Professional Learning

Marco Polo: Showing Teachers How to Use Internet Content in Their Classrooms

This proven online resource helps teachers enrich their curriculum.

October 1, 2000

Standing with teachers, President Bill Clinton participated in the launch in December 1999 of the MarcoPolo professional-development program in seven Mississippi Delta states.

Credit: Todd Brekhus

It's Sunday night, and you realize that tomorrow you've got to teach the theory of supply and demand to your class of eighth graders. You'd like to add to your tried-and-true example about gas shortages and skyrocketing pump prices. So why didn't you think of this earlier, when you could do some research in the teacher library or when you could consult with the district's curriculum specialist? Lesson plans don't grow on trees.

Thanks to a partnership between WorldCom and seven prestigious educational organizations, however, they do grow on the Internet. You go to WorldCom's Marco Polo Web site, click on the EconEdLink, and look around. There's "EconomicsMinute," which "helps students explore the economics behind the news of the week." Looking down the list of article titles, one in particular grabs your attention: "I'll trade you a bag of chips, two cookies, and $60,000 for your tuna fish sandwich."

Click on the title and -- voilà! -- it's perfect: "This lesson serves as an activity for the investigation of supply and demand." The site goes on to explain that maguro tuna, also known as bluefin tuna, is a delicacy in Japan that can demand prices as high as $70,000 per fish and that the forces that determine price are supply and demand.

The site comes with suggested homework assignments that can be printed out and links to Web sites that convert dollars to yen, show a map of Japan, and provide an economic perspective about the business of sushi making. There is also an explanation by the National Council on Economic Education of how supply and demand fits into academic standards.

Mission accomplished. The Middle East and the Far East will figure in Monday's lesson about supply and demand.

What is Marco Polo?

Marco Polo is a gatekeeper Web site and teacher-training program, provided at no cost to teachers or schools, whose goal is to show teachers how to use Internet resources in their daily instruction. WorldCom took on the technical end of the job and convinced the nation's acknowledged experts in the core subjects of elementary school and secondary school education to join in a partnership and write original lesson plans, review the links, and explain the national standards, which many of them helped write. About 300,000 people use the site each month.

Interested in making ancient Egypt a little more interesting for your sixth graders? Go to Marco Polo and click on Xpeditions, the site run in partnership with the National Geographic Society. Want to be better prepared for those prickly questions about Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn? The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) can help with its Marco Polo entry, EDSITEment.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Council on Economic Education, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics also have content information, standards information, and lesson plans for teachers on Marco Polo.

WorldCom sends out its own staff or representatives of the educational organizations to train educators, who in turn train local teachers to navigate Marco Polo in particular and the Web in general and to use the sites in their instruction.

Time Saving and Credible

Teachers know that the Internet can be a huge resource, but often they face two huge hurdles to taking advantage of it: They don't know whether information is credible, and so much data exists that it is impossible to winnow it to a manageable size.

As senior program manager for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Jillian Corr has encountered plenty of teachers skeptical about Marco Polo -- at first. "Where's the catch?" they ask. "What does WorldCom know about education?" But Corr and others say such skepticism typically disappears once they learn who is behind the subject matter.

Laura Hunter is director of content for the Utah Education Network, which has been lauded for its use of technology in education, especially in helping put computers in 99 percent of Utah classrooms and in showing teachers how to use that technology to educate students. She investigated Marco Polo when she heard a presentation at a conference, was sold on it, and made it a part of the UEN's Internet curricular offerings.

"These are people who write national curriculum standards,'' Hunter says of the partner organizations. "So the materials they write are highly credible." She is impressed with the quality of subject matter and innovative assignment proposals, and she also likes different sites for different reasons.

"Navigation on the science site is great," Hunter adds. "EDSITEment has some great lesson plans for high school humanities. Xpeditions is visually very engaging. And the new Illuminations math site has great little Java-based materials that kids can manipulate. It really bridges concrete and abstract computations in math."

Karen Krier, a content specialist with the UEN who shows teacher trainers how to use Marco Polo, says teachers want solid content, a clear page, and easy navigation. Marco Polo meets those requirements, she says. "If teachers can't find what they want in sixty seconds," Krier adds, "they're on to something else." There is no commercialization of the site, either, Krier notes, and WorldCom emphasizes that even on its discussion sites, teachers will not receive sales pitches or irrelevant postings.

President Bill Clinton, Secretary of Education Richard Riley, and WorldCom Foundation executive director Caleb Schutz introduce a teacher to the foundation’s Marco Polo professional-development Web site.

Credit: Todd Brekhus

The Business Angle

Marco Polo is an example of how businesses are responding to public schools' need for help in an era when few states or school districts provide adequate resources. Teachers don't always appreciate corporate help, because it often comes with too many strings, it lacks a strong research base, or it doesn't match a school's curriculum or academic goals.

But the WorldCom Foundation took care to provide a high-quality service teachers needed and to use its own expertise to its advantage.

Caleb Schutz, vice president and executive director of the foundation, says his own experience in part led to the content-rich program. "There had been a relentless two-decade push to get technology in the classroom, but what was overlooked was the parallel focus on what you do with it." There were way too many stories about computers being stored in the back of the classroom without being used, he said. "We really wanted to focus on content and what teachers need."

Bob Hirshon, project director for the AAAS, says Schutz approached him at the right time. "We were already working on a Web site for kids called Kinetic City, but we didn't have anything for teachers. They were looking to do something for teachers at the same time we were. We're content experts and they're connection and marketing experts, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity."

With a staff of thirteen and a budget of about $6 million a year targeted solely at the Marco Polo project, the foundation has received numerous accolades for moving teachers forward in using the Internet to the best advantage for their students. President Bill Clinton has praised the program for providing "unprecedented access to the kind of world-class educational materials that in the past only the wealthiest school districts could afford."

Company foundations are always looking for ways to give back to society, and education and technology are "naturals," Schutz says. The company, of course, benefits, too. Lawmakers and government officials both in the United States and abroad look not just to business practices but to a company's outside activities as well. If they have a part in approving a merger or expansion, they are going to be more impressed with strong indications the company has contributed to the betterment of the community or society.

Regarding Marco Polo in particular, Schutz says the partnership and name tie-in with such distinguished organizations as the AAAS, the NEH, and the others is very beneficial. "It's a seal of approval that we've been allowed to co-brand with an organization like that," Schutz says. "We're more than partners. We're more like family. Our staff and their staff work side-by-side to obtain the objectives. We have differences of opinion, but we're all at the table working through this."

If he has any advice for other businesses also wanting to start a project that actually helps, he says it is to realize that "you can't do everything. Think in terms of targeting and focusing on one issue that you think is important. If you don't have a real niche that fits within the company's own needs, you might need to start off by doing different programs and then narrowing them to those where you have most strength."

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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