Why Minnesota Students Need Access to the Internet
text of talk given at TIES meeting, 1994
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 state, Mankato 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 3 reasons why it is imperative to overcome the obstacles just mentioned, and give our children Internet access - now.
1. Our children will need to be able use the Internet to compete in business and college.
Fortune Magazine recently wrote, “the Internet is the biggest and earliest manifestation of the way business is going to be conducted from now on1 ” Commercial accounts are now the fastest growing segment of the network. Dayton-Hudson’s use of computer networks to track inventory and consumer demand has resulted in increased profits. Just as businesses that do not effectively use networks will not survive in tomorrow’s economy, our children who can’t telecommunicate will not survive in tomorrow’s businesses.
Tom Peters writes, “Every $2 million firm, in service or manufacturing, has international potential2 ” and suggests that major companies not doing at least 25% of their business overseas are avoiding today’s realities. In our local area Taylor Corporation, Hubbard Milling, and Clear With Computers all 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.
A Bloomington 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.
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 like Duluth, St. Louis Park, and Apple Valley will be producing high school graduates capable of doing sophisticated electronic research. When my daughter started college 3 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.
2. The Internet is an important resource which can improve current teaching practices.
Al Rogers, a pioneer of early telecomputing projects, observes that children enjoy writing more and are more careful when they write for electronic publication3 . Like all technologies, the Internet can be a wonderful resource for helping teachers create activities which include the purposeful use of current information.
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 increasingly moves over wires.
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.
Schools also 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. There are some materials there 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 technology by denying children access to it. The world, I am afraid, is becoming an ever more difficult and confusing place in which to travel. Youth need an ethical compass and practice using it.
3. Our children will need to be able to use the Internet as informed, responsible 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. Mankato and Blue Earth County have Internet connections. The Minnesota House has its own “gopher.” Gubernatorial candidates have e-mail addresses. Recent Supreme Court decisions, presidential press releases, and federal legislation are all on the Internet. The president can be reached via the Internet (firstname.lastname@example.org), as can Rush Limbaugh (email@example.com). The Internet is politically neutral.
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.
Minnesota’s citizens need good information in order to have a say in how their society is run. For our children, that will be impossible without electronic information skills and access.
In his book Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol warns that our society has two kinds of schools: those for the governors, and those for the governed . Resource-poor schools have less chance of developing critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, and self-governing citizens. The Internet is a vital educational resource if we are to graduate well-paid button programmers rather than minimum-wage button pushers. As an educator, as a citizen, and especially as a parent, I am working to see that our schools use technologies like the Internet to give Mankato’s children a chance to be among the governors.