July/August 2000 // Spotlight Site
by Stephen Downes
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Stephen Downes "MarcoPolo" The Technology Source, July/August 2000. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

A luxurious Web site rich in detail and imagination, MCI Worldcom's MarcoPolo illustrates the potential of the Internet in the classroom and at the same time highlights problems with corporate-sponsored content.

MarcoPolo is a compilation of teaching resources from six well-known and respected educational and cultural institutions that provide free Internet content for K-12 education. Supplementing this core content is a useful Teachers' Guide, a twice-yearly Educator Update newsletter, and information on grant programs and Internet content for the classroom.

To get a clear understanding of the scope of materials offered through MarcoPolo, go to the "Explore MarcoPolo" box, choose "Tour," and click on each of the partner institutions' logos. To browse through information and screen-shots from each institutional site, click on the intuitive "Next" button in the pop-up window.

The six partners and their online offerings are as follows:

  • the American Association for the Advancement of Science: Science NetLinks, a library of reviewed Web sites and lessons in the sciences;
  • the National Council on Economic Education: EconEdLink, a collection of links and lesson plans in economics;
  • the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics: Illuminations, a set of animations, lesson plans, and resources in mathematics;
  • the National Endowment for the Humanities/Council of the Great City Schools: EDSITEment, a collection of online resources for teaching English, history, art history, and languages;
  • the National Geographic Society: Xpeditions, a compilation of maps, articles, lesson plans, and other resources for geography teachers;
  • The Kennedy Center: ArtsEdge, forthcoming, will provide content related to the arts.

What the six partners have in common, and what makes this site an important and interesting development in online learning, is an adherence to national curriculum and evaluation standards in the subject areas. Material is categorized by grade level, and learning materials are matched to individual learning topics.

For example, from the MarcoPolo homepage, click on "Mathematics" in the "Contents" box. When the Illuminations page loads, click on the "Internet-based Lesson Plans" button. A list of content lessons, organized by grade level, will appear. Each lesson page includes three sections: first, an overview of how long activities associated with the lesson take, what materials are needed for them, and how to access online sources that offer support for the lesson; second, lesson plans that include information on how to execute, assess, and have students reflect on the activities; and third, handouts and other resources for instructors. Notice that, at the end of the overview, Illuminations provides NCTM standards for the subject areas covered by the lesson.

MarcoPolo offers a structured repository of educational materials for all subjects and all grades in the U.S. educational curriculum. Although teachers in other nations may not find this organization useful, even they will appreciate the ease with which visitors can locate classroom materials on the site.

Perhaps the navigation is too easy. MarcoPolo is in essence a commercial Web site; the MCI Worldcom logo seems ubiquitous. Some of the member institutions, such as the National Geographic Society or the Kennedy Center, may have things to sell teachers and schoolchildren as well. Moreover, one wonders about the implications of corporate-sponsored educational content. Some teachers may be troubled with resources such as the "Big Mac Index," displayed as part of the EconEdLink tour. And much of the content, such as EconEdLink's "You Paid How Much for That Ticket?" points to commercial sites such as Encyclopedia Britannica or the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Even if questions of commercialization are left aside, one must wonder whether corporate content presents a balanced view of the resources in any given subject area.

Whether sites like MarcoPolo come to dominate the K-12 classroom experience will ultimately be decided by teachers working in those classrooms; for the rest of us, the site exemplifies a strong and coherent organization of a rich set of educational resources. MarcoPolo has set the standard for online providers of K-12 content.

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