Computing Applications

Log on Education: K-12 and the Internet

The Internet as a learning tool has its highs and lows, its positive and negative aspects. But wherever you stand on the bumpy ride, the Net uniquely supports learning.
  1. Introduction
  2. Information Must Be Ready-at-Hand
  3. Keeping Our Children Safe
  4. WebQuests: New Mimics Old
  5. The Middle Years Digital Library Project
  6. The Role of Discourse in Learning
  7. Challenges
  8. Making the Infrastructure Work
  9. Conclusion
  10. Authors

Learning is promoted when information resources and discourse around artifacts and ideas are readily and routinely available to teachers and students. But classrooms are islands in their schools and in their communities. From the brick-and-mortar by which our schools are built, through concerns for child safety, our classrooms have come to be surrounded by a nonpermeable membrane that blocks the entry of ideas, events, people, and artifacts. For all this membrane’s strength, a thin phone line is breaking through, connecting classrooms to the outside world.

While there is considerable debate over the value of the Internet in U.S. elementary education—K-12 (kindergarten through 12th grade, which starts at about five years old and finishes at around 17 years old), the naysayers can only slow down the process; the Internet is coming to each and every school and classroom.

In this column, we explore the ways in which the Internet uniquely supports learning. First, we argue why students need access to information resources. We then describe two projects that link children with Internet-based resources. Next, we argue why discourse is central to learning and education and present two projects encouraging all manner of communication over the Internet. Finally, we discuss a significant challenge that stands in the way of realizing the Internet’s potential in K-12: creating a robust, reliable technological infrastructure.

Discussions of using the Internet in K-12 have brought forth the comment that "our skill-free children are already overwhelmed by information even without the Internet. They don’t need more?"(David Gelertner, "Should Schools be Wired to the Internet? No—Learn First, Surf Later, Nation, Vol. 151, No. 20, 1998). But underlying this negativism about providing children with ready access to resources is a Neanderthal theory of learning. Gelertner says: "Tell students to sit down and shut up and learn; drill it, memorize it, because you must master it whether it’s fun or not." While there are surely situations where memorization is appropriate, commanding students to learn does not result in deep learning or create thoughtful, informed, empowered learners.

Ready access to resources is indeed key if we are going to support the high standards set by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Research Council. The NRC states: "Inquiry into authentic questions generated from student experiences is the central strategy for teaching science."

Picture this: A class of 30, 12-year-olds troop up to the school librarian; each student then asks the librarian his or her own particular driving question in search of resources, such as:

  • Why do earthquakes stop?
  • How do volcano eruptions affect the weather?
  • How did the last glacial retreat affect Ann Arbor’s local geology?

No school library—probably no town or city library—is going to be sufficiently well-stocked to provide timely, grade-level appropriate, accessible (words, pictures, video, and so forth) resources to address the full range of questions that children raise. The only way children are going to find resources that address their questions is by using the Internet.

Back to Top

Information Must Be Ready-at-Hand

D. Diderot (1713–1784) must have parented teenagers. Unless a book is literally within arm’s reach, a teenager will not expend the extra effort to retrieve it. That observation must have led Diderot and his colleagues to compile a 75-volume Encyclopedia and thus make all the then-extant knowledge truly ready-at-hand—at least to the few individuals who were wealthy enough to buy a set.

Diderot would have loved the Internet. It promises to place all knowledge within everyone’s immediate reach.

The Internet promises to make the cost of retrieving information lower than it’s ever been. For students in particular, keeping that cost low is especially important. Short attention spans, short class periods, lack of expertise, and lack of professional librarian research support, lead children to skip the research activities.

Back to Top

Keeping Our Children Safe

Because we are talking about our children, let’s start out by raising the issue of safety. Estimates vary, but roughly speaking, there are one billion Web pages. Preventing children from consciously finding inappropriate materials or, even worse, accidentally stumbling onto such materials is absolutely our adult responsibility.

One popular technique employed by schools is Web filtering. Through a range of technical mechanisms, sites deemed inappropriate are unable to be viewed. But there are problems with filtering. For example, children won’t be able to see medical sites that contain the word "breast."

Brick-and-mortar libraries don’t filter; they vet. By their code of conduct, librarians are not supposed to act as censors; rather, their job is to identify beneficial resources. And the Internet most definitely needs the services of librarians. Curiously, though, precious few search engines employ humans to review Web sites. As schools become more sophisticated with their Internet use, they will demand more than filtering, and they will put their subscription dollars behind that demand.

Back to Top

WebQuests: New Mimics Old

WebQuests are a pedagogical classroom strategy for using Internet information resources. The basic strategy is for teachers to provide students with specific questions and specific URLs to help find the answers to these questions. Based on information on the WebQuest home page (edweb.sdsu.edu/webquest/ webquest.html) it’s clear that teachers and students are finding this activity rewarding.

WebQuests are not an unreasonable place to start. Children are gaining access, most likely, to timely information; this is definitely a plus as children—for better or worse—tend to see even last week’s stories as old news. And certainly, this strategy protects children; access to Internet search engines is not needed, and thus access can be disabled.

But make no mistake, WebQuests are just "questions at the end of the textbook chapter" in HTML-clothing. If the Internet is used simply as a vehicle to deliver an electronic version of a textbook, then Net access is not worth the Herculean efforts required for schools. We are not going to beat textbooks: $20 per child per year per subject matter supplies the student body with glossy, colorful books that parents can see their children schlepping around. (Reading them, of course, is another matter.) The marginal gain of WebQuests over comparable textbook-based activities simply does not justify the enormous expenditures schools must pay for Internet access.

Back to Top

The Middle Years Digital Library Project

Resisting the natural temptation to give children our adult questions, the University of Michigan’s Middle Years Digital Library project (See mydl.eecs.umich.edu/ drivingquestions/) has created curriculum units supporting teachers that allow students to generate their own driving questions. The children care about the questions they generate; their focus, energy, and final artifacts reflect that motivation.

Now, having a class of 30, 11-year-olds right before lunchbreak construct scientifically meaningful, open-ended, topic-related questions is no mean feat! In fact teachers involved in the project they say that supporting, cajoling, and scaffolding children as they develop driving questions is the most pedagogically challenging activity in the curriculum unit.

While the MYDL project initially had students using standard Web search engines to find information relevant to their driving questions (such as OpenText), we found that even well-intentioned, kid-oriented search engines (such as Yahooligans)

  • Return too many hits (14,000 hits sorted alphabetically are simply unmanageable by 11-year-olds within a 50-minute period);
  • Include inappropriate material;
  • Provide no place to store results and observations; and
  • Provide no thesaurus (children need help generating good key words).

We attempted to address these search engine problems when constructing the University of Michigan Digital Library (UMDL). Some solutions:

  • Instead of filtering out material, librarians vet materials for UMDL inclusion. We replaced a Sisyphean Task (exclusion) with an almost impossible task (inclusion). Children, then, do not search the Internet per se; rather they search the materials registered in the library. Instead of a search engine returning 17,000 hits for, say, the comet Shoemaker-Levy, the UMDL returns seven hits that are relevant.
  • Artemis, UMDL’s interface, employs learner-centered scaffolds to help children over rough spots when conducting research.

Teachers like the UMDL/ Artemis; by explicitly addressing the problems children have with search engines, teachers’ loads are lightened, allowing for more time to focus on pedagogy as opposed to technology. Check out UMDL/Artemis (www.scienceseeker.org) and may your firewall and our Java code play nice with each other.

Back to Top

The Role of Discourse in Learning

As computer science professionals, we spend a healthy chunk of time attending conferences, participating in workshops, and interacting with colleagues. It’s the only way to keep up; it’s one of the ways we learn. Yes, we need to spend an equally healthy chunk of time quietly digesting what we have shared, but engaging in discourse is a very legitimate professional activity.

Similarly, after searching the Internet, 11-year-olds need to talk about why they found three different temperatures for lava. The group of 13-year-olds who have become expert in air pollutants might well be able to help younger students who are coming to that area of science for the first time.

The following is a list of the kinds of discourse that ought to be conducted in education but can’t right now due to the constraints of the classroom:

  • Audience. Children, especially, need an audience for their work.
  • Critiquing. An audience that provides critical feedback. Only by expanding outside the confines of the school can children find knowledgeable and interested readers.
  • Team work. Children have a knack for being interested in idiosyncratic topics. Working alone on such topics, hitting the walls and dead ends, is just plain difficult. But working with a companion makes all the difference in the world.
  • Tutoring. There are simply not enough teachers to go around; children can help teach each other.

Brick-and-mortar schools do not provide enough opportunities for these kinds of discourse. The Internet is the only mechanism that can provide the diversity of opportunities for discourse that is needed in K-12.

According to Metcalfe’s Law the value of a network grows as the square of the nodes connected to the network. For K-12, the value of the Internet, then, lies in the dramatically increased opportunities for discourse. The following are two examples of Web sites leveraging Metcalfe’s law and providing unprecedented opportunities for student discourse.

The Jason Project. Remember those field trips taken by bus during the school day? No? Most weren’t all that memorable, which is precisely the point. Creating a "real-world learning experience" is a serious endeavor. The Jason project (www.jason.org) provides this experience. And, with the growth of Internet, the experiences will continue to improve.

Robert Ballard, discoverer of the resting place of the RMS Titanic, founded the Jason project, providing children year-round scientific expeditions in their classrooms. Using live-feeds, video cameras, and telecommunications technologies, students can see and talk with deep-sea divers, archaeologists, and others. There are currently 750,000 children, up from 300,000 two years ago, utilizing Jason.

As the number of teachers and students participating in Jason increases, the variety of opportunities increases dramatically; teachers find other teachers who are interested in exploring particular geographical regions, and students find other students to correspond with on a particular interest.

MaMaMedia.com. Alan Kay observes that learning is "hard fun." Yes, there is stress and anguish and sweat in the process of learning, but good educators can create learning contexts where joy and pleasure go hand-in-hand with developing deep understanding. Moreover, schools have no monopoly on learning; Tinkertoys, puzzles, card games, and drawing all lead to considerable learning at home.

There is no better example of "hard" fun on the Internet than MaMaMedia.com. Children between the ages of six and 14 use MaMaMedia.com after school hours to play—to create an image, a cartoon animation, a greeting card, a story about today’s events, and to converse with a digital pen pal over a new installment of, say, a comic book story.

MaMaMedia implements an educational philosophy pioneered by Seymour Papert called "constructivism." In an appropriately created environment, kids willingly spend their time thinking and doing, doing and thinking, not just passively watching television. Instead of spending the typical few minutes on a Web site, children spend upwards of 30 minutes engaged on MaMaMedia.

In October 1998, MaMaMedia had 100,000 children logging on; in October 1999, 700,000 users logged on. Interestingly, besides children and teachers finding MaMaMedia.com engaging, essentially all the big Internet companies, from AOL to Netscape, from AT&T WorldNet to high bandwidth provider RoadRunner, want to associate themselves with MaMaMedia and link through their sites.

Back to Top


There is less than a 50% probability that on any given day kids will be able to access the Internet from their computers in the public schools in Detroit, Mich. All the mamamedia.coms and Jason projects in the world are for naught if computers and/or networks aren’t functional. The challenge is making the Internet a routinely usable resource in K-12 classrooms.

Back to Top

Making the Infrastructure Work

"Internet availability is experimental. Access and speed of access is not guaranteed."

This is the official policy of the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS). How does a teacher read this policy statement? "I am completely on my own when I use the Internet in my classroom."

A teacher needs to create two lesson plans—one for when the Internet works and one for when it doesn’t. It’s no wonder why Ann Arbor teachers might not choose to use the Internet.

Let’s be really honest: AAPS is no different than most school districts with respect to classroom Internet use, except that they at least publicly admit that it’s not a supported resource.

If computers in the school are misconfigured, then a working network is irrelevant. As Barry Fishman has pointed out: "Calling school computers ‘personal computers’ is an oxymoron." They are used eight hours a day by different students, teachers, curriculum coordinators, technology teachers, and school media specialists; they are anything but personal.

In Detroit, use of a Windows program requires setting the monitor to 256 colors; it crashes at other settings. Heck of a program but not atypical. Now, what’s the probability that 30 kids using 15 computers in a lab can change monitor settings at the beginning of class and restore them at the end of class? Zero. And forget about those cute macros that could carry out this particular task. Who is going to set it up and restore it when a child inadvertently (or not) deletes it?

PCs are simply not appropriate for general use in schools. Public schools are not equipped to keep PCs up and running. Figuring in viruses, computer crashes, ill-behaving programs, games loaded by children and others, playful exploration of the settings, and cheap plastic keyboards and housing, PCs become rubble after a year of student pounding. Thin-client computing, or timesharing, where there is only a monitor and keyboard on the child’s desk, is the only way to go for schools.

A major reason we see so many problems with school computers and their networks is that the IT departments in school districts are primarily focused on supporting the needs of the administrative, financial, and personnel groups of the school district. Unfortunately curricular needs are the lowest priority. Historically, computers were first used not for curricula but to deal with accounting, payroll, and record keeping. Only recently has the curricular side of school districts demanded routine and reliable computing. Unfortunately curricular needs take a back seat when the payroll must be done, or when attendance records must be processed, or when 180,000 lunches need to be ordered.

In order for computing to become a first-class citizen in the curriculum, a major change in mindset needs to occur in the school district’s organization. Teachers are not going to use unreliable, improperly outfitted computers on a routine basis. And why should they? For our children to gain the benefit of the technology, the curricular and the administrative groups must work together to iron out their needs and priorities.

Back to Top


While education is continually beset by fads, the Internet is not one of them. The Internet is a technology closer to fire than to BetaMax or the Edsel. It is withstanding the test of time. Moreover, the Internet is a natural resource for K-12 education; it supports access to resources and access to discourse opportunities. To make this point stronger:

  • The only way children are going to find resources that address their driving questions is by using the Internet.
  • The Internet is the only mechanism that can provide the diversity of opportunities for discourse needed in K-12 education.

That said, there is sincere pushback from those that argue the Internet’s high cost: we didn’t have the Internet to learn when we were in school, there’s pornography on the Web, and so on and so forth. While we suppose there might be some merit to these arguments, we can’t let ourselves be deterred. Today’s students truly need the Internet; it is this generation’s opportunity to revitalize public education’s key democratic institution.

Back to Top

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More