere near as detrimental to the educational process as downloading research papers from web sites, it is still a form of plagiarism. Furthermore, it takes literally only one click of the mouse to add a picture from another web page to your own. Yet forcing every student to create their own, original artwork for the pages when most have little to no experience in computer-generated art is impractical. A much more feasible solution is to provide access to public domain art sites for their clip art and icons.

After completing extensive research through the Internet, these students were ready to give something back to the global community by developing their own web pages. The creation of one's own web site has a trendy appeal that standard forms of product development in school, while equally if not more important, just can not match. Moreover, the students responded to this appeal with a sense of motivation neither Mr. Graham nor I foresaw. One student introduced his page as "The Greatest Web Site on Earth." While others did not play up the role of showman as much, they certainly took pride in their web sites, and were eager to talk of themselves and their own interests, especially those with Internet connections. The increased student motivation inspired by the creative freedom of creating a web page has been noticed in research as well.

Direct evidence of technology's impact on student motivation is still largely anecdotal. But many educators who have worked with technology in the classroom report that it can turn students on to school in a way that traditional teaching tools usually can't match. Often, they say, it can help bring down discipline problems, increase attendance, and make students more enthusiastic about learning. (Sandham 2)
The motivational impact of trying something new and in sync with today's technology was also seen as the students dealt with the equipment problems which invariably are present in mass technology projects such as this one. Disks went bad and data was lost, but the students always pressed on in hopes of putting out something they could email their families and friends about. The process of product development while creating a web page is a very exciting educational process that inspires motivation rarely seen in high school students in a traditional setting.

While trying something new kept students interested in the project, it also restricted them to somewhat of a standard format for their pages. The greatest enemy of creativity in a product such as a web page is time, especially when it must be constructed during school hours. Nearly every page employed the same basic techniques of a header followed by broad, descriptive text and scattered hyperlinks to outside sites. Those who attempted something different, such as the use of tables or animations, always had to either invest heavily in time and equipment outside of school, or simply were not able to finish by the project deadline. The ideal solution to such a problem is to increase the time allowed for creation, and allow students to view different web page formats and tricks of the trade, though this solution may never be implemented due to time restraints upon classes. In some ways, the restriction of the pages to a common paradigm is a strength to the site, for it gives it a more unified air, an important thing for a web site. On the other hand, a web site must keep users interested and informed simultaneously, and the student-created section would be an ideal place to allow for some more creative styles in web design. As usual, the most viable solution is a compromise, whereas students start earlier and slower, in that they spend a class or two on web page "theory," the placement of text, pictures, links, and various eye-candy.

As the media hammers the educational community with stories of "electronic schools" and "virtual classrooms," we still see little technological impact in the public high school classroom. Yet my experience with www.route99.org has taught me that the addition of a web site to the curriculum of a high school class is extremely attainable to the teachers and rewarding to the students. It allows for new methods of research and product development that both educational institutions and my own experience have taught me are extremely beneficial as learning opportunities.


Works Consulted

Coley, Richard J. "Technology's Impact." Electronic School Online.
http://www.electronic-school.com/0997f3.html (26 April 1999).

Freedman, Morris. "Don't Blame the Internet for Plagiarism." Education Week on the Web. http://www.edweek.org/htbin/fastweb?getdoc+view4+ew1998+
1879+0+wAAA+%26%28plagiarism%29%26AND%26%28plagiarism
%29%3AKEYWORDS%26OR%26%28plagiarism%29
(5 May 1999).

Sandham, Jessica L. "Turning Students on to School." Education Week on the Web.
http://www.edweek.org/sreports/tc98/cs/cs8.htm (26 April 1999).

Tapscott, Don.Growing Up Digital. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.