A Baker’s Dozen of Reasons Why Schools Should Have Internet Access
In its current incarnation, the “Information Superhighway” is hard to use and expensive to bring into classrooms. It contains materials which no teacher or parent in her right mind wants children to read - a condition which is pretty much fine with the current propeller-heads, researchers, and business folk who use the Internet and are not overjoyed at the prospect of children traipsing over what had been their private cyberspace.
Yet over the past two years, several public school districts around the country, mine among them, have invested a great deal of scarce human and financial resources in computer networks and Internet access. As both an educator and parent of a third-grader, I am offering 13 reasons why it is imperative to overcome the obstacles just mentioned, and find ways to give our schools Internet access - now.
1. The Internet can make schools interesting and relevant for students.
I recently showed an award winning debate team some of the resources on the Internet. “This’ll really wow them,” I thought! The response of these bright young people? Polite yawns. ‘You see, Mr. Johnson, we’ve had access for two years using the account of one of our parents who works at the university.”
Too many of our children find our schools have little to offer them. Those children have few options: drop out of school and get an education in the “real world,” or find other educational resources which meet their needs. The Internet brings “real-life” skills and resources to schools.
2. Our children will need to be able to use the Internet as informed citizens.
Regardless of whether one regards the government as the problem or the solution, access to it and the information it generates is vital if a citizen is to fully participate in the democratic process.
Government at all levels is moving toward doing business electronically. In cities around the country one can apply for a building permit or buy a dog license electronically. Our local city of and county offices now have Internet connections. The Minnesota House of Representatives has its own information“gopher.” Current gubernatorial candidates and U.S. Senators and Representatives have e-mail addresses. Supreme Court decisions, presidential press releases, and federal legislation can all be found on the Internet.
The private news sector as well is increasingly communicating on-line. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has announced that its electronic edition will offer over three times the depth of coverage of its print edition. Internet users find their most timely information in electronic journals. Want a back issue of a magazine? No need to travel to a research library since full-text magazine articles are on the Internet. Increasingly, information will be available only in electronic format.
Children need to have good information in order to have a say in how their society is run. That will be impossible without electronic information skills and access.
3. Internet skills will be increasingly demanded by businesses.
Fortune Magazine recently wrote, “the Internet is the biggest and earliest manifestation of the way business is going to be conducted from now on.” Commercial accounts are now the fastest growing segment of the network. Dayton-Hudson’s and WalMart’s use of computer networks to track inventory and consumer demand has resulted in increased profits. Just as businesses that do not effectively use telecommunications will not survive in tomorrow’s economy, our children who do not have telecommunication skills will not survive in tomorrow’s businesses.
4. Internet skills are imperative to post-secondary academic success.
Universities have long used the Internet, and access for students is now a given at most of them. My daughter at the University of Minnesota was given an account as a freshman. She has used the Internet to access scholarly journals, research library catalogs and extensive databases, many of which are available only on-line.
School districts with ambitious networking plans will be producing high school graduates capable of doing sophisticated electronic research. When my daughter started college three years ago, she needed word processing skills to effectively compete academically. When my son gets there, he will also need to be able to locate and process Internet information to keep up.
5. Electronic networks will improve support services to our students. A corollary is that parents will have better access to their children’s teachers if they have Internet access on their desks.
A popular saying is “it takes the whole village to educate the child.” This concept is growing in our community. Many community organizations offer services which help our children, among them social services, the public library, the juvenile justice system, and the YMCA. Most now have Internet access and can use it for quick, accurate communication with the schools.
With the Internet, it doesn’t matter much if the parent’s home service is CompuServe, America On-Line, or any other commercial service. The mail will flow.
6. Networking will eventually save schools costs in paper, storage, secretarial time, physical mail delivery, long distance phone bills etc. in-district communication will improve.
This won’t happen if only half the district is networked, and it won’t happen right away. But if business are buying into networking, you can bet it’s not because it adds to operating costs!
Information in hierarchical organizations tends to flow only one way - down. Networks tend to flatten out communication patterns. Information from teachers, principals, parents, and even students can help district administrators make better decisions. The benchmark for the success of the networks will be when a second grader e-mails the superintendent a school improvement suggestion.
7. Internet use will help improve reading, writing, and higher level thinking skills.
Al Rogers, a pioneer of early telecomputing projects, observes that children enjoy writing more and are more careful when they write for electronic publication. Like all forms of technology, the Internet can be a wonderful resource for helping teachers create activities which include the purposeful use of current information; activities that go well beyond the simple memorization of fact.
Business community surveys have shown a demand for future workers -from executives to mail clerks - who are able to apply knowledge to new situations and become creative problem solvers. “Basic” skills now include the ability to find, evaluate, and use information - and information is increasingly accessible on the Internet.
Our schools must give students practice solving the kinds of problems they’ll find at work using the kinds of resources they’ll have as adults. Try to remember the last time you used a textbook or lecture to get problem-solving information. Students need practice using real-life tools like the Internet.
8. The Internet will give students chances to work with people from other cultures and countries.
Tom Peters writes, “Every $2 million firm, in service or manufacturing, has international potential” and suggests that major companies not doing at least 25% of their business overseas are avoiding today’s realities. Many of our local companies do an international business. School Internet activities including keypals and joint problem solving between international classrooms will give our students early and varied experiences working with people who have far different cultures and beliefs - the same folks they’ll be working with in an international economy.
One Minnesota teacher has been actively working to get computers to schools in Russia. He feels that the best means of maintaining peaceful relations with that politically unstable giant is by establishing on-going dialogs between his students and their Russian counterparts via the Internet.
9. Students will have better informed teachers.
Lesson plans, curriculum guides, newsletters, and on-going professional discussions on the Internet keep educators informed about the latest theories as well offering “field-tested” techniques.The problem solving atmosphere of the Internet is like being at a professional conference all year long.
10. Students will have better job opportunities living in a community that is attractive to new business and industry.
Rivers and railroads of past centuries determined whether communities prospered or died. Electronic highways and an educated population which knows how to navigate them will play an increasingly important role when a business decides where to locate (or whether to relocate).
11. Internet activities will give students guidance and practice using good judgment in selecting electronic resources.
Schools owe it to their children to give them guidance in the self-censorship of materials, the evaluation of resources, and the ethical use of telecommunications. The Internet is a vast, unregulated set of resources which is used primarily by adults. There are materials which can be found on the Internet which are not appropriate for children, and information which is inaccurate. But just as we would not teach bicycle safety by denying our children bicycles, neither should we teach responsible use of information technology by denying children access to it. The world is becoming an ever more difficult and confusing place in which to travel. Youth need an ethical compass and practice using it.
12. We need to instill in our students an “active” rather than “passive” use of the so called Information Superhighway.
Some theorists believe that the Internet will become a TV on steroids. Kids right now need a chance to use and produce information, not just passively absorb it. The Internet is a perfect new medium on which to make this a practice.
13. On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.
Or a jock or gay or handicapped or that your mom has a rep or what kind of car you drive etc. For many children, the Internet will be a place where they can contribute and be judged on the quality of their thoughts and communication skills alone.