There’s a myth out there that goes something like this: When it comes to technology, children need no teachers. Show them any high-tech gadget and they seem instinctively to know how it works, even if they’ve never seen it before. This instant familiarity has convinced many educators that, when the topic is computer instruction, we teachers should simply provide the hardware and get out of the way. But if we did that, our students would learn very little.
Like most myths, this one is grounded in reality, or it wouldn’t have taken root. There’s no question that kids are comfortable with new gizmos, including PCs, cell phones, and video games. Many adults see that fearlessness and take it for across-the-board technological fluency, but there’s a big difference between the two.
I got my first look at that gulf about three years ago, when I brought a class of 6th graders into the computer lab to research ancient Egypt. My group of instant-messaging Yahooligans rolled into the computer lab eagerly enough, but soon after they began working, they were begging for help. It became clear that many of these “digital natives” didn’t know the difference between Google’s search field and the browser’s URL bar, up where the “http” and “www” go.Rather than utilizing Google’s searching power, students were trying out shot-in-the-dark URLs such as “egypt.com.” The experience convinced me that mastery of “fun” technology doesn’t automatically translate into Internet competence.
Even when they know which text field to use for searches, untrained students often find themselves overloaded with information, only some of which is relevant. Teachers who want to help inexperienced Web researchers dispense with this haystack can simplify the search in a couple of different ways. They can preview suitable Web sites ahead of time, limiting students’ searches to those URLs. Or teachers might consider using a free webquest, such as those available on The Webquest Page (webquest.sdsu.edu). “King Tutankhamun: Was It Murder?” is one of the available guided-inquiry projects that help facilitate learning about history, science, math, and other subjects through role-playing and problem-solving. By focusing on this prepackaged information rather than trolling all over the Web, students spend their computer time learning, not hunting.
Older students may know how to type a Google query, but many don’t know how to use keywords and critical analysis to make their online time productive. My middle school daughter, for example, chose veterinarians as her topic for a career-research assignment. She quickly found general information about what vets do, but she was frustrated by her inability to locate certain details. With a little help, Abby learned to limit her searches by carefully choosing a few keywords. Once she had a manageable set of results, she read through the URLs. Paying attention to the suffixes each carried, she soon learned that .gov, .edu, and .org sites were often useful sources of authoritative, impartial information.
If the job of a teacher is to help students orient themselves to the world, then that responsibility has to include the world of computers. Proficiency on a video football game doesn’t make kids Web-savvy any more than it qualifies them for the NFL. Even though students dive right into technology, they still need to be taught how to swim.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as What We’re Here For