Technology 101: The Internet-Connected Computer
Many of the activities highlighted in GLEF's video segments are Web-based projects, so let's start at the beginning. To participate in a Web-based project like Journey North, you have to have access to at least one Internet-capable computer, preferably in your classroom. Now, this may sound a tad simplistic, but when we talk about an Internet-capable computer, there are a few things you need to know.
What follows is a list of tips to help you be better informed as you choose a computer that will allow you and your students to participate fully in projects such as Journey North. It is not intended to be restrictive or be construed as gospel; it is painted with a broad brush on purpose. Be sure to talk to your colleagues who are technology users in their professional or personal lives about what they know and ask them how they can help you become a more effective computer user.
Get a Current Computer
Computer technology is changing all the time. Computers get faster and more capable every day. So, though few teachers expect or need to get a new computer every year, it is still important that your classroom machines are relatively current, especially if you are going to make Web-based projects such as Journey North part of your curriculum. This is not simply a case of us all wanting the latest model -- it is the capabilities rather than the glitz we are concerned with.
All Computers Need an Operating System
In terms of capabilities, we have to start with the foundation of a computer: its operating system, or OS. The OS is analogous to your body's heart; it is what gets it up and running. Without one, you simply have a pile of parts. After you start a computer up, it looks as if it is just sitting there, but in fact the OS is running, and it is this foundational set of programs makes the computer ready to do your bidding.
Different Operating Systems Are, Well, Different
Windows XP is the current operating system on a PC (with Vista on the horizon), while a current Apple computer will be running Apple's OSX. (Linux is another OS, but because it is being developed in a more open and noncommercial way than the others, it lacks a commercial sales force and so is less apt to be present in a school setting.) These current OSes "expect" and "want" to connect to networks for both your purposes and their own, so they definitely make the experience easier for the computer user, and in a school setting this tends to translate into fewer calls for tech support.
Different OSes have different capabilities and tools built in, so pay attention as you make a decision about which to acquire. Apple's iTool suite, which includes iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes, and iDVD, is built in, interconnected, and powerful. Windows XP, meanwhile, provides MovieMaker, as well as the requisite applications to run your machine's CD and DVD drives.
If You Want to Cruise the Internet, You Need a Vehicle
In our highly networked world, in which we are preparing our students to be successful, the next most critical component of your classroom computer is the Web browser. It is the vehicle you and your students will use to travel the information superhighway. All computers sold today ship with a Web browser installed. Though it's not an actual part of the OS, it is so integral to how a current computer operates that it might as well be.
Current Web browsers include Firefox, Internet Explorer, Netscape, and Safari, among others. Computers that run Microsoft's Windows XP understandably ship with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, while Apple puts its own browser, Safari, on its Mac OSX computers. We all come to have a favorite Web browser, but don't hesitate to have more than one installed on your computer. They vary enough in features and capabilities that it may help to think of this situation as like having a sedan and a pickup truck parked in your garage: Sometimes you need the truck, and sometimes you prefer the car.
You Will Want Your Web Browser to Do More
Another set of tools we all need to understand are the Web browser's plug-ins, which extend its capabilities in specific ways. Some common plug-ins are Flash Player, QuickTime Player, Adobe's Acrobat Reader, Shockwave, and Windows Media Player. Continuing the vehicle analogy, plug-ins remind me of the features we look for when we purchase a car. From cup holders to CD players, we all look for different specifics to allow us to use the vehicle the way we want. When your Web browser goes to a Web page with content that requires one of these plug-ins, current OS-based machines pretty much handle it on their own. If they're not already equipped, however, they will inform you that you need a specific plug-in and ask you whether you want to go get it.
If you are visiting reputable sites, such as the National Geographic Society's educational resources, or Utah State University's National Library of Virtual Manipulatives, that require a plug-in, you can trust the site. Simply follow the directions, and allow the computer to access the plug-in and install it. Some plug-ins may require you to restart your computer before it can be used.
If you find that you lack the administrative authority to install plug-ins, speak to your local technical-support folks and request support, and, if possible, the ability to update your classroom computer independently. Because so much of the powerful interactive content coming to the Web requires plug-ins, do not allow a message that says you "lack the required authority" to install be a stopper. Ask for help from your building or school district tech support. Trust me -- the extended capabilities will be worth it.
Your Computer and the Internet Are One
A computer running one of the current OSes sees the Internet as an extension of itself. Even when you are not running your Web browser, the computer is taking advantage of the Internet. Import music from a CD you own into your digital music application, and that program will head out to the Internet to get all the information, such as CD name, song titles, and artist names, it needs to fully display the content. Your digital photography application may want to go to the Internet to allow you to purchase prints of your pictures, and all your applications will use the Internet to check for and access updates as those become available.
Leverage Form and Function
Many teachers are finding that rather than relying on a desktop computer as their primary classroom machine, a laptop makes a lot more sense. With a laptop, it becomes much easier to bring a digital projector into the classroom and project Web pages and other resources onto the big screen. (See the Spiral Notebook posting, "The Power of the Big Screen: The Digital Projector Makes Instructional Materials Larger Than Life," to learn more about large-screen projection.) That's not an easy thing to do if the computer is anchored to a spot on your desk. And don't think that a laptop, because of its small size and portability, is less of a computer. You will find it is just as capable and full of features as its larger cousin, the desktop.
Back Where We Began
So, computer at the ready, you are now ready to participate in a Web-based project! Have fun, and let me know how it goes. For some ideas on where to start, read part two of this series, "The Internet-Connected Computer: It's How You Use It That Counts."