Many countries of the world including the US have placed a high educational priority in teaching students to be literate. Even if this is a high-priority area, it is also one that is faced with many challenges, especially when you look at the classroom environment that has significantly changed over the years. There are many students in schools nowadays and teachers, therefore, face the challenge of a large population with varying educational needs. Teachers and educators have seen the entry of a number of technological innovations into classrooms, especially in the US. The most recent one is the use of the World Wide Web (WWW) that has offered many opportunities that enhance ways in which teachers teach and students learn. It has been used as an instructional tool to provide educational experiences to learners in Grade K-12. This article is going to look at how the WWW and how the internet can be used in changing the nature of student learning through the increase of access to instructional materials, promotion of the skills of students in the gathering of information & problem solving, enhancing of network collaborations and also availing access to resources that are decentralized.
There are those who criticize the use of the internet claiming that it may give misleading information to students and those who laud it as an important tool in fostering the educational competence in learners. It is this complexity of issues that calls for educators and policymakers to provide evidence on the positive effects and challenges of this tool in Grade K-12 classrooms. Basing on this, a study was initiated to respond to some prior work on the use of WWW which had shown a mismatch in the intended aims of the project and student behaviors in carrying out online investigations. It was found out that students did not evaluate the resources available, did not explore enough, were keen on finding answers rather than understanding, and that they were naïve in their use of the web tools. Artemis, an information-seeking interface, was created using design principles that were learner-centered. The interface together with a research engine and a permanent space for working, allowed the students access to a digital library that had appropriate online resources for middle school learners. This helped students to concentrate on the online resource content, evaluate its usefulness and digest the information instead of spending time looking for appropriate sites on the Web. The instructional approaches taken by teachers and the corresponding amount of support during inquiry time are factors that influence the students’ behavior during online sessions. To curb this, online and offline materials were developed to provide scaffolding, that allowed students to conclude tasks they could not do alone initially, and also support the information-seeking activities of students as they search for information, ask questions of interest, assess their findings, and also create exhaustive representations of their new understandings (Many, Wallace, Stephenson & Eickholdt, 2004).
The study was based on the complex contexts that framed the environments in which the learners participated. Those students that were engaged in activities of online information seeking, had access to tools that were designed for inquiry support and also received enough scaffolding and therefore were expected to develop a better understanding of content. Many types of research done, show that seeking information in electronic environments is similar to that in WWW. It is therefore a special case of problem-solving where learners identify and interpret an information problem, establish the search plan, conduct the search, carry out result evaluation and use available information to solve a problem. It was established that as students engage in activities of information seeking, they move from predictable stages and progress from ambiguity to clarity and from general information seeking to, looking for specific information. They learn how to come up with their own points of view or how to understand a problem or topic, thereby increasing their confidence and interest as they move from just conceptualization of problems to finding solutions to the problems. The WWW characteristics such as the provision of a hypermedia environment and the increase of access to primary resources through networks avail many befits to the learners (Hoffman, Wu, Krajcik & Soloway, 2002; Milam, 2004).
Hypermedia is a method used in the organization, structuring, and accessing of information in a network of multimedia joints that are linked together. Software for browsing uses these hypermedia designs to help students easily access information on the Web. They simply click on an image, text, or graphical buttons to navigate various networks, sites, or pages within the sites in an easy manner. This system allows the integration of graphics, text, animation, video, and audio into a multidimensional learning environment that enables users to easily move among large quantities of information permitting freedom from the linear, flow printed text that is highly directed and allows for the exploration of other alternatives that can provide a better understanding of the previously unrecognized alternatives. Through this system, learners develop intellectual partnerships with the hyper-media-based programs as the programs take up part of the information processing burden as the information is being located, retrieved, and presented on the computer. It is also worthy to note that access to primary resources through networks gives unique opportunities to the learners for the construction of better and new understandings of information. The nature of the resources that are normally available in Grade K-12 is very much different from the Web-based ones. The Web-based resources give current and comprehensive information from primary resources and are represented in varying formats, allowing learners to get up-to-date content in many areas (Many, Wallace, Stephenson & Eickholdt, 2004).
As earlier mentioned, studies have shown that when carrying out the online inquiry, scaffolding is very important in supporting the learning process. It provides decreasing amounts of support aimed at helping students fill the gap between their current abilities and the targeted instruction. This allows learners’ level of competence to increase gradually. It comes in many forms from printed materials to modeling behaviors put up by the teacher. They often start with simple instructions that give learners a chance to take part in difficult tasks or activities at the start of their inquiry. A series of monitored steps then follows in which difficulty is slowly increased as the learners become involved more with their learning and finally the teacher’s support is withdrawn. In this way, students gain the required experience and skills that enhance their cognitive capabilities of tackling a task. A four-week-long study on the effect of online learning on students provided with Web materials showed positive results.
The study builds on previous attempts to show how students interact and learn in the online environments of learning like the WWW. The study did not show any link between the learning outcomes of students and their use of online resources. But the analysis showed that learners can benefit to a greater extent from access to online materials for inquiry-based activities if they learn how to appropriately use the search and assess strategies, if they choose resources thoughtfully, and if they are supported and provided with scaffolding. The study showed that although the learners found it difficult to use the Web at first, they gradually became proficient at using Web tools such as Artemis which, to some, become part of their inquiry activities. These technological tools have emerged to be very important in that they support students as partners during their intellectual tasks, whereby they allow them to finish tasks quickly and with little effort and also increase the scope of the cognitive abilities and strategies of the learners. More evidence also backs the idea that the quality of resources from the Web avails learners with information-seeking activities. Literature and hypermedia research also show how easily accessible content can facilitate learner inquiry and support learning through various ways like integrating images, video and sounds to allow users use hearing, vision, and language production as means of building understandings. It also permits open-ended information retrieval. There also exists a relationship between the construction of students’ content understanding and the quality of online resources. Sites that facilitate engaging easy-to-read content while combining with other learning supports enhanced the construction of content understandings. But it also showed that high-quality sites do not necessarily guarantee improved understandings, it is all about the learners’ interaction with the strategies of inquiry (Schrum, 1998; Hoffman, Wu, Krajcik & Soloway, 2002).
Studies suggest a connection between student development of content understanding and their use of search and assess strategies when doing online investigations. Most of the studied students engaged at satisfying and levels above average with search strategies but others showed poor strategies. The highly engaged ones were a lot more deliberate in selecting search topics, choice of sites, thorough in information browsing, and thoughtful in content evaluation. This, therefore, shows that for effectiveness, students need support in developing and refining their search strategies, a very important part of their inquiry activities. It is therefore not surprising to see novice learners in using online inquiry, like the sixth graders, not using multiple sources in the verification of the accuracy of the online information. The study showed that their discussions were mainly focused on the assessment of the URL of the site but not the author’s biographical information. Students, therefore, need specific guidance in their development of the various components of personal strategies. Provision of more scaffolding, for assessing, and search strategies are needed to help learners in middle school reach higher engagement levels. This strengthens the argument that young students have the potential of carrying out an online inquiry if given learning to scaffold regardless of their less sophisticated investigations as compared to those of adolescents and adults. It should be mentioned that there are those learners who, during the course of an online inquiry, will have inaccurate understandings of the content. The sad thing is that even if there exist environments rich in information like the WWW, that provides access to resources online, it does not or does very little in mediating the learning of students, does not challenge the existing understandings of students, and also in the promotion of student’s opportunities for accommodation. By using the results of the 6th graders it is possible to come up with proper strategies of improving online education. In the same way, the sixth graders’ results can be used to develop strategies for improving the performance of the other higher grades. Teachers and educators can also provide more student support in their attempt to understand the information in environments that do not enhance the construction of understanding but just avails information. Teachers should always find time to discuss with their students the information that was sourced from the online materials. In this way, the learners will have a chance to understand things that were not making sense online. These forums help teachers to mediate the learning of students and foster or rectify in-process building of understanding (Hoffman, Wu, Krajcik & Soloway, 2002; Lim and Yoon, 2008).
It is evident that there are good and valuable online resources for building student competence in their learning. For instance in fifth grade, vocabulary practice can be made interesting and exciting. If vocabulary lessons are reinforced with learning games that are entertaining, it makes learning in elementary schools more enjoyable. The goal and challenge for fifth graders is not just learning new words in language or arts but also involves the cultivation of the interest of students in learning, teachers are very much aware of this, that why vocabulary computer games come in handy. They enable learners to learn and practice concepts in vocabulary in a fun way. Computer-supported instructions have a technological effect on the motivation of students to read and learn. Studies carried out on kindergarten learners using software based on hypermedia to teach recognition of letters showed that students were very much enthusiastic about using computers than print media. They were more motivated to learn from the software. This enthusiasm seemed to persist even in the absence of computers. Follow-ups show that students using word processors in composition writing exhibited superior skills in later tests. This and the many other citations serve to show how far online learning can help the k-12 students. When extensive support and scaffolding is given to learners by teachers, then the learners will, no doubt, benefit from online access to resources. This alone is not enough; pedagogical practices, improved technology development models, and curriculum design are needed in order for the full benefits of using online materials in schools to be realized.