Is Classroom Surfing the Wave of the Future?
Fuzzy Snapshot of Kids Online
Over 63 percent of America's public school classrooms now have Internet access. How are kids using the web? And is technology enhancing the learning experience?
The answer: No one really knows. Research hasn't even begun to measure the Internet's impact on education. But new data collected by a Seattle firm provides a fascinating, if somewhat blurry, picture of how kids actually use the Net.
N2H2, a company providing filtering and content services to 2,000 U.S. schools, has released statistics showing that half of all school-based traffic goes to just 100 sites. The top 2,000 domains account for almost 80 percent of the hits from over 350,000 students in 43 cities.
"Students spend an immense amount of time in portals, a lot of time looking for games," observes Peter Nickerson, N2H2's CEO. "What we're seeing is that kids' searches are not very efficient or very good."
According to Nickerson, Yahoo is used by students "for everything." Sites devoted to wrestling, Pokémon, and rap music also top the list.
Surfing or Studying?
Are students "wasting" time on entertainment, rather than spending it on educational pursuits? Perhaps, but not unlike parents, Nickerson believes, who also have trouble finding information online. Certainly not unlike students of an earlier era, who, sent to the library to research the life of George Washington, might have procrastinated by browsing through books about horses instead.
"What we're doing is the equivalent of taking kids into the Library of Congress, opening the door, and saying, 'Okay, go to work, and make good use of your time and we'll be back in an hour,'" Nickerson says.
Linda Roberts, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S Department of Education, reacts cautiously to data that shows students spending classroom time pursuing fun and games online.
"You cannot tell simply by counting eyeballs to a site," she insists. Roberts tells of visiting a third-grade class where each student was assigned to "adopt" an animal and then study it online by visiting a wide variety of sites, including one associated with a popular TV show.
"Don't tell me that just because it's an entertainment site, it had no value," Roberts declares. "In this case, the kids were guided and they had specific questions they had to answer, so it worked."
Guidance, everyone agrees, is the key to effective use of the Internet in the classroom. The N2H2 data points to the need for improved search engines for students and better oversight by teachers.
Nickerson says, "It's very clear that kids are all over the place, not directed yet (by instructors.) It's going to take some time."
A New Teaching Technique
"I'm not surprised," says technology teacher Mary Flaherty of the Beebe School in Malden, Massachusetts, when told that many students are apparently spending in-school time "researching" information on their favorite wrestling or rap stars. "As a teacher, you can't watch them every minute, but I spend a lot of my time with my students on how to search, how we can narrow it down."
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education published a study showing that only 20 percent of teachers said they "felt comfortable" utilizing technology for instructional purposes. Technology consultant Rana Chudnofsky, who conducts Internet workshops for teachers across the country, has made similar observations.
"They understand how to use different search engines, but that's the extent of their knowledge," she says. In a training class of about 30 teachers, Chudnofsky notes, a majority will know what a search engine is, but only five might know specific search strategies to use. Three-quarters will be able to access teacher resources available on the Web, but only a few will be able to identify kid-friendly search engines. Only one or two will know how to develop their own webpage.
Although there is much talk about the need to train teachers, Chudnofsky observes that often, "What they're being offered is a quick workshop." It seems that technology has not yet truly transformed the nature of teaching and learning.