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On-Line Access Appears To Benefit Student Projects, Study Finds

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On-line resources can help elementary and middle school students produce better work than that of students who have access only to computers, a study released last week concludes.

The study used a team of outside educators to evaluate research projects produced by 4th and 6th graders in seven U.S. cities.

Education experts said it should be viewed as a cautious endorsement of on-line learning.

The research was sponsored by Scholastic Inc., the New York City-based children's publishing company that provides an on-line educational service used in the study, and the Council of the Great City Schools. The Center for Applied Special Technology, a nonprofit research group in Peabody, Mass., conducted the study.

The researchers studied 500 students in 28 urban elementary and middle school classes in January and February. School officials in the seven cities--Chicago; Dayton, Ohio; Detroit; Memphis, Tenn.; Miami; Oakland, Calif.; and Washington--were asked to select pairs of similar 4th or 6th grade classrooms in each school.

Each class then began a project on the U.S. civil rights movement, using books and other printed materials, computer databases, and CD-ROM encyclopedias.

One class from each pair also had access to an on-line educational service and the Internet. The service was Scholastic Network, a division of Scholastic Inc.

After the two months, a team of outside educators evaluated the students' projects. They rated the projects from the students who went on-line better at synthesizing different points of view, stating an issue, presenting a full picture, and presenting information and ideas. The on-line students' projects were also judged more complete than those of their peers in the control groups.

In addition, the on-line students' work was deemed slightly better in four other categories, but the differences were not statistically significant.

Researchers from the applied-technology center said the study was the most rigorous yet on the value of on-line technology in classrooms.

The on-line classes and the control groups had a similar mix of students and technology, they said. And except for a one-hour training session for the on-line teachers, all classes received the same curriculum materials and support.

Methods Questioned

But one prominent education researcher, while praising the method of measuring student achievement, faulted the method of assigning teachers to the on-line classes.

Henry Jay Becker, an associate professor of education at the University of California at Irvine, said teacher assignment should have been random. Instead, principals chose from among teachers who volunteered to use on-line resources, the study's researchers said.

More highly skilled teachers may have been more likely to volunteer, Mr. Becker said, which may have skewed the results.

Sari Follansbee, the director of the study, said it was a "very focused look" that will provide a baseline for future research.

One teacher in the study, Darrian Zaslowe, who used on-line resources with her 4th graders at Murch Elementary School in Washington, said the on-line tools "encouraged them to look at a lot of different sources" and led to livelier writing.

But she also raised another methodological concern. Her students, she said, were motivated to work hard by the knowledge that they were in a study.

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