The Internet in schools needs a safety net, too


June 23, 1996|By Mike Burns LTC

A CAUTIONARY tale for cheerleaders for the Internet in all Maryland public schools, the hopeful prophets of the knowledge revolution.

The elementary school my child attends got a computer in the library with connection to the Net. Not a whole bank of machines, just the one in the library supervised by the librarian.

A fourth-grade health science class was assigned to do reports on illegal drugs. The library Internet system was suggested as one bountiful source of information.

One child was signed on and helped to find a list of possibly useful articles by the librarian, who then turned to other duties. The unwitting child selected, downloaded and printed several articles (without apparently reading or understanding them). The printouts were copied and distributed to a few other kids in the study group.

One article described cocaine use in most alluring terms. While noting that it was addictive and dangerous, the anonymous author suggested that the drug could be beneficial in suicides.

Outraged parents called the teacher and principal, who dragged in the embarrassed librarian. They revised their procedures for getting youngsters onto the information highway, deciding that the instructors had better learn how to drive there first before putting kids behind the wheel. Any material printed from that computer is read by an adult.

The article in question was difficult to read, convoluted in form, burdened with British phrases, and obviously directed toward a sympathetic audience.

It's unlikely even the most precocious of the class would have understood, or even been interested in, the viewpoints of the author. That article would not have tempted any fourth-grader into using cocaine.

Limited research value

Its value for the research paper was very limited. Had parents not seen the offensive material at home, the kids would likely have ignored it entirely, using more understandable articles to write their reports and get on with their other tasks and interests.

The lessons from this elementary school episode are several, and not entirely consistent.

There is a lot of trash out there on the Internet -- the harmful kind, the worthless kind, the insidious and the obvious. Knowledge does not automatically flow from the Net; information and opinion of widely varying value do.

Screening and gatekeeping by school staff is highly unmanageable where wide access by all students is encouraged. There's not enough staff to handle the job, without taking away from more important teaching goals. The burden of responsibility for a teacher may be too great.

There's no uniformly effective software to handle the problem of inappropriate material, either. Certain words can be targeted and blocked, but that's a hit-or-miss proposition. Court rulings banning Internet censorship heighten that problem for schools.

Downloading a lot of useful-sounding items from this unregulated sea, where anyone can deposit anything, can be more time-consuming and wasteful than using books or periodicals. A mindless computer chip chooses a massive list of items, which then requires lots of sifting and selection by the student to get to the useful nuggets. Stacks of printed-out pages get tossed away because they are worthless; there's much wasted connection time.

It isn't that I disparage the Internet as a data exchange system. It's fine for research and chat and entertainment and advertising and so forth. But the Net is not a great research source tool for schoolchildren, except perhaps in directed studies in upper grades.

The sixth-grader who finds a paper about penguins in an Australian university's archives through the Net may be excited about his achievement, but it is unlikely to expand that child's knowledge of the subject any more than resources available at ** the central library (if not in the school library).

As for the much-hyped ability to talk on-line with distant schools, there's always the old-fashioned speaker telephone.

Libraries are useful research tools for learning because the staff usually knows what is available. Surprises do pop up, but not that often. Students can acquire information, and also learn research techniques. There's usually an ample variety of resources for the motivated student. Different standards and freedoms apply at public libraries and schools; the issue here is the school system's responsibility.

The goal is to teach students how to use the Internet. That skill ought to be taught and learned -- but well supervised, just as are chemistry experiments and shop power tools.

But there's no reason for a costly project (and ongoing expense for the counties) that promises every public school student extensive access to a medium that is unsupervised and unregulated. That's not effective teaching or effective use of limited financial and human resources.

I'd first make sure that every kid in school had a public library card -- and knew how to use that net of information.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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