For years teachers have been organizing their curricula into chunks or sections called "units" — a collection of lessons, activities, books, filmstrips, manipulatives, bulletin boards, and other resources that support a specific topic. Enter the Information Age. Now we've added CD-ROMs, software packages, and the Internet to the growing media that constitute our educational units. All of these can be used to create "Web units," which are units of study that use the Internet as a tool for learning. Beyond adding Web sites, e-mail, and videoconferencing to the resources for a teaching unit, there is the notion that the Internet can be a major tool for the exploration of topics within a unit, rather than just a one-way street of incoming information. The Internet can even offer the total unit.

Level One (Using the Internet in an already established unit)

Let's say for example that you've been teaching a unit called "Weather" in your second-grade curriculum for several years. This year you decide to add an Internet component to the unit. You assign pairs of students to be "weather reporters." For the duration of the two-week-long unit, you use a bookmark on your Web browser (e.g., Netscape, Microsoft Explorer) that takes your rotating pair of daily weather reporters to a local weather page. Here they can research the day's forecast. Once they've found their information, the two reporters add the forecast to your morning news chart, to be shared with the class.

Level Two (Using a variety of Internet-based activities in your unit of study)

Your fifth-grade unit on the human body needs some spicing up, so you decide to turn to the Internet. You locate eight quality Web sites that match both the reading level of your students and the curricular objectives of the unit. You develop two or three activities from each Web site. Once typed up and organized, you can give your students a Web-based human-body activity guide. In teams of four, the students work on the activities from the guide. You serve as a monitor, facilitator, and lifeguard, while your students plunge into online learning. This activity guide is used in concert with, and in support of, your regular class lectures, explorations, and discussions. By doing the exercise in this way, you've added an enrichment component to your human body study that has, as a by-product, the rehearsal of online research skills and strategies.

Level Three (Including a major Web-based focus, with support from other media)

For your study of the Civil War in your seventh grade, you use the Internet almost exclusively. To start with, you've developed a collection of 20-25 Web sites that are grade-level appropriate and contain information applicable to your curriculum. You've also found an online expert who is willing to participate with your students in their inquiry-based study. On the first day of the unit, you tell the class to put their history books away. You begin an overview conversation about the Civil War, inviting students to plug in the information they already know about that period in history. Next, you invite students to develop questions they have about the war, the lifestyle of the people and their modes of transportation at that time, the military strategies, the political scene, or any questions they can think of that radiate from the central focus of the Civil War. Once your students have finished brainstorming, you should have a list of questions, or inquiries, that can drive your unit. As the study facilitator, your job is to make sure the students have the research skills they need. You begin by walking the class through the process for developing an appropriate and thorough questioning process to help guide your students' research. Then you give them the Internet resources they need, and you oversee the process through its completion. The information that your students find needs to be compared with the learning objectives to make sure all curricular objectives are met. The end result is a Web-based unit, is driven by inquiry, covers the learning objectives, and employs the online research skills students will need for the future.

Creating Web Units

No matter what level you're aiming for, the steps to create a quality Web unit are essentially the same:

  1. Start with your curriculum.
    Don't gravitate toward a Web-based activity or unit because you find a visually appealing site. Starting with curriculum first is the only defensible use of the Internet in your program. Focus on your topic and your learning objectives, and make your decisions about resources, time frames, and activities from that perspective.
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  3. Collect sites.
    This is the time-consuming part of the process, but important nevertheless. You could begin with the search engines, but why reinvent the wheel? Many of your favorite education sites (e.g., Kathy Schrock, Houghton Mifflin, Scholastic) already have collections of sites that you'll find useful. Back issues of Classroom Connect's Newsletter (www.classroom.com) will have helpful site reviews. You can also check out Instructor's online experts, videoconference opportunities, etc. If there is a possible online experience for your learners, investigate it and include it in your collection if you think it meets your curricular goals.

    E-Activities and Web Sitings sections.
    Remember, don't simply collect sites — collect e-mail addresses, names, experiences. But let's not get ahead of ourselves; better to start small and work our way up. Let's imagine a three-tiered approach to creating and implementing Web units. Using any of these can help you improve your curriculum units.

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  5. Create activities.
    If you're going to guide your learners through the Web sites you've collected by creating activities (as we describe in Level Two), then start simple. Examine sites one by one. When you look at the site, the activities should be readily apparent. For example, suppose you find a great site on the circulatory system in which your students will see a map of the human body. You may notice how much the body's circulatory system resembles a road map, and you may want students to create a mock traffic report, pretending to be helicopter reporters relaying the traffic-flow patterns and problems they see on the circulatory system's "roads." Your activity sheet might read something like this:
  6. Use the Life Pump page, found at (http://www.imcpl.org/kids_circ.htm), to create a mock traffic report for the circulatory system. Pretend to be a traffic reporter on the radio morning news. If you need an example, go to the Listening Center and listen to the tape made from the radio this morning. Report on the conditions in the circulatory system, just like the reporter does on the highway system. Make sure you

    • identify all the major arteries and intersections
    • demonstrate that you know how the blood flows through the body's circulatory system
    • demonstrate that you know what happens when the body's blood flow is interrupted
    • use at least five new words that you learned from the Web site
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  7. Step back.
    Once you've collected all of the Web sites you need and have created activities to go along with them, you'll want to step back and take an overview of the collection. Make sure that there is a joining thread among the sites and activities to ensure that they all connect to the unit topic. (When you're searching for sites and creating activities, it can be very easy to lose sight of the main objective. Doing this step allows you to double-check your curriculum objectives with the collection you have created.)
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  9. Implement.
    When you implement your unit, make sure that you allow for variations within the learning for students who require additional time, those who need less time, or for those students who need special assistance with resources or other needs.
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  11. Evaluate.
    When implementing a new teaching strategy, remember to evaluate the process used, the students' reactions to it, and the effect it has on the outcome of mastering the learning objectives. It is especially important to make sure that you "speak to" the needs of the multiple intelligences and learning styles within your student population. Using Web sites is great for visual learners, active readers, and students with other learning modalities. But you will also want to offer enough manipulation of the information on the Web sites to be sure that the other learning styles are actively involved in the learning process, too.

    What Can I Do With This Site?
    For teachers who create their own activities to go along with Web sites, the Internet becomes a more specialized tool. So how do you create useful activities from a Web site? You should first evaluate the site. When evaluating a site, consider these questions: What at the site catches your "teacher's eye"? Is it full of information your students will need? Does it motivate your students or does it repeat information they already know? Does the site provide information that asks your students to apply some process of thought or action?

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    • Information Activities: When you look at the Web site, does it have important information for your students? Does it repeat information you've presented before? Does it provide challenging information for your students? If you believe you've found a helpful and data-rich site, ask your students to collect and manipulate that site's information in a graphic organizer. Graphic organizers are invaluable tools when students collect, and manipulate data from a Web site.
    • Reaction Activities: When you look at the Web site in question, is there something your students might react to? If the site holds something that creates a reaction, then let that make its own activity. Using a graphic organizer, ask your students to organize their reactions; or have them use a quote, a picture, or another aspect as a journal or a debate starter.
    • Processing Activities: When you look at a Web site, can you use it as a jumping-off point for a thought process or a production process? When combined with your curriculum's content, does it lead to a process that will make the content more meaningful or memorable for your students? The point here is to apply the information on the site to a process or a product.
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    As you're incorporating the Internet into your curriculum, try to remember to play around a bit with the idea of creating Web-based units. If you're feeling a bit intimidated, take it one step at a time, and explore a little before committing to the idea. If you're feeling brave, then grab your mouse in one hand and your benchmarks in the other, and go forth!

    Some Helpful Hints
    Here are a few tips to keep in mind when creating your Web Units!

    1. Give younger students the specific page you want them to use. Don't send them to the whole Human Body Web site; instead, send them to a specific page within that site. This way, you'll keep them on task.
    2. Make sure you're evaluating sites for readability levels. One of the toughest things to remember is finding sites that fit our students' reading levels. Stick to your guns here and only accept sites into your collections if the reading level is right for your students!
    3. When deciding to do a Web unit, make sure it's a topic that lends itself to Web work. Given the option of doing a Web unit on either endangered species or shoe styles of Eastern Europe in the 1700s, opt for the one that is more likely to have plenty of Web sites.
    4. If you're feeling up to it, try turning your Web-based activity guide into a Web site of your own! It can be as easy as taking a specialized bookmark list and annotating it with your activity directions (using the "Bookmark Edit" option). Then try turning that document into a locally stored Web site of its own. And don't forget to bookmark it!