The Internet Isn't a Threat to Students ... It's a Tool for Teachers

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Inevitably, new technologies stimulate images of calamity. Many fear an out-of-control, antisocial technology that proceeds inexorably and autonomously down deleterious pathways. But technology is not autonomous. It is created by humans and subject to all the competing forces of a complex civilization. Nowhere is this more true than in schools.

In the case of the Internet, commentators often dwell on hypothetical possibilities of bizarre uses without examining what is actually happening in thousands of classrooms where the Internet is being used as a controlled resource by teachers. The overwhelming testimony of these teachers is that the Internet will be the premier tool for enhancement of teaching and learning in the 21st century.

When questioning whether the Internet is developmentally correct for children--whether it inappropriately substitutes "virtual" for real experience, whether it promotes "information overload," and whether it transmits unreliable and distorted presentations--we should remember that it is not Orwell's Big Brother who will be in charge of the classroom, but a professionally trained teacher.

Internet paraphernalia are more pervasive in schools today than understanding about the medium's educational potential. This imbalance should lead to calls for more ambitious teacher-professional-development programs, not to pronouncements that we all be wary of technology running amok.

While systematic, long-range studies of the Internet's impact on student learning are rare, classroom experience with this technology is not. We can therefore receive guidance from the seasoned teachers who have used Internet technology. Even without statistics-laden reports, a wealth of information is at hand in self-studies, peer reviews, and observations of Internet use by experts that can help us judge its potential.

The National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, state education authorities, local school systems, and public and private foundations and corporations have supported scores of pilot projects, and there are tens of thousands of early users of the Internet in America's K-12 schools. With NSF funding, the Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education has been implementing a large-scale Internet-in-education project throughout New Jersey since 1994. The center has conducted workshops for more than 3,000 teachers from over 700 schools, and the project has involved school administrators as well as an evaluation team from the Educational Testing Service.

We have found that teacher preparation for using the Internet in the classroom should extend beyond the merely technical functions, such as use of a browser, e-mail, and Web-site creation. The biggest impact of this medium will be for educational uses that cannot be duplicated through any other means. These include accessing real-time data from instruments distributed worldwide, such as ocean-temperature sensors or images from the Hubble spacecraft. Other sources of real-time data originate via student-to-student collaboration in which observations from widely varying locations are shared. For example, students measure the boiling points of water at sea level in Florida and compare the data with results obtained from the "mile high" city of Denver. Other real-time interactions include consultations with experts and on-line mentoring.

Teachers who have become proficient in the technical aspects of the Internet and who have also strategically integrated this technology into their lesson plans respond with great enthusiasm, as evidenced in our surveys. Cornelia Rogers, an 8th grade teacher at an urban school in Jersey City, described students involved in Internet collaborative projects as approaching learning with a different attitude: "They come in eager to get started, they stay on task, there are fewer behavior problems, and their persistence is much greater than in more traditional lessons." Added Fran Kenny, an 8th grade teacher in North Arlington: "Using computers, especially the Internet, definitely affects student motivation, and once students are motivated, they learn more."

When Ms. Rogers' students were engaged in a comparative study of pond water with students in South Africa, Japan, and England, she noted that "I had a problem I never had before--they were writing too much!" And because her students knew that students from other countries would be reading their words, she said, they seemed to want to communicate more extensively, and were much more careful about grammar and spelling.

Here is middle school science teacher Barbara DeBenedictis discussing the impact of Internet resources: "Making use of real-time data and collaborative projects, my students are not just science students--they're scientists. They can access data--the same data that scientists all over the world are using. They then have the job of making sense of the data--calculating, comparing, analyzing, inferring--really honing their critical-thinking skills. One student told me that he never knew math could be so much fun. That's the bottom line: The Internet makes learning real and gives our classroom activities meaning."

The biggest impact of this medium will be for educational uses that cannot be duplicated through any other means.

Comments like these from teachers who have participated in professional-development programs for Internet use in classroom instruction are not unusual. What should be clear is that we are not talking about technology in isolation, but in the context of trained teachers, supportive school environments, curricula that seek to meet high standards, and an appreciation for pedagogy that encourages student creativity.

When the center's work with thousands of K-12 teachers was reviewed after four years, our ETS evaluator reported 15 conjectures about Internet use that could be drawn from the responses of project participants in the areas of student motivation, cognitive outcomes, behavioral outcomes, and nonmotivational affective outcomes. What is most striking about these conjectures is that all 15 are positive.

Teachers believe, for example, that students do learn to evaluate information they access from the Internet. They do not assume that the students will be overwhelmed with excessive amounts of incomprehensible and sometimes incorrect or misleading information. These teachers are proactive; they are not sitting back and inviting anarchy. Rather, they are informing their students about useful information-retrieval strategies.

Neither do the teachers view the Internet's interactive real-time, real-world nature as a "virtual experience" that could u*ndermine a child's need for hands-on activities. It is seen, instead, as a more dynamic medium than static textbooks. Students engaged in projects such as the pond-water or boiling-point-of-water studies make real-world, direct measurements and then share their data with others around the globe. The Internet use makes the hands-on experience more compelling and meaningful because it is not an idle exercise: It is an activity shared with peers and scientists.

Talented teachers also do not view the vast amounts of information available on the World Wide Web as a source of potential confusion for children. They see it as a resource teachers can mold into opportunities for independent learning and exploration. The possibility that students might be duped by false or misleading information is lessened, teachers say, when they are able to engage the students in collaborative learning and consultation with experts, which promote validation and authentication of Web statements.

The concern that Web materials and experiences could be developmentally inappropriate for students is hard to sustain in contexts where teachers with an appreciation for their students' intellectual and emotional development are mediating student use of Internet resources.

A clear distinction needs to be made between random and unsupervised use of the Internet--either at home or in the classroom--and use that takes place as part of a thoughtful lesson plan. When use is orchestrated by technologically experienced and savvy teachers, the potential dangers of the Internet become, in fact, its great advantages: as a mechanism for introducing the vitality and dynamics of the real world into classroom learning; as a venue for independent learning and exploration; as a source of information from valuable reference archives as well as from experts; and as an interactive medium that matches a student's learning style while nurturing cognitive development.

Anticipation of these results does not arise from blind faith in technology, but from the reported experience and aspirations of thousands of teachers. They see the Internet not as a panacea, but as a tool that can help them accomplish their goals. Simply having the technology will not turn such an optimistic vision of the future into reality. Nor will teachers' growing facility at manipulating the technology. Real Internet-based improvement in education will result only from creative curriculum development, pursuit of higher standards, flexible and sensitive management of school environments, and training programs that bring the artful application of these new tools into the repertoire of all educators.

Vol. 18, Issue 4, Pages 33-34

Published in Print: September 30, 1998, as The Internet Isn't a Threat to Students ... It's a Tool for Teachers
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