When 2 year olds can operate computers like they're rattles, you know we're on a technology path that only goes forward. The Web has put the entire world at the fingertips of anyone with an Internet connection, and it's only natural the information technologies empowering homes, businesses and universities would ultimately make the jump to school-age classrooms.
In the last several years, sufficiently funded schools all over the country (and the world) have added Internet access to their arsenal of K-12 classroom tools. Many experts think it's been a long time coming -- that it provides tremendous benefits to the learning process. Others, however, see some downsides that can't be ignored.
Is it helping or hurting? What exactly does the Internet contribute to the classroom experience -- and to education in general? Do the benefits outweigh any drawbacks?
It depends who you ask. For most professional educators, the benefits of having Internet in the classroom are undeniable ...
In 1975, if you wanted to know the population of Papua New Guinea, you'd probably go to the library. You'd walk, drive or take a bus. Once there, you'd ask the librarian where to find the encyclopedias, pull out the "P" volume, locate "Papua New Guinea," and read through the entry until you came to the number you were after. An hour's endeavor, give or take.
In 2012, you type "Population Papua New Guinea" into a search field and discover that, according to the World Bank, the country has a population of 6,858,266 people as of 2010, and that the population has more than tripled since 1960. All of that in 0.19 seconds.
The sheer volume of information available on the Internet is staggering, and the speed at which it can be accessed is even more so. Internet in the classroom puts the entire world at kids' fingertips, allowing unprecedented exposure to world cultures, geography, history, news and images. What once could be learned only through class trips and exchange programs is suddenly a matter of choosing the most effective search terms, and typing.
That breadth and speed can change the classroom experience. Internet access facilitates what has come to be called the "teachable moment," referring to a specific, time-sensitive issue -- a current event, or even a comment made in the classroom -- that opens the door to a timely lesson that would, most likely, not come up in any other way. Once, this type of moment might pass unexplored, or spark a brief discussion. In the Internet age, however, teachers can take full advantage of a teachable moment by finding images, news stories, local interviews, graphs, statistics, videos, music and every other imaginable piece of media or experience related to the topic at hand in a matter of minutes.
It's tough to argue that Internet access doesn't benefit kids' education. Beyond the plethora of information it delivers, it provides opportunities for kids -- especially those who don't have Internet at home -- to develop Web skills they'll undoubtedly need in life. The wealth of teacher resources on countless education Web sites helps teachers build better lesson plans, including related media that hold their students' attention and expand their minds.
It can, however, be argued that classroom Internet access may bring some brand-new complications into a once rather structured, and even insulated, world ...
With so much information, media, news and data, plus with answers so easy to come by, what could possibly go wrong?
Apparently, enough to cause concern. According to some experts, classroom Internet isn't all hearts and flowers. They point to two main issues -- distraction and safety -- as reasons to look very closely at, and possibly limit, Web access in schools.
The argument against flooding children with technology is nothing new. If anything, it has gathered steam in the last few years, with TV aimed at infants and cell phones designed to withstand the rigors of the playground. Some believe all this technology is affecting kids' attention spans and their ability to focus. There are those who worry that Internet access can end up being more of a distraction than a learning tool in the classroom, with games and music and Facebook as easy to come by as population counts. They even fear that math and spelling may fall by the wayside, replaced by the stimulating Web.
The bigger concern, though, focuses on more nefarious types of content that are pretty simple to access, too: pornography, hate speech and sexual solicitation via social networking sites. The fear that inappropriate and potentially harmful content can invade the classroom, a traditionally safe space for kids, is a real and enduring one, and schools have been forced to address it.
The imperfect answer arrives in the form of filtering software, which denies access to explicit content. Most schools now employ this type of software, but many claim it doesn't solve the problem. For one thing, it can miss some inappropriate content; for another, it can accidentally block entirely appropriate, educational Web sites.
The software has a way to go, and most educators acknowledge the possible drawbacks of bringing the Internet into the classroom. But few believe the downsides can even remotely match the benefits to kids' learning scope, interest levels and overall engagement in lessons. The solution appears to be a simple one: A surfing student is a supervised student. There's no better way to keep kids safe and on-track than to watch closely: If "Papua New Guinea" appears to be spelled "b-o-o-b-s," there's something wrong.
For more information on education, technology and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
More Great Links
- Cromwell, Sharon. "The Internet Safety Debate." Education World. (Feb. 6, 2012) http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/curr070.shtml
- LeClaire, Jennifer. "Kids and Tech: How Much is Too Much?" Tech News World. Sept. 6, 2006. (Feb. 6, 2012) http://www.technewsworld.com/story/52677.html
- Tech News World: Kids and Tech: How Much Is Too Much? Sept. 6, 2006 http://www.technewsworld.com/story/52677.html
- Welcoming the Internet into Your Classroom. Scholastic: Teachers. (Feb. 6, 2012.) http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/welcoming-internet-your-classroom
- Why the Net? An Interactive Tool for the Classroom. Thirteen Ed Online: Concept to Classroom. (Feb. 6, 2012) http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/classroominternet/index.html