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Archives & Museum Informatics

Heritage, Classrooms and the World Wide Web: A Teacher Educator's Perspective on the Gateway to Learning Materials Project

John Myers, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, Canada


Teachers are busy people and the demands on their time will only increase with new curriculum projects in many jurisdictions. In addition the profession is changing as the generation of teachers hired in the 60s and early 1970s is being replaced by new teachers with new skills. While the use of information technology seems to be just one more thing teachers have to cope with, the coming generation of teachers may be in a good position to fulfill the possibilities offered by IT. As an educator and consumer of technology, my collaboration with this project illustrates possibilities for teachers to:

ï keep current with IT in general

ï develop links with museums and heritage sites at a local, provincial and national level

I will provide feedback from teacher candidates at OISE/UT who have examined the CHIN and related sites.

Schools seem to be awash in technology, or at least talk about it. For example, Educational Leadership, the flagship magazine of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development is a major opinion-shaper in schools in the U.S. and Canada. with a readership of about 170 000 (Henson, 1999). It regularly features technology as a major theme (April, 1994; Oct. 1995; Nov. 1996; Nov. 1997; Feb. 1999, Oct., 1999).

Most of the national U.S. education magazines like Educational Leadership and Phi Delta Kappan, magazines from which we in Canada get many of our notions about trends to follow, have regular sections on information technology.

The buzz about new technologies is getting even louder. The same Educational Leadership plans to focus on information technology in not one but two issues in the 2000-2001 school years (October and December).

Furthermore, the focus on technology influences discussions on other important school-related issues. For example, something as traditional as "literacy" is being redefined to take into account the need to use information technology effectively Walker, 1999; Rafferty, 1999; O'Grady, 1999). The Canadian-based Gateway to Learning Materials Project is part of this technological tide.

The Busy World of Teachers

Teachers are busy people. Every day, in every class, a teacher makes hundreds of decisions as s/he juggles curriculum content, classroom questions, student activities and classroom management so that thirty students or so can

  • develop positive attitudes and perceptions about learning, themselves their classmates and teachers
  • acquire new knowledge and organize it so that it integrates with what they already know and can do
  • extend and refine such knowledge using simple skills such as comparison, classification, induction and deduction, abstracting, error analysis and the like
  • apply their knowledge in meaningful ways such as problem-solving, decision-making, investigating and experimenting
  • develop sound habits of mind such as flexible thinking, perseverance, suspension of judgement and critical thinking (Marzano, 1992).

Helping students attain this wide range of outcomes is further complicated by the diversity existing among the learners in every class. Students differ in so many ways. In addition to "cognitive capacity", they differ in background and experience, language fluency, motivation, learning style, and interests. While such diversity is seen as a good in Canadaís bilingual and multiethnic society, it does challenge teachers as they try to "teach to each".

Teachers have to make their hundreds of classroom decisions immediately. They are aware that students will respond in unpredictable ways to any of these decisions. Such responses are quite public. All the classroom is a stage and teachers and students play a variety of roles during that performance we call a lesson.

These complexities are not necessarily a recipe for disaster. They do represent, however, the way things are in classes. Unlike other professionals, teachers have to work with batches of students and have little choice over their schedules or workload.

When we ignore such classroom realities in our zeal for meaningful educational change, we risk failure in our efforts. My boss, Michael Fullan, Dean at OISE/ UT, has made a career out of documenting how the history of educational change has too often been a history of failure (Fullan, 1991). This pattern is a long-standing feature of schools in North America (see Cuban & Tyack, 1995, Sarason, 1993).

Current calls for rigor, restructuring, standards and accountability in schools have been made before. Perhaps history repeats itself because we donít get it right the first time. School reform repeats itself every decade or so. Most changes skip over the waters and never get to the deep powerful currents that shape school and classroom life. Classrooms are much more stable than their defenders or critics imagine!

Let me offer an example of change denied relevant to this conference. I have two television sets mounted in the walls of my classroom at OISE/ UT (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto). They have been there gathering dust ever since I was a teacher-candidate thirty years ago. In the early 1970s educational TV was seen as the great panacea for what ails students. So, in order to be on the cutting change of this inevitable change, the university installed televisions in many of its classrooms, since they represented the future.

"No more teachers, no more books, now that TV has us hooked."

The future never works out the way you think. Remember the paperless office and the four-day week? Earlier generations had the death of movies and radio to consider when television was invented.

Will information technology go the same way as those television sets in my classroom?

Perhaps. If nuclear weaponry was the mythic icon of the last age, the internet is the mythic icon now. There is something about the advocates of ebooks, on-line banking, virtual classrooms, and the world wide web that make teachers roll their eyes. Experienced teachers have seen all this before. Lots of initial money, "gurus", who are long on promise and short on delivery, are soon doing the conference circuit. When problems arise in implementation, and they do even with good ideas, we donít have the support to work through them, for weíre on to the next fad. Does anyone really believe that spending millions of dollars on computers will instantly turn a classroom full of Bart Simpsons into literate, numerate, civil, knowledgeable human beings?

"On the eighth day we went on-line and lo! they can read."

But then again, perhaps information technology is here to stay. The cold war is over. South Africa has shed apartheid, money no longer grows on trees but comes out of walls via the ATM . So much of what we take for granted in this new century was science fiction in the last.

Is IT science fiction, reality, or soon to be relegated to the "dustbin of history" to quote Karl Marx, a figure we donít talk much about any more.

Using IT in Social Studies: Pitfalls and Possibilities

Most of the teachers I work with in Ontario and in other parts of Canada are history, geography and social studies teachers. While it is dangerous to make too much of anecdotal evidence, I believe that social studies teachers have been slower to consider the merits of information technology than teachers in other areas of the curriculum. I note that my teacher-candidates see very few examples of classroom work directly involving on-line information technology, though they see lots of evidence of student research based on the web.

Recently two anthologies of research and practice in social studies education in Canada have been published (Case and Clark, 1997; Wright and Sears, 1997). The combined 61 chapters written by forty of the leading social studies teachers and scholars in the country represent the current state-of-the-art in the field. Yet there is only one chapter focusing on the use of IT in the social studies classroom. Unhappily, it is not mine.

The one exception, Susan Gibsonís "Integrating Computer Technology in Social Studies: Pitfalls and Possibilities" (Gibson, 1997) presents, in my view, a realistic view of the issues for teachers.

Among the possibilities she sees in computer technology are:

  • enhanced learner motivation through novelty and excitement which is not wearing off as the technology changes from stand-alone PCs and MACS to the internet
  • increased access to information so that students learn how to manage as well as acquire new knowledge at blistering speed
  • perceived authenticity by students as they get a view of the wider world previously only possible through travel and use a technology they believe to be a component of their adult work life
  • increased individualization as the internet offers data in a variety of ways in an almost infinite number of forms which students can access and manipulate at their own pace
  • expanded interactions since IT is an active medium, in contrast to the passivity of TV
  • opportunities for collaboration as computers reshape classrooms into workshops and away from mini-lecture halls
  • expanded representation of ideas through multimedia
  • increased productivity in developing products, including written and multimedia work.

Among the pitfalls she sees are:

  • mindless fact gathering and downloading of information from the net without attention to issues of bias, accuracy and quality control
  • poor curriculum coverage killed the promise of educational television; while the amount of ready information on the world wide web is vast, there is concern that it will distort the curriculum as the curriculum changes to fit the ready-made resources on various web sites
  • reduced reading development is a worry since much of the on-line information is pictorial in form
  • diminished writing skills as students cut and paste information into "polished-looking" first drafts and resist the need to refine their work
  • neglected research skills as students take the easy way out, clicking and pointing instead of planning and thinking
  • need for critical thinking so that students not fall into the trap of accepting the information as the "truth" or assuming that information equals deep understanding
  • absence of real life experience since a virtual environment is not the same thing as a real-life environment
  • reduced direct interaction is also a concern as students on-line are physically separated from each other; we donít need to go to the tragedy of Columbine high school to recognize the dangers of social isolation among adolescents in a frenetic world.

Yet since the mid-ninetiesóthat sounds so distantóthings have changed rapidly.

There is been a flurry of useful work from the U.S. which canít help but interest us (for example see Surfing Social Studies (Braun and Risinger (1999) for a sample of ideas). Our national journal, Canadian Social Studies, now has a regular column The provincial bodies have followed suit. Recently these subject councils have joined to establish a national web site, something unthinkable even a few years ago *.

But we have seen this before, teachers who have been around the block will say. This too shall pass.

Will it?

Changing Teachers, Changing Times

It seems to me that there are a couple of developments which suggest that IT is here to stay. The investments in money and time by all sectors of the society, both in the public and private sectors, seem overwhelming and while we can shape the direction we canít stop the train any more than the Luddites halted Britain move to industrialize in the early 1800s..

I also look at my teacher-candidates. Six years ago, very few had any experience in computer technology compared to student-teachers in math and science. So I introduced them to email conferencing, word processing, data management and search techniques. Now almost all of them are "fluent". They can teach the skills to those few who need them. This includes me on occasion. I have assignments on-line. These "rookies" are going out into schools in which they are the experts. For example, Jennifer went to her new position as a history teacher in a Toronto school and became the director for the computer programming course in one year because most of the veteran teachers lacked her skills and knowledge.

And teachers in Ontario are now being hired in droves. In the next few years there will be a huge turnover as the baby-boomers retire: to be replaced by teachers with a new set of skills (McIntyre, 1998). The new ones are not technophobes. These changes in teacher demographics in Ontario are happening in parts of the United States and will soon occur in the remaining states and provinces.

A state of shortage also applies to the new leaders in the system (McIntyre, 1999). For example, I teach a course for teachers who want "specialist" qualifications: qualifications needed to become school administrators. The major work of the course has teachers identify an issue of concern in their classes and conduct classroom research based on their issue. Next to literacy, computer technology is the most important issue according to these future leaders.

Itís quite interesting to read what these future leaders say as it provides insight into their thinking and perhaps offers a few clues into future directions for those of us who see a brighter world for museum education because of the promise of technology.

For example, some history and social studies teachers are also teacher-librarians. Some of these people are quick to see the possibilities and the pitfalls (Hutchison, DiGambattista and Vella, 1998: Locke and Roberts, 1998). Among the issues they have identified through their reviews of the literature and their own experiences in four secondary schools outside of Toronto include

  • keeping up with the hardware and software in an area of shrinking budgets and increasing demands on staff
  • the need for professional development opportunities for "technophobes" so that teachers and students can make the most productive use of information technology
  • providing sufficient access for all students when library resource centres are finding it difficult to stay open during school hours as funding gets cut back
  • security and safety issues arising from the work of hackers and the potential of student to use the technology inappropriately

Nevertheless, information technology is here to stay they believe and they need to find ways to work with it.

History teachers without a background in information technology or library science seem quite unsure. For example, Bye (1999) perceived a lack of interest among social studies teachers and supervisors in information technology in his urban school district. But by working with students who were interested in IT and who viewed it as a learning tool, he overcame a strong personal cynicism that he held at the beginning of his project.

Campanelli (2000) reviewed much of the literature and watched her students and colleagues. In addition to reinforcing the pitfalls and possibilities Susan Gibson raised (op. cit.), she identified a few of her own based on the Ontario context. These included the following.

First, references to information technology coming from the Ministry of Education were considered "hype", in part because the minister had no background in education and during his short tenure was very unpopular with teachers. Secondly, the sites never seemed to match the expectations of the new curriculum, resulting in some teacher frustration. Thirdly, she identified issues around access and connectivity. For example, the of speed of downloading became an issue because it seemed to her that the better the site, the longer you had to wait. Surfing the net was a fourth issues since it seemed to take excessive time. An finally, once students found good site,s the work they downloaded was not understood.

Donevan (2000) examined the work of Campanelli, Bye, Locke and others as he worked with two grade ten and one grade eleven history class. His grade eleven students completed a survey and raised issues similar to those raised by Campanelli; namely,

  • the lack of speed on school computers
  • the time wasted surfing for good sites and putting up with poor ones (several students complained whenever they accidentally hit a pornographic site)
  • the level of hype from the media about the importance of computers and the internet in general for their future careers.

When Donevan observed his grade ten classes he noted how they would rush to the machines in the library (those that were working) and engage in what might be called "thoughtless enjoyment". They would delightfully download information and forget the planning sequence they had been introduced to in class for organizing their work and their thinking.

His conclusions were not positive. He saw three important issues: The first concern was his perception of student over reliance on IT to do their work and their thinking for them. In the lower secondary grades, they had the view that if it's on the web it must be good (a carry-over from typical student views of information in text books)

The second issue was his studentsí inability to research effectively. For too many of his grade tens, research equalled "point", "click", and "download".

His third issue brings us back to our dilemma about the impact of technology; namely, if it is here to stay, how does the teacher work with his/her students?

My teachers working in the Specialist courses were both interested in and alarmed by what they saw when students went on-line. Yet they continue to look for on-line possibilities for productive student work, unlike more veteran teachers whom it was thought would not get involved in the first place.

So with a massive influx of new teachers and new leaders, both possessing skills and dispositions towards maximizing the possibilities of information technology, this change has a much greater chance of sticking, despite the concerns.

The need for using the web may be reinforced by the changes in curriculum happening in all parts of Canada: paralleling similar reform efforts in the U.S. With new topics and the usual lag-time before traditional resources such as textbooks catch up with the demand, teachers are searching the web. In my curriculum area, museums and heritage sites have always been important, as field trip sites and places for student independent research. Developments in information technology may increase and deepen connections among these groups as new teachers looks for new resources and new ways of introducing these to their increasingly sophisticated (at least in some levels) students. Where does the Gateway to Learning Materials project fit?

Gateway to Learning Materials Project

I have spent a great deal of time presenting a context for my role in the Project. The tone so far seems pessimistic. While that is not my intent, I want us to be cautious. Given the history of educational change, I feel that we should not underestimate the challenge of meaningful change. In the previous section I expressed optimism, hidden among the negative perceptions, that the time and circumstances have come together for us to make some meaningful changes, provided we are mindful of the pitfalls as well as the possibilities.

My colleagues have already described the Project from their perspectives. They have described how students and teachers have come to use the CHIN and related sites for a variety of purposes across the curriculum. They have noted how we have learned from each other and from related efforts in on-line distributed environments: from Schoolnet, GEM, Alberta Heritage On-line, la Musée McCord and others. They have identified many of the important issues for teachers and students. Here are some examples:

  • The development of controlled vocabulary seems so simple until you realize that educational terms change from province to province and sometimes from year to year. In Ontario the term "objectives" has changed to "outcomes" to "expectations" in less than five years. Soon we may use "results" or some other word.
  • Access to IT is an issue for many heritage sites and museums and still is for many schools. With several platforms being used and different hardware of varying amounts of sophistication, memory and on-line capabilities, it is a challenge to design a site accessible to all potential clients. I still have teacher-candidates who do not own a computer. There are still schools in Ontario that are not on-line. And of course, students in a class will vary in their skills in IT and their access to up-to-date hardware and software.
  • Funding is always an issue in the public sector, even with the volunteer work of dedicated professionals. While love makes the world go round, someone has to pay for the trip.

How Has the Project Influenced Me?

In addition to working with some extremely talented people dans les deux langues officielles du Canada, I have been reminded of the importance of collaboration and the power of teams with a diversity of talents, the fact that the educational and heritage communities have so much to offer each other. It was a little more than a year ago when some of us met for the one and only time prior to this conference. We were at another conference. Giving the Past A Future, held in Montreal January 29-31, 1999 and sponsored by a number of organizations interested in history including the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and the CRB Foundation. The web site <<>> contains papers from the conference. This was the first time that people from schools, the academic and heritage communities had really met. The gaps in perceptions were great. Being involved in this project has been an education for me.

As Adriana has noted at the conclusion of her paper, assessment is a key issue. In that regard I have a group of teacher-candidates who will, by the time this paper is presented, have done some assessment of the CHIN and related sites using criteria such as accessibility and curriculum fit. I trust that they will offer some useful feedback for the next stage of our project.

A Final? Thought

Am I optimistic that heritage, classrooms, and the world wide web can have a glorious future together? Let me answer that with a famous line from movie history. After all the chaos of the final scenes and the uncertainty of their futures, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) turns to Captain Renault (Claude Rains) and says "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.".

Casablanca is still my favorite movie.

Endnote has the usual discussion, links, articles, and resources sections and is working hard to become fully bilingual.


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Campanelli, M. (2000). The Connected Classroom: The Experience of History Educators. Paper for the History Honour Specialist Course, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

Case, R. & P. Clark. (eds.) (1997). The Canadian Anthology of Social Studies: Issues and Strategies for Teachers. Burnaby: British Columbia Simon Fraser University Field Relations: Simon Fraser University.

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