schoolsEven with many tech stocks in the tank, our lives increasingly involve the Internet. This is likely as true for kids as it is for professionals. Anyone who’s seen a youth using a computer knows that kids take to the machines better than they take to bicycles and skateboards.

The Internet has arguably opened children’s access to, well, a world wide web of ideas and information. It has created possibilities for, among other things, instantaneous cultural exchanges with other children all over the world. But how much does the Internet contribute to children’s learning and education? The answer is a subject of much debate among politicians, Internet executives and developers, and educators.

In March 2000, the Clinton Administration drew together a panel called the Web-Based Education Commission to investigate the role of the Internet in schools. Headed by Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska Senator and current president of the New School for Social Research, the Commission included among its number several other senators, the president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, a number of computer software and Internet company executives, as well as a teacher and a university professor. Nine months later, in December 2000, the commission released its report. Entitled The Power of the Internet for Learning: Moving from Promise to Practice, the 185-page report concluded that the Internet is indeed an essential tool for education and that its role in schools should be expanded for the future.

Irene Spero, director of external relations for the Web-Based Education Commission, says the report is a call for policy-makers and business leaders to work together to create an agenda for learning that incorporates the Internet. "It’s not one group that would do it, but an effort that would involve partnerships between federal and state and local people, between the public and private sectors."

Not everyone, however, is convinced that the Internet and technology in general are crucial to education. Some even suggest that we could use a lot less of both than we already have. In particular, a California-based organization called Learning in the Real World and an international group called Alliance for Childhood have expressed concerns with the Web-Based Education Commission’s findings.

"The commission was obviously enthusiastic about educational technology," says William L. Rukeyser, coordinator for Learning in the Real World. "Taking a look at the makeup of the commission, it would have been surprising if the report had come out any other way."

Rukeyser thinks the commission based its assumptions about the importance of technology on education on a series of best-case scenarios: 1) that technology makes it easier for students to acquire a traditionally-defined education but delivered in a new manner; and 2), that using technology in education will better prepare students for technological pursuits.

"The same kind of claims have been made for almost a century," says Rukeyser. "This gizmo will make learning fast, fun and easy. It will make the teacher irrelevant, the schoolhouse obsolete. That could have been said by Edison or Bill Gates or, in this case, Bob Kerrey."

However, he adds, "If you’re talking about a specific twelfth grader and getting him or her ready to earn a living in eighteen months, then it probably makes a lot of sense to spend some time with the technology. Things won’t have changed too much. If you’re talking about a sixth grader, however, who may or may not go on to college, then you’re talking about someone who is possibly ten years or more away from the job market. And teaching that person PowerPoint is akin to teaching him or her how to use a linotype machine."

Dr. Patti Albaugh, professor of Education at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, has been interested in these issues for some time, and has recently been conducting a number of studies on the impact of computers and the Internet in education.

At the International Conference on Technology and Education in Tallahassee, Florida this May, Albaugh reported on a study she and colleague Karen Robinson had done on the impact of computer technologies on the classroom. In a socio-economically diverse cross-section of schools (grades 4-7) in and around central Ohio, the two researchers examined a number of issues related to how effectively teachers and students were using technology.

"What we found were some pretty sincere efforts on the part of the teachers to integrate technology," Albaugh says. "But there were serious barriers as far as the access and infrastructure—precisely what the [Web-Based Education] Commission was talking about. For instance, students in one district had a well-equipped lab and involved, well-designed assignments, but the connection was so slow, students were losing interest."

Albaugh and Robinson’s paper, entitled, Are They Using the Tool to Learn, or Still Learning to Use the Tool—An Observation of Middle Childhood Students Doing Research on the Computer, examined how teachers talk about technology with their students, how much teachers are able to help students with new technology, and how students react and communicate—both to the teacher and to each other—about that technology.

In some schools, says Albaugh, "the ideas are ahead of what is technologically possible. In other schools, the technological possibilities are there, but it’s like the teachers haven’t asked for it, and are resistant. So they’re struggling with how to use this equipment worth thousands of dollars."

At New Albany-Plain Local Schools, just outside Columbus, Ohio, the Internet has been figuring into the curriculum since the mid 1990s, when the World Wide Web was just beginning to blossom. Students in this K-12 school system have used the Web for an extraordinary number of things, says John Stonebraker, the school’s library information center coordinator. They have produced, among other things, Web sites for community members, a history site on the hamlet of New Albany, and original techno-music.

“We’ve had students actually work for clients in industry,” says Stonebraker, “producing Internet sites for a variety of local businesses.”

The challenge today at New Albany and elsewhere, believes Stonebraker, is in helping teachers learn how to design and implement the technology in a way that allows a student to think about all this information. This summer, New Albany-Plain Local Schools is holding graduate classes for their teachers in order to achieve this very thing. Says Stonebraker: “We are asking what constitutes a successful lesson plan? How do we design engaging, substantive material for students using these tools?”

What is the thing, in other words, that this technology from just a large encyclopedia? One of those things is speed. Another is sheer girth. Let’s face it, we can’t even imagine the size of the book that would hold all the information from the Internet. When you bring these two facets together, argues Stonebraker, you have something unique indeed.

“Instead of asking a student to merely write a report, say, on John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King,” Stonebraker says, “we could ask them to identify three characteristics that they really value—for instance, integrity, honesty, and bravery. Now, they can go to the Internet and find examples for each of these characteristics that exemplify how these people lived their lives.” Full texts of speeches, for example, can easily be found on the Internet.

The sheer volume of information on the Internet, says Stonebraker, also helps students learn how to assess the veracity of what they find and to determine its usefulness.

Over the course of about nine months, the Web-Based Education Commission heard testimonies from hundreds of people in educational fields. The final report outlines seven key ideas, including a call for widely available broadband Internet access, increased training and support for educators, and the development of quality online educational content.

"We went out with a very wide net," says Spero. "We knew that we could not contact everybody, so we came up with the idea of hearing e-testimony, via the Internet, and that involved about 250 more testimonies. We had meetings all over the country. It was really a very intense outreach, attempting to touch base with all the people who had anything to do with this whole area."

Ed Miller, a member of the Alliance for Childhood and co-author of a critique of the movement toward filling classrooms with computers, says despite its broad reach, the commission doesn’t speak for his group. Called Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers and Childhood and available on the organization’s website, it includes chapters such as The Hazards of Computers in Childhood and Educating Children to Create Their Own Future.

"It’s kind of amazing that they would recommend such a sweeping program for drastically changing the way education works in this country based on such flimsy evidence," says Miller. "They even acknowledged in a way that the research was either absent or terribly flawed on exactly what using the Internet does to improve education."

The Web-Based Education Commission, Irene Spero explains, was not attempting to conduct a scientific study but more to take a broad assessment and to make recommendations. "Our mission," she says, "was to look at learners at all levels—K-12, higher education and corporate training."

"There’s been a very positive reaction to the report," says Spero. "Congress is starting to consider a lot of new legislation that relates to our findings, and I think we will see things developing in these areas over the long haul."