The millions spent bringing the Internet into America's classrooms could be wasted if educators don't learn how to use the technology when teaching, a new study suggests.
"Internet-savvy students are far ahead of their teachers and principals in taking advantage of online educational resources," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which surveyed 336 middle school and high school students.
"Many [students] believe they may have to raise their voices to force schools to change to accommodate them better. And their voices should be added to policy discussions," Rainie said. "Educators have a choice: either they need to adapt or they will be dragged into a new learning environment."
The findings should not be surprising. From the beginning, efforts to bring the Internet into classrooms nationwide were underfunded. Boosters did their best with donated materials, volunteer labor and meager budgets.
But the money pinch also meant there was little funding available for helping teachers learn to use the Internet in day-to-day classroom work. Small wonder that so many were puzzled about what to do with the Internet-enabled PCs plunked down in their classrooms.
"Most teens use the Internet for school assignments and in other learning situations, but they say their Internet use occurs mostly outside of the school day, outside of the school building and outside of the direction of their teachers. Clearly, that has to change," said Sousan Arafeh, deputy project director.
But some critics might regard that circumstance as a blessing in disguise. While the Internet has certainly proved its worth as a research and reference tool, its benefits as a teaching aid are less clear. Indeed, in his book, High Tech Heretic, author Clifford Stoll made a powerful case that computers in the classroom can distract more than help.
Students using the Internet face the challenges of separating legitimate information from the misleading or erroneous material that is common online. The presence of pornography and other inappropriate material also remains a problem.
That's not to say computers have no role in education. The Internet has made the researching prospective colleges easier and more productive for students. Students can use the Internet to communicate more easily with those outside the classroom and to get news on fast-changing current affairs.
But for the Internet to be anything more than a virtual library, teachers will have to learn how to incorporate the strengths of cyberspace into their lesson plans while avoiding the pitfalls. That won't happen overnight, and it won't happen without a concerted effort.
To complete its mission, the computers-in-the-classroom movement needs to go beyond hardware and wires. Educators need exposure to demonstration projects and best-practices teaching techniques. Most of all, they need to hear a convincing case that the Internet can make their teaching more effective.
Until then, Internet-enabled computers in the classroom will be little more than expensive reference books - used on occasion, but often shoved aside in favor of proven teaching tools.
John Moran writes for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.