Net savvy students to teachers: You just don't get it!

Diane Teal is a very smart teacher.

The grade six teacher at McCormick Middle School in Boston knew her students were spending hours online every night sending each other instant messages. After all, which teenager with access to a computer and the Internet isn't doing this? But rather than moaning about "Kids not spending time doing homework," or "What is this world coming to?" Teal decided to use this new technology to her advantage.

"I told all the kids that I knew there were spending lots of time online each night," she told me after we met at a school supplies store in a Boston suburb. "So I paired them with another student as a 'study buddy' and told them they had to help each other, online, with the work assignments. If they didn't, I would tell their parents that they were wasting their time online."

Teal then went one step further. She signed up for instant messaging and logged on each night to answer students' questions.

As a result, Teal said, students' marks improved. Some dramatically.

Sad to say, Diane Teal is the exception, rather than the rule, according to "The Digital Disconnect," a new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. According to an earlier Pew Internet survey, 78 percent of middle and high school students use the Internet (probably a conservative figure), and that 94 percent of that number had used the Internet as a major research source for a recent major school project. The new report says the "most Internet-savvy among them complain that their teachers don't use the Internet in class or create assignments that exploit great Web material."

The survey was complied from information gathered from 14 focus groups with 136 middle and high school students around the nation and in reports from close to 200 teenagers who responded to an online survey. The report was undertaken for the Pew project by The American Institutes for Research (AIR), a research organization based in Washington.

Students said the single greatest barrier to Internet use at school is the quality of access to the Internet – they say it's too slow and often, there's too much censorship. They complained about filtering software, saying it prevented them from reaching legitimate educational materials.

The students said they wanted to use the Internet for more of their schoolwork, but teachers too often lacked the imagination to use it for anything other than mundane tasks.

"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. "Many 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. Educators have a choice: Either they need to adapt or they will be dragged into a new learning environment."

I've seen this situation on a personal level. At home, my 6-year-old son, who loves ancient Egypt and dinosaurs, regularly visits sites like the BBC or The Discovery Channel, which offer amazingly detailed and fascinating online presentations on these subjects. As a result, he knows far more about these topics than I ever did at his age. But when I've accompanied him to class, and observed him during "computer time," he was given incredibly simple, toddler-like computer games to use. He was bored, and off causing trouble in a few minutes. And that was just computer games, not the Internet.

The problem with the disconnect

This disconnect is only going to grow worse over the next few years, and its going to create a problem for educators in two ways.

First, as we are seeing in financial, medical, media, and legal areas, the vast quantities of information available to non-specialists will mean the undercutting of elites. What will teachers do when their students come to class often understanding more about the subject being taught then they do themselves?

Secondly, the way kids learn is changing, but educators are totally unprepared for the shift. Currently, most students are taught in a convergent matter – one thing at a time, for a certain period of time, often in a repetitive manner. But with the Internet and its primary tool, the Web, students are learning in a divergent manner, following interests and passions as they see fit, often doing more than one thing at a time (surfing the Net while carrying on an IM conversation, while watching TV, while listening to the radio).

The only answer is more teachers like Diane Teal who recognize that the revolution has begun, and that it can't be stopped. So rather than being beaten down by the technology, teachers must use it, use it, use it, and use it again to do what school is supposed to be about – learning about life and the world around us.

Tom Regan is the associate editor at His Bandwidth column appears regularly in the Christian Science Monitor and its website,

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