Thanks to the eRate and other initiatives to wire the nation’s schools, nearly three-fourths of all classrooms now have internet access. But some tech-savvy students argue the arrival of the internet means little to them when teachers and other stakeholders are ill-equipped or—worse—afraid to unlock its full potential, according to a national study released Aug. 15 on behalf of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The report, entitled “The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap Between Internet-savvy Students and Their Schools,” is the result of a study of 14 focus groups with 136 middle and high school students and another 200 teenagers who responded independently to an online survey by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

The study is one of the first of its kind to evaluate school internet use through the eyes of students, and its findings bring to light a number of legitimate concerns about the integration of technology into America’s schools.

“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. “Educators have a choice: Either they need to adapt, or they will be dragged into a new learning environment.”

According to the study, 78 percent of children ages 12 to 17 use the internet in school or at home. But the most internet-savvy among them say their teachers are less inclined to use the technology during class time, either because teachers lack the proper training to do so or because they are dissuaded by a number of factors, including risk, strict administrative policies, or the quality of online access in their schools.

“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,” said Sousan Arafeh, AIR’s deputy project director for the study.

Today’s students, many of whom cannot remember a world without instant messages and eMail, told researchers the internet saves them time, helps them complete research, and provides quick answers to tough questions. Outside of school, students said, they frequent web sites pointed out to them by teachers, take advantage of online tutors, participate in virtual study groups, and even enroll in online classes.

Inside of school, however, students claim there is a “digital disconnect” between how they use the internet at home and those methods employed by their instructors in the classroom.

“These students said over and over that their schools and teachers have not yet recognized—much less responded to—the fundamental shift occurring in the students they serve and in the learning communities they are charged with fostering,” the study said.

Students gave several reasons they thought school internet use was generally less effective than home use.

According to the study, administration plays a key role in establishing a tone for internet use throughout the entire school building. Some students report being encouraged to use the internet through special classes teaching everything from basic computer-speak to eCommerce, but other students say they find few ways to polish their computer literacy in school.

“Some of the less internet-savvy schools our students described offer fewer opportunities for students and teachers to go online during the school day, are more likely to have teachers with weak technology skills, and are generally less inventive in their internet use,” the study said.

Of course, the emphasis placed on internet use by the administration is reflected in the instructional choices of teachers.

“While in school, it is teachers who manage the use of the internet by students. They choose whether to make assignments that require the use of the internet by their students, allow the use of the internet, or even forbid its use,” the study said.

These decisions, however, aren’t all cut and dried, researchers found. Teachers must take into consideration whether students will have to share computers and whether they will need to reserve a lab during class time, the study said. Then, teachers must consider whether the proposed lesson adheres to the administration’s acceptable-use policy. Most importantly, teachers must evaluate their own technology skills and decide whether they are capable of teaching the lesson to its full effect.

What’s more, students told researchers that just because teachers are using the internet doesn’t necessarily mean the exercises are particularly innovative or exciting for kids.

“The way that students use the internet for school is largely driven by the kinds of activities and assignments that teachers create,” the study said.

According to researchers, students believe the quality of online learning could be vastly improved if educators sought to incorporate more activities that relate daily life to what is learned inside of classroom walls.

“Some really interesting ways that we use the internet in school is for fun stuff like scavenger hunts, which have been done on the Olympics, poets, and famous figures like Abraham Lincoln. We have also made web pages in business class, which were centered around … what our interests are and what we are like in character,” said one middle school boy.

But improving internet instruction requires more than sound lesson plans, the study said. Even students recognize there are some real barriers to achieving a better quality of online learning both in and out of school.

Time is one issue, the study said. Students who move from place to place and class to class throughout the course of a six-hour school day have little time to boot up and log on to internet-connected computers at each station.

Though several school districts have made commitments to improving internet access, still others lack the infrastructure and high-speed technology necessary to make internet-based lessons a viable alternative to traditional classroom instruction, the study said.

And even in the most technology-rich schools, there are still other barriers to topple.

“Within a school, access to the internet is largely controlled by teachers—teachers whom students describe as being motivated primarily by fear of what might happen if students use the internet inappropriately,” the study said.

This fear has contributed to a general reluctance among the teaching community, which has only been heightened by the imposition of federally mandated web filters in schools, Rainie said.

Students, too, expressed frustration with the existence of web filters and other usage restrictions in schools, Rainie said. Many of them complained that web filters blocked relevant content, while still others argued that, having grown up on the internet, they thought themselves mature enough to deal with inappropriate situations should they arise during school use.

“Kids are much more calm about the bad stuff online, because they figure they can deal with it,” Rainie said. According to him, teachers and parents are the ones intimidated by inappropriate content. Students, he said, were more concerned about their inability to reach critical information quickly.

Because not every student has internet access at home, the vast majority of students say their teachers don’t assign homework that requires use of the web. But tech-savvy students say they want better coordination between classroom activities and their out-of-school educational use of the internet. This could be the key to leveraging the internet’s instructional power, they argue.

Although some teachers are afraid of alienating kids who lack internet connections from home, researchers say there are a number of outlets for disadvantaged children to work online outside of school, including libraries and boys’ and girls’ clubs.

“Schools are lowering the bar instead of changing the emphasis and bringing everyone to a higher level and saying, ‘Let’s take advantage of this stuff,'” Rainie said. Among students’ other suggestions: Schools must continue to improve on the quality of the connections available in school, and educators should not shy away from online learning for fear of the risks associated with it.

The study also points out that more professional development is needed to help unlock the internet’s potential in education.

“Students are uniformly more interested in—and saw more value in—doing schoolwork that challenged and excited them than in simply using the internet for its own sake,” the study said.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who need technology help, though, the study said. Recognizing the advantages they enjoy compared to those who don’t have easy internet access outside of school, many online students also suggested the need for more programs to teach keyboarding and computer literacy in school. The hope is that in-school instruction will help students who have less exposure outside of school draw even with their more tech-savvy cohorts, Rainie said.

Other concerns included a call for fewer restrictions of online use in school and a need to repair the “digital divide,” which students said becomes obvious during classroom computer time.

Educators contacted by eSchool News said it’s important to listen to what students have to say about their instruction.

“Students perceive their school environment in a personal way that teachers and administrators can’t always appreciate,” said Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas.

Added Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania, “We must respond to students and their desire to be challenged and to have meaningful learning experiences. Rote learning cannot continue to dominate.”

Links:

Pew Internet and American Life Project
http://www.pewinternet.org

American Institutes for Research
http://www.air-dc.org