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The Connected Classroom
Maximizing the Pros and Minimizing the Cons of the Internet Use in Our Schools 





Article Contents:
Advantages of the Internet
A Tool for Teachers
The Downside
Plagiarism
Parents’ Role


Twelve sixth-graders sit staring at their computer screens as their teacher, Peter Luke, leads them on a MayaQuest, an online project that connects teachers and students with explorers and scientists in Belize as they explore why the ancient Maya civilization collapsed. Every day for two weeks the students have been “talking” to the experts via e-mail and watching them as they make their way on bikes through the country, speaking with scholars and visiting ruins.


“It’s very cool!” says 11-year-old Walter Johnson. “Much better than those boring old textbooks.”




The connected classroom is now an American reality. Ninety-eight percent of all public schools in the United States had Internet access in 2000, compared with 78 percent in 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The number of students for every Internet-connected computer dropped from 7.9 in 2000 to 6.8, according to a 2001 study. In some regions of the country, the ratio is as low as one-to-one, as some schools explore the idea of providing every student with a laptop.


One of the first states to pilot this idea, Georgia, launched its Wireless Classroom Project in the fall of 2001. Funded by $10 million in lottery funds, the program is providing 6-pound wireless laptop computers and Internet-based instruction to every student and teacher in eight middle schools.


“It’s been wonderful,” says Michael Sims, principal of Parks Middle School in Atlanta. “Our test scores have risen by quite a bit, our attendance has gotten better, and discipline problems have decreased.”


The nation’s most ambitious computer program is in Maine, where Gov. Angus King was determined to give every seventh-grader a laptop this year, despite opposition from legislators and citizens who protested the $37 million price tag.


Advantages of the Internet


So are these efforts worth it? Is the Internet really revolutionizing learning and preparing our young people for the 21st century?




Experts agree that the Internet is a rich archive, vastly expanding the range of information available to students. Matthew Simms, an elementary-school art teacher in Los Angeles says that the Internet provides instant access to the world for all students.


“At one point,” Simms says, “I was teaching in a small school in rural Montana, and with the ’Net, those kids had the same opportunities to view art as kids in New York City.”


He adds that art teachers used to have to keep file cabinets full of drawings and models for students. “Last week a student asked me how to draw a hippopotamus. Instead of rummaging through my file cabinet, I told him to type in ‘hippo’ on the Internet, and he got a picture within 30 seconds.”


Other examples are easily found: foreign-language classes can explore up-to-date newspapers and museums located in other countries, resources they couldn’t possibly find on the shelves of their local library. Students can also get primary sources in a way they could not before.


“A great example is a site that has all the U.S. censuses that have ever been recorded,” says Jenny Howland, a middle school assistant director of technology. Howland says that in one of her favorite projects, students take statistics from the North and the South before the Civil War, compare facts and draw conclusions about the causes of the Civil War.




The Internet also facilitates online collaboration among students. In one project, students around the country worked together to monitor levels of acid rain in the United States. Various organizations offer projects such as MayaQuest: Susan Porter’s fifth-grade students are following an environmentalist on an expedition in Australia and they correspond with her by e-mail.  Howland’s middle-schoolers take part in a market program: each student is “given” $100,000 and must learn to invest it wisely and chart its progress.


A Tool for Teachers


Teachers can also take advantage of the wide range of material on the Internet in preparing their classes. Numerous Web sites not only offer lesson plans, but also a range of how-to resources. When Simms was in charge of creating a mural at his school last year, he was able to go online to find information about the process and contact people who had designed murals.


The Internet also makes it easy for teachers to interact with one another, providing a greater sense of community, particularly for educators in small or isolated schools.


Many teachers report that Internet use changes the classroom atmosphere. Janet Schofield is the co-author of Bringing the Internet to School, a book based on a five-year study of an urban school district that examined how school life changes with the introduction of the Internet. She found that students perceived their teachers to be more friendly and theorizes that working with the Internet provides for more individualized interactions.


“Kids enjoy using the Internet,” she says, “so the teacher doesn’t have to work so hard at discipline.”


The Downside


Having instant access to such a wide range of information does bring some problems. Educators agree that when their students see something online, they tend to believe it must be credible. They have to be taught that the Internet is a vehicle for distributing information, and offers no guarantee of accuracy.




“Anyone can publish whatever; there are no librarians running around on trusty little digital drives, keeping watch,” says Merle Marsh, Ed.D., author of The Incredible Internet: What Parents and Teachers Really Need to Know. She points out that while kids can be protected from some kinds of online material by filters and can be taught strategies for safe and responsible use of the Internet, it’s also crucial that students learn ethics, media literacy and how to recognize misinformation.


In line with this approach, many librarians have developed Internet checklists, which students are required to fill out to determine the credibility of an Internet source before using it. It’s also common for schools to subscribe to databases, such as ProQuest or Grolier’s Encyclopedia, where media specialists and teachers can direct students, confident that the information a student will find is credible.


Although the Internet can be a motivating tool, there’s also the problem of drift.


“Students are just a click away from intriguing and nonacademic material, like their favorite band’s Web site,” Schofield says, “and this could lead to a lot of wasted time.” It becomes teachers’ responsibility to make sure that students are doing something educational.


And, finally, it doesn’t matter how many Internet-connected computers are in our schools, if the teachers are not trained to use them. Twenty-nine states -- and the District of Columbia now either require that teachers receive some technology training or demonstrate their technology skills prior to gaining their teacher’s license. But that still leaves the rest of the country with no technology-related requirements for teachers.


Plagiarism


The biggest issue for most teachers whose students use the Internet is plagiarism.




“It’s just far too easy for students to take somebody else’s work using the Internet,” says Caroline Smith, a  high-school English teacher. “The students don’t understand, half the time, what plagiarism is – there’s no understanding of the difference between getting research online before putting it into your own words, and just plain copying everything you find.”


Smith has found more and more examples of students downloading material and passing it off as their own.


“The ‘cut’ and ‘paste’ commands make it so easy for them,” she says. “They don’t even have to think about the material they are highlighting and pasting. A student can actually put together a whole paper in 10 minutes without even reading what he has written. And somewhere in there is the assumption that it’s all right to do this. Their argument is, ‘If this person said it so well, why would I change it?’”


Teachers agree that it’s their job to help students understand what plagiarism is and make sure they understand the consequences for taking credit for work that is not their own. Educators advise teachers to develop original assignments, tied specifically to the topic of study, so that students cannot plagiarize. There are also Web sites that offer guidance to teachers on plagiarism, and even sites where teachers can submit papers to be checked for plagiarism (see Resources). In Smith’s view, the bottom line is that schools need to have a strict policy on plagiarism and stick to it.


Parents’ Role


So how can parents be sure that their children are learning to using the Internet responsibly?


It starts at home. Marsh advises parents to begin to teach their children when they’re young. “Go online with them and lead them to safe sites that they’ll enjoy,” she suggests. “Create bookmarks or favorite places and show them how to use these. Teach them responsible and safe use of e-mail.”




As with all good parenting, it’s important to set standards for use of the computer and stick to those standards. As children move up through the grades, parents should continue to guide them in their use of the Internet. One basic rule that many experts and educators encourage is to keep the computer where you can see what your child is doing. Make sure children know the rules for computer use at home, at school and at friends’ homes. Keep talking with them about what they do on the computer and where they go on the Internet, and be sure to discuss acceptable uses of e-mail and the filtering of e-mail received.


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