How Worldwide Is the Web?

Bertram Bruce
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
United States




This column is reprinted from the Technology department of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (JAAL). It contains the following sections:




Author's Message

I once participated in a seminar about the implications of the new communication and information technologies for education around the world. The discussion began with some of the "gee whiz!" aspects of the World Wide Web. People shared descriptions of resources they had found on the Web as well as some of the statistics about how large it had become and how fast it was growing.

We talked about finding things such as the National Parks of Malaysia; the complete works of William Shakespeare; a directory listing international broadcasters present on the Internet; cameras in public settings such as zoos, which anyone can control from a desktop computer; museums, such as the Exploratorium in San Francisco, with interactive exhibits online; photographs taken by the space shuttle; art galleries; information about Carnevale in Venice; and interactive adventure stories you can write collaboratively. We also discussed finding courses in every subject imaginable, countless individuals, schools, companies, and offbeat sites of all sorts. Some participants shared their experiences with research -- needing to find an address, an article, a quotation, or whatever, they learned that the Web was an invaluable tool.

Somewhere, in the midst of this conversation, I made the offhand comment that there was nothing that you could not find on the Web. Daisy Webster, a graduate student in this group, quickly said, "Well, you can't find my grandmother in Kenya!" This was a good challenge. Her grandmother didn't use computers and, for all I knew, was among the many people in the world who don't have telephones or electricity.

We decided to search to see what we could find. Using a Web search engine, we asked for a list of all the Web sites that included both "grandmother" and "Kenya." The Issue section this month explores the implications of what we found. Other sections examine other aspects of the worldwide in World Wide Web.

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Issue of the Month: My Grandmother in Kenya

When Daisy and I searched the Web to locate her grandmother in Kenya, we found 4,815 sites. There were sites about travel in Kenya, about political events, about the plants and animals of East Africa. We found fiction, nonfiction, poetry, maps, and pictures. There was far more about Kenya than either of us expected to find.

Along the way, we were diverted to intriguing side paths. There was one site about the chain from early hominids to humans. It was a sort of thought experiment in which we were asked to imagine the first upright hominid mother holding hands with her daughter, then her daughter linking with her daughter, and so on, up to the present day. This chain would extend only 300 miles, from the ocean to the rift valley of Kenya. The site creates a beautiful metaphor about connections in nature and the marvel of evolution.

As we proceeded, we both learned new things about Kenya. And we found Kenyan grandmothers. There were stories about grandmothers and stories by grandmothers; there were pictures of grandmothers. There were even grandmothers from families known to Daisy. But we could not find her grandmother.

We also noticed something else. Of the 4,815 sites, only 7 had the domain .ke for Kenya. Many of the sites were commercial, such as European or North American travel agencies promoting tours to Kenya. Most of the sites were from the U.S. or the U.K. Four of the 7 Kenyan sites were maintained by an Internet newspaper, the Daily Nation at www.africaonline.co.ke, and even that site seems now to be maintained in the general .com domain www.nationaudio.com/News/DailyNation/Today/.

The Daily Nation contains many articles and pictures about Kenya, which enlarged my understanding of current events there. For example, looking at the September 14, 1998, issue, I saw an article entitled "New plans to boost adult literacy" by Kariuki Waihenya, which began as follows:

This article in turn led me to others. I read about organizations providing food, medical care, and education; I read fiction; I viewed pictures; I began to learn at least a little about another people and place.

This kind of experience should be familiar to Web users. In fact, one of the glories as well as frustrations of using the Web is that it's very easy to find all kinds of things, but not necessarily what you wanted to find in the first place. However, this example tells us more than just that the Web is a large and disjointed repository of information. In fact, I would like to draw out at least four important lessons.

First, the Web contains immense amounts of material about almost any subject you can name. It is relatively easy to immerse yourself in learning about a topic you could barely name before. You can discover things about another country through rich materials available in only a specialized or very large print library. What is more, the Web materials have a currency and vitality because they are created by all types of people and sometimes change daily in response to events and to other Web sites. There is at least the promise that this richness can support global understanding and, at the very least, provide useful information about other countries, languages, and people.

Second, the knowledge encoded in the Web leads to serendipitous learning. There is no list of end-of-chapter questions with the accompanying certainty that the chapter contains the answers. Instead, there are endless answers, but to questions you never thought of asking. The Web encourages us to question our questions, to think about what we are trying to learn and why. Some might accept that as a reasonable formulation of the essence of learning, but it doesn't fit with some of the structures commonly employed in formal schooling.

Third, there is a need to critically examine the Web's bounty of knowledge. True, there is an amazing amount available on a topic such as grandmothers in Kenya, but there is also much missing. We found only 7 sites out of 4,815 that had the .ke domain. Even if many of the other sites were authored and maintained by Kenyans, this imbalance is one indication that the story of Kenya is told on the Web by people who are not themselves from Kenya. How would the representation of Kenya differ if Daisy's grandmother were telling the story? Moreover, many of the sites, regardless of the nationality of their authors, are commercial sites, designed to sell some product. The travel agency photographs, for example, do make me want to visit Kenya, but I need to remember that they tell only one aspect of what Kenya is today.

Fourth, these points and the investigation of the grandmothers in Kenya sites remind me that the Web today is still far from worldwide. Its users include perhaps 3% of the world's population, and most of those are concentrated in the wealthy countries and among the highly educated and wealthiest in those places. As the Web expands and as more voices enter this global conversation it will be fascinating to see how it changes. Will English continue to be the dominant language? Will we see more divergent perspectives on political and cultural debates? What will Daisy's grandmother have to say if she can tell her own story about Kenya?

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Data View

InfoNation is one of several "Resource Sources" at the United Nations CyberSchoolBus site (www.un.org/Pubs/CyberSchoolBus/). It's an easy-to-use, two-step database that allows you to view and compare up-to-date statistical data for members of the United Nations. First, you select up to seven countries, using either a list or a world map. Then, you select statistics, and the site returns a table based on data from the UN publications World Statistics Pocketbook and Statistical Yearbook. What I like is that a very simple design based on a rich set of data results in a practical tool that can be used by literacy researchers, teachers, and students for a wide variety of tasks. One of the tables, for example, suggests many interesting ways to investigate questions such as "Is newspaper reading a valid indicator of literacy?" "Are developed countries investing more in education?" and "How does income relate to literacy?"

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Literacy Web Page of the Month

Literacy Web Australia: A valuable resource for schools and literacy educators by Neil Anderson (Queensland University of Technology, Centre for Cognitive Processes in Learning, School of Learning and Development, Brisbane, www.schools.ash.org.au/litweb).

This Internet site was created with the express purpose of providing teachers and researchers in the literacy field with practical case studies of teachers implementing the latest ideas and pedagogies in literacy education. Many of these teachers also use technology to enhance their work. The use of new technologies in classrooms is a secondary theme of this Web site. Many of these teachers are also concerned with equity issues and how these factors have an impact on outcomes for students -- this provides another important secondary theme. Australia has a long history of schemes to assist students who are disadvantaged in schools, and initial funding for Literacy Web Australia came from one of these schemes. More details on Australian equity schemes can be found on the Web site.

The Web site has three distinct sections: (a) the cases, (b) a set of hyperlinks to relevant sites, and (c) a library of recently written articles by literacy researchers. This third section includes recent, often yet-to-be-published articles by leading Australian and international researchers in literacy and technology fields. Accordingly, users of Literacy Web Australia will be able to access papers that discuss or develop new theoretical and pedagogical trends in the literacy and technology education arenas, often before these ideas appear anywhere else.

The case study section will expand rapidly over the coming months but already includes sections on improving communication skills of children with disabilities through the use of technology, creating a multimedia history of a school, using peer mentoring to improve reading, and using the latest technology to improve the literacy outcomes of infant students. It also looks at the types of language used by teachers to effectively teach the new digital literacy skills.

Literacy links includes hyperlinks to library search engines and other Australian and international literacy Internet sites.

The Articles section will be expanding constantly to include the work of leading Australian and international researchers.

The site is stored on an Australian server at www.schools.ash.org.au/litweb or can be accessed from a U.S. server at www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/3605.

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Glossary

Domain name: Each host computer in the Domain Name System has a name consisting of a sequence of names, separated by dots, such as www.reading.org; each such name corresponds to a unique numeric IP (Internet Protocol) address; this name allows computers using the World Wide Web to connect to the appropriate Web page.
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Domain name server: A computer that accesses the Domain Name System in order to determine the correspondence between a domain name and an IP address.
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Domain Name System (DNS): The online distributed database system that is used to map human-readable addresses into IP addresses.
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Internet Protocol (IP): A system of conventions that allows computers connected to the Internet to exchange data with one another regardless of the manufacturer, the operating system, or location.

Internet Protocol Address: A computer address in the form of four numbers, each one between 0 and 255, separated by dots. The Internet uses the numeric IP address to send data. For example, you may connect to a World Wide Web server with the domain name www.reading.org, but to the network you are connecting to the Web server with the IP address 207.97.47.101.

Note: There is a comprehensive online glossary of telecommunications terms maintained by The Institute for Telecommunication Sciences of the U.S. Department of Commerce at glossary.its.bldrdoc.gov/fs-1037/.

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Reading Online, www.readingonline.org
Posted March 1999
Published February 1999 in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy
© 1998-2000 International Reading Association, Inc. ISSN 1096-1232