TCS Daily

The Student-School Disconnect

By Joanne Jacobs - October 28, 2003 12:00 AM

For Johnny, J'Hani and Juanita, using the Internet is like using a TV or a microwave or a telephone. It's normal.


But when they're in school, it's a problem. They can't get to net-linked computers locked in the lab. Their searches are blocked by intrusive anti-porn filters. Some teachers don't give Internet-based assignments; others don't know how to design an engaging, useful assignment using the Internet.


The "digital divide" between highly wired middle-class students and computerless minorities is narrowing rapidly. But a "digital disconnect" still yawns between tech-savvy kids and their tech-fuddled elders.


NetDay, which led volunteer efforts to connect classroooms to the Internet, surveyed high school students:


  • 100% have used the Internet for information about college, careers, and jobs
  • 96% had at least one e-mail account (most had 3+)
  • 62% are online at least one hour every day
  • 87% ranked themselves as intermediate to expert users
  • 33% ranked their teachers as beginners


More than 78 percent of students 12 to 17 years old spend time online, estimates "The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap Between Internet-Savvy Students and Their Schools," a 2002 study by American Institutes for Research for the Pew Internet and American Life Project.


Internet-savvy students describe dozens of different education-related uses of the Internet. Virtually all use the Internet to do research to help them write papers or complete class work or homework assignments. Most students also correspond with other online classmates about school projects and upcoming tests and quizzes. Most share tips about favorite Web sites and pass along information about homework shortcuts and sites that are especially rich in content that fit their assignments. They also frequent Web sites pointed out to them by teachers -- some of which had even been set up specifically for a particular school or class. They communicate with online teachers or tutors. They participate in online study groups. They even take online classes and develop Web sites or online educational experiences for use by others.


The Internet can deepen learning: Some students use it to delve into subjects of interest. It also can help students avoid learning: It's so easy to cut and paste a report.


In any event, school computers don't seem to be much use to students.


For the most part, students' educational use of the Internet occurs outside of the school day, outside of the school building, outside the direction of their teachers.


Students want to use technology at school, but they see too many barriers. They told researchers they need easy access to school computers, teachers trained in technology use, classes on basic computer skills and more permissive filters.


The same themes are emerging from youth forums sponsored by the U.S. Education Department, which is working on a new National Education Technology Plan. Student input is supposed to be considered in putting together the plan.


In the forums, students complain of school computers that aren't available before, after or during school, intrusive filters and badly designed school web sites.


Suggestions include:


  • using students as technology trainers
  • using video conferencing to link parents with teachers and school board meetings
  • creating discussion forums on school web sites
  • better use of documentary video clips in lectures
  • giving teachers cellphones so they can answer homework questions in the evening.


The last isn't going to happen. Although a few charter schools give students their teachers' cellphone numbers and calling privileges, the supply of teachers without a life isn't all that large. Few schools can afford to pay staff to be on call till 10 pm every day.


More ideas are supposed to come from NetDay's Speak Up Day: On Oct. 29, as many as 500,000 students in all 50 states will log on from school to answer questions about their technology use and give their advice on how their schools can do better. You can download a survey -- the general question is at the end -- but it's set up to run through schools, which are supposed to register in advance.


A summary of results will go to the drafters of the national education technology plan. Whether anyone will listen to what students have to say is another question.


Joanne Jacobs is writing a book on a start-up charter school and blogging at

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