August 14, 2002

The Digital Disconnect: The widening gap between Internet-savvy students and their schools

Part II: Main Findings

The Schooling of Internet-Savvy Students

With the exception of two focus groups of students selected to provide insights into the experiences of non- or light-Internet users, we spoke to students with a range of Internet skills and experiences—from novices to frequent users to unabashed experts.  While all the students in our groups use the Internet at school, often to conduct online research under teacher direction, most also use the Internet in other locations for significantly more time: at home, at a friend’s house, at a relative’s house, and, at the library or community center.

Many of the students in our sample were casual users of the Internet.  These students may have an email account or two and may frequent their favorite Web sites while online, but their comments sometimes indicated only a basic understanding and familiarity with the many potential uses of the Internet.  That is not to say that the Internet was unimportant to them, just that they might be as likely to do school work offline as online. 

The students who were most striking to us, however, were those who were the most Internet savvy.  Many of these students have been online for five or six years already; they are technologically literate; and they maintain multiple email addresses and instant messaging (IM) identities.  While online, they frequently are multitasking:  conducting research for a paper, printing an online study guide for a book they are reading, downloading music, instant messaging simultaneously with dozens of friends, emailing other friends, and preparing a PowerPoint presentation for class the next day. While they may not be online hours every day, these students rely heavily on the Internet for school and their social lives.  The teen survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life suggests that perhaps 30% to 40% of teenagers fall into this Internet-savvy category. They represent a large and growing cohort of technologically-elite students.11

In fact, if you ask these students, as we did, what would happen to them if someone waved a magic wand and took their Internet access away, many would tell you—in all seriousness—that they would just die. 

  • It *is* my education.  I get all my information off the Internet.  I don’t even look at books anymore.”   – High School Boy
  • I think most of us are just accustomed to using it.  I mean we just think that it’s there for us.  And, I’m not sure if I’ll phrase this right, but it’s like we’re…addicts.  We need it and when you take it away it’s not…it’s a little bit harder to live without it.”  – High School Girl
  • “I think the reason that we use the Internet so well and that we know so many things about it is because when it happened, we were there.  So, it’s not like it is some foreign language that we have to learn.  It is something that we know, and we can apply what we know to find more things and then learn.”  – High School Boy

What seems clear is that the experience of schooling recounted by many of the most Internet-savvy students in our group is fundamentally different from their parents.  It is fundamentally different from their older siblings. Sometimes, it is fundamentally different even from their own classmates.  Internet-savvy students believe that their use of the Internet helps them complete their schoolwork more quickly; prevents them from getting stymied by academic material they don’t understand; lets them cite the most up-to-date material in their papers and projects; and, allows them to be better at juggling their school assignments and extracurricular activities.  In essence, they told us they are better able to navigate their way through school and spend more time learning in depth about the things that are most important to them personally. 

According to these students, some of their teachers try to take advantage of the extra “something” they seem to posses by asking them to share their skills and knowledge with their classmates. Other teachers try to limit these students and their Internet use in an attempt to reduce the very real differences between them and their less tech-savvy peers. Still other teachers are at a loss as to how to accommodate them or do not even recognize that their students have an increasingly new set of needs and expectations for learning that are based on using the Internet.

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.  And, when teachers and schools do react, often it is in ways that make it more difficult for students who have become accustomed to using the Internet to communicate and access information. 

In the sections that follow, we describe how Internet-savvy students think about the Internet, how they use it for school, and how they often experience barriers (real and perceived) to greater school-related use of the Internet.  The paper concludes with several policy considerations that have been raised by the students themselves about how to exploit the Internet at school and in other learning situations. 

Virtual Metaphors: How Internet-Savvy Students Think About and Use the Internet for School

  • “Creating class specific Web pages, updating the school’s Web site, completing research projects, taking online class quizzes, learning interactively, translating text, contacting teachers when absent, and monitoring my grades are just a few of the more evident ways I use the Internet in and for school.  Truthfully, there is no best use in my opinion.”  – High School Boy

Internet-savvy students provided us with a rich portrait of how they use the Internet for school—describing literally dozens of online learning activities.  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.  They frequent Web sites pointed out to them by teachers—some of which have 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 ways in which Internet-savvy students speak about the Internet in relation to their schooling is closely related to the daily tasks and activities in their young lives.  In other words, the Internet’s value for students is determined by the tasks they need to complete, the things they enjoy, and the things they want to learn both in and out of school.

  • “I’m constantly amazed at the vast resources that are available on virtually any topic that comes to mind.  I rarely approach any assignment or question without first consulting online resources…. Practically every area of my life has been impacted by my experiences on the Web.  The Internet has been a gift to my life.”  – High School Girl

There is no single way to describe how these students use the Internet for school.  Rather, students make reference to five different metaphors for how they think about and use the Internet for school:

  • The Internet as virtual textbook and reference library.  Much like a school-issued textbook or a traditional library, students think of the Internet as the place to find primary and secondary source material for their reports, presentations, and projects.  This is perhaps the most commonly employed metaphor of the Internet for school—held by both students and many of their teachers alike.
  • The Internet as virtual tutor and study shortcut.  Students think of the Internet as one way to receive instruction about material they are interested in or about which they are confused or unclear. Others view the Internet as a way to complete their schoolwork as quickly and painlessly as possible, with minimal effort and minimal engagement (For some, this includes viewing the Internet as a mechanism to plagiarize material or otherwise cheat).
  • The Internet as virtual study group.  Students think of the Internet as an important way to collaborate on project work with classmates, study for tests and quizzes, and trade class notes and observations. 
  • The Internet as virtual guidance counselor. Students look to the Internet for guidance about life decisions as they relate to school, careers, and postsecondary education.
  • The Internet as virtual locker, backpack, and notebook.  Students think of the Internet as a place to store their important school-related materials and as a way to transport their books and papers from place to place.  Online tools allow them to keep track of their class schedule, syllabi, assignments, notes, and papers.

These metaphors of how students think about the Internet are not mutually exclusive. They operate in a parallel fashion in their minds.  The most Internet-savvy students—particularly those that are the most industrious at multitasking—are able to shift effortlessly and unconsciously among any or all of them during any one online session.

  • “You can do so many things at once.  Like, if I’m on the Internet, I’m researching, doing homework, downloading music, and talking to people, and like, looking at Web sites…I do like five things at once on the Internet…and that’s good.” – High School Girl
  • “Without the Internet, my work for school would be done in a much different way and would take a whole lot longer to do.” – Middle School Boy

It is this way—really, these ways—of thinking about the Internet for school that separates these Internet-savvy students from their teachers, school administrators, and parents—all those who seem to students to be struggling to figure out how to introduce the Internet into the educational ecosystem.

  • “I think…[school] would be a lot better if parents and older people would get more information about the Internet, because, I mean…I don’t blame them, because they didn’t grow up with the Internet…I think that if there was a better understanding from parents and older people than I think education would skyrocket a lot.” –  High School Boy

Metaphor 1: The Internet as Virtual Textbook and Reference Library

  • “The Internet is basically, like, your local library times a thousand. [The material is] instantly available wherever there’s a computer.” – High School Girl
  • “In a small town school…one does not get many chances to quench fervent desires for knowledge.  Our science and history textbooks are at least a decade old, while most school projects require up-to-date, reliable information relevant to the new century.  Science and the world have advanced significantly from ten years ago.  Our textbooks are no longer the pillar, the heart of our education.  On the contrary, they are a laughable supplement most of the time ignored.  It is time to accept the new brainchild of the printed word.  The Internet has become the fastest way to find out about how exactly the Titanic sank (English project, 2002), what kind of jewelry the people of ancient Indus Valley wore (Social Studies project, 2000), or what exactly an anesthesiologist’s day is like (Science project, 2001).” – Middle School Girl

Internet-savvy students told us that the online world offers many advantages over the alternatives—school-issued textbooks and their school and community libraries.  They said the Internet is much easier and more convenient to access than their school and community libraries.  It is as close as the nearest Internet connection—which is often in their homes—and does not require a ride in a car or bus to get to.  It is open late into the evenings, over the weekends, and over holidays.  It is very important to them that online material is up-to-date (though of sometime dubious quality), always available to everyone (as distinct from a library book that might be checked out by a classmate), and is available on a vast array of interesting topics. 

  • “I still use books, but combining them with the information found online is what makes them valuable in my eyes, because once textbooks are printed the information in them becomes increasingly more stagnant, whereas, with the always lively and ever-changing Internet, recent discoveries in any academic topic are made readily available.” – High School Boy

Students told us that school and community libraries have limited selections of multimedia, while online sites routinely offer downloadable graphic images, photographs, animations, video, and sound.  School and community libraries require students to wait in line to check out books or other materials and pay to use a copier machine to duplicate important material for projects and reports.  Material online, however, can be printed directly from the Internet onto a local printer.  Reproducing material in reports and projects without the Internet requires students to re-type it or—literally—cut-and-paste it into a document with scissors and tape.  Online material can be virtually cut-and-pasted directly into digital reports, presentations, and papers.  And, students said, visiting the virtual library can be done while wearing pajamas, eating a snack, listening to music, chatting with friends (via instant messaging or email), and making sure your little brother or sister isn’t getting into trouble while Mom or Dad is out running errands.

  • “[The Internet] made looking for these poems a whole lot easier than having to go up to some strange librarian who was enjoying her Diet Coke and would do just about anything to get these people out of the library to go on her break.  The Internet is like having a virtual librarian minus the bad attitude and breath.” – Middle School Girl

While many students rely on the Internet as a virtual textbook and reference library, it can also be a cause for frustration and anxiety.  Perhaps the single greatest irritation facing students is their use of search engines that point them to online information that is not trustworthy or understandable to them.  Students said that it is often hard to find information online that is specifically related to the topic they are exploring and comprehensible at their age and grade level. 

  • “I once took notes and wrote an essay from a ‘perfect’ site for a biography I was supposed to write on a famous person.  All the information turned out to be wrong, and I had to do it all over again.  We need to be protected from those embarrassing situations!”  – Middle School Girl

When asked how they find material online, the students in our group said they turn first to commercial search engines on the Web, such as to: www.google.com, www.yahoo.com, and www.askJeeves.com (or its companion site, www.ask.com).  With varying degrees of sophistication, they probe long lists of links that often contain many irrelevant sites.  For some of the less Internet-savvy students, using these search engines quickly and efficiently can be a significant challenge. 

Another frustration students encountered was that not all of the sources they would like to use are available online and some of those that students would like to use require a payment or subscription fee to be viewed, downloaded, or printed.  Students also expressed concerns about frequent interruptions by online advertisements, many of which have distinctly adult overtones to them.  The persistence of these distractions (especially their “push” aspects as evidenced in multiple pop-up windows and pop-up windows that resist closing) stymies students, discourages them from using the Internet, and ties up their Internet connections and computers.

Finally, a number of these students feel that the Internet lacked sites written in languages other than English. They said they would like greater language diversity online.  They want such sites so that they can communicate in a language they are studying or in their primary or secondary language.

  • “I think there should be a more diverse group of languages on the Internet so students who speak a different language can understand better.”  – Middle School Girl

Metaphor 2: The Internet as Virtual Tutor and Study Shortcut

  • “I really try hard to get good grades in school, but sometimes it’s hard.  Especially when it comes to homework. But I heard about a Web site.  I think the address is: www.about.com.  Anyway, it helps you with homework that normally gets you confused.”  – Middle School Girl

Our online students told us they view the Internet as a way to find material on subjects they want to pursue in more depth. It is also a source for information about subjects they find difficult to comprehend in school.  Many find the information and study aids on the Internet genuinely useful in completing their day-to-day assignments.  Others also noted that using the Internet is a way to complete their schoolwork as quickly and painlessly as possible, with minimal effort and minimal engagement. 

While finding good tutorials online is sometimes a challenge for students, many reported that when they hit pay dirt, it often meant the difference between understanding a topic or not. For these students, the Internet provides ways of presenting material that differs from how it is presented in school, and this makes the material more understandable to them.  In fact, students related that it was often the key to getting better grades in school.

  • “One time, it was right before my final exams in French last year, and my French teacher was not very good at explaining stuff at all, and I spent the entire year completely confused on like these five different verb tenses that he’d never managed to get across to me in class. And all of a sudden, like, the night before the final exam, I suddenly stumbled across this Web site that explained everything so succinctly and clearly that it made so much sense, and, you know, I emailed it to all of my friends… that was definitely good. Like I think the Internet is really good for these foreign languages.”   – High School Girl
  • “I remember last year I took the IB [International Baccalaureate] program, and I was preparing for the IB psychology, but honestly our teacher is not qualified to be teaching the course. She admitted to us that the only reason she became a teacher was because it was too hard to become a psychologist…and so I hadn’t really learned anything that year… I was searching on the Internet, and I stumbled across a site full of notes for the IB psychology test, and I used that to prep.  Of course, I sent that to my friends too.”  – High School Boy

Some students also participate in online chats and discussions with teachers (both their own and other teachers) to get assistance with their schoolwork.  Particularly helpful for some students are tutoring Web sites that allowed them to submit questions and communicate, online, with a teacher about their specific work (for instance, www.mathnerds.com).

Still, students’ reliance on such sites at times has a downside. Virtually all those in our focus groups reported that they or other students they know sometimes use these online study and tutoring sites as shortcuts to completing schoolwork or for completing assignments.

  • “I also use the Internet to actually find answers for stuff.  I know it’s a little unethical but there are tons of sites with answers to specific books I have.  For example http://www.ihatevocab.com/ has all the answers to a specific workbook that I have.  Also, sometimes I’ll find essays on the Internet that match essay topics from school.  I don’t totally plagiarize them, but usually I will change the words and just take the overall ideas in them.  I also use it to compare answers through emails with my friends and to find out what is due and when it’s due.”  – High School Boy
  • “I am still searching for a site where you can find your textbooks and answer your questions from the homework.  I’m still trying to find the site for that.  I mean I’ve come close but some of them do not provide all the answers.”  – High School Boy

Indeed, as a virtual tutor, the “Internet” cannot and does not judge when it is providing appropriate extra help to a struggling student and when it is being used as an improper shortcut to answers. Sometimes, the same online material can be used both ways. To take but two examples, Web sites such as www.sparknotes.com and www.pinkmonkey.com offer free online summaries and analyses of books often assigned in school.  Students report that these study aides are high quality and can be very helpful in disentangling complicated texts.  Many indicate that reading book notes available to them on these sites was vital to their understanding of what they were reading and to participating in class.  Others indicated—sometimes sheepishly and sometimes not—that it allows them to get away without reading the book.  In fact, most of our Internet-savvy students admit to knowing students who plagiarize Internet resources or use other online tools to cheat outright.

Given a choice, students said they would like more opportunities to communicate with their teachers outside of class via email and instant messaging for extra help.  In lieu of that opportunity, they turn to other resources external to their school on the Web.

  • “If we’re on the same team, you can get a lot further with stuff.  I’ve two teachers in the school who are online all the time, and they’re available.  I might be online with them…the fact that they’re available for any small questions that I might have, that just helps open up an additional resource.”  – High School Boy

Metaphor 3: The Internet as Virtual Study Group

  • “So it’s not just the paradigm where the Internet is the library.  It’s not the library, it’s a chat room…You can talk to people from somewhere else, compare notes, or whatever.” – High School Boy

Internet-savvy students also told us they use the Internet as a way to collaborate on schoolwork with their classmates.  Employing email and instant messaging technologies, students say they create, join, leave, rejoin what might be called “virtual study groups” at will.  Sometimes these study groups are synchronous – that is, students collaborate in real-time together.  At other times, the collaborations are asynchronous: They occur with some time delay between communications to account for, say, dinner with parents or the time spent watching a television show. 

  • “Not only do I do research online, but I also use it for chatting with people for school. If I forget my assignment or need assistance on a concept I can not grasp, the Internet is an easy way for me to get in touch with a peer who might be an aid to me.”  – High School Girl
  • “In my school, the teachers don’t really help you that much so they give you the assignment and tell you to do your best.  But, a lot of people know a lot about search engines and you can learn a lot from them, from working in groups.”  – Middle School Girl
  • “Yeah, if I am doing a project in school, I can go on the Internet and ask a good friend or something.” – Middle School Boy

Another reason students exploit virtual study groups is the ease with which they can share the information.  Students say that it is common for them to use study groups to trade references to Web site links and sharing papers and presentations on which they are working–especially since one student can find a good resource and instantly share it with each of his or her friends.  Many students report they like online study groups better than face-to-face ones because face-to-face study groups can be difficult to arrange and difficult to drop in and out of.  An interruption or diversion does not necessarily disrupt a virtual study group.  Virtual study groups allow students more control over their time and a way to more easily share materials as they simultaneously undertake both online and offline tasks.


Metaphor 4: The Internet as Virtual Guidance Counselor

Students also look to the Internet as an important source for advice on career and postsecondary options.  Students say this virtual guidance counselor helps them select which college to attend, prepare for college admissions examinations, and complete college applications.  Indeed, a Pew Internet & American Life survey in January showed that 11 million Americans who chose a school or college for themselves or a child in the past two years say their use of the Internet played a crucial or important role in that decision.12

  • “I have used the Internet also to find out stuff about colleges.  There are lots of Web sites out there that give reviews on colleges and just different data.”  – High School Boy
  • Now I’m even looking for a college to go to in three years.  I [don’t] like to… have to worry about it at the last minute.”  – High School Girl
  • “I can find out what I can expect in the next grades up, or, if I think a little further, what college I might attend. If someone recommends a university online and I’m interested, I can just pull up another window and search for that on the Web and find out more.”  – Middle School Girl

Some students view job search sites, such as www.monster.com or www.hotjobs.com, as a way to learn more about what is required of workers in various industries and what sort of salaries they might expect. This information, they noted, is typically not readily available from school guidance counselors or parents, so the Internet fills a very important informational role for them.  Others seek out specialized sites with pertinent career information.

  • “We got on the Internet and did research on the job we wanted when we were older.  I want to be a veterinarian.  I learned how much they make, and what qualifications are needed to be a vet.”  – Middle School Girl
  • “The site that I am on the most is http://projectgreenlight.liveplanet.com/.  Considering that I would like to be a movie screenwriter, this site is perfect.  It has contests, message boards, scripts, and lots more.”  – High School Boy

Importantly, many students told us they rely heavily on the Internet because they do not have much in the way of tutoring and counseling resources offline or do not feel comfortable in using them. In addition, they said the Internet provides a number of other advantages for them: As a resource, it is always available. It has “patient” character. It allows them to be anonymous, if they choose. It is non-judgmental. And, perhaps most important, it allows them to do many things at the same time.

  • “There are lots of people that don’t realize what they have to do to graduate so when they are seniors they say ‘Oh my gosh, I have to make up these classes.’  So, I think it would be a good idea if you could check and have that access, because you could go to your counselor, but most don’t.” – High School Girl


Metaphor 5: The Internet as Virtual Locker, Backpack, and Notebook

A major part of school consists of managing information, materials, and paperwork.  Students report they used the Internet to not only gather important materials and documents, but also to transport them back and forth to school, to work, to their friends’ homes, and to all of the other places they frequent.

  • “The great thing about the Internet from my point of view is that it saves me having to carry two hundred pounds worth of books, my binders, my work, my whatever paper I’m working on….I have all my stuff.  I have a hotmail account.  I email myself every paper I’m working on and I know I’ve got the computer here, I’ve got the computer at my internship and I’ve got it at home.  So, wherever I am, if I have a couple of free minutes, I pull it out, get whatever paper I’m working on, go with it, and when I’m done I email it back to myself…I’ve got a couple of different versions that I can work on anywhere and wherever I am, and be able to finish anything that I’m working on piecemeal. Serious!”  – High School Boy
  • “We need to send our schoolwork to ourselves.  If you can’t do that, then how can you get it to yourself?”  – High School Girl
  • “Disks are annoying…they always crack in your bag and stuff.”  – High School Boy

Many students told us they maintain records of emails and links to important Web sites, including sites for their school assignments, course syllabi, required readings, grades, attendance records, school schedules, and school course catalogs.  

  • “The Internet [was] also…very useful to inform me about an upcoming event happening at school. Doing this saved the school a lot of money on postage or phone bills. If schools would have a Web site, they could inform people about snow days, activities, lunch menus, and so on.”  – Middle School Boy

Some students reported having school-allotted network space in which they could store their files.  Most students do not have this level of access via their schools, however, and would like it.  Indeed, when they could depend on access, students told us that using the Internet as virtual locker, backpack, and notebook saves them time and makes their lives more convenient.

Digital Disconnect: How Students Use the Internet During School

Conventional wisdom suggests that schools should be the focal point for educational Internet use.  After all, Internet access in schools and classrooms has dramatically increased in recent years due in large part to high-profile public policy initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels.  Policy makers and administrators have focused resources on improving the professional development of teachers to integrate technology into their classrooms and whole new categories of school personnel—state, district, and school instructional technology coordinators—have emerged to assist with technology planning and implementation.

Yet, the vast majority of students from whom we collected data say their use of the Internet at school is altogether another matter.  While students do indeed rely on the Internet to complete their schoolwork and manage their day-to-day educational activities, they say their Internet use occurs mostly outside of the school day, outside of the school building, outside of the direction of their teachers.

  • “At our school, we don’t use the Internet.  We have it available but it’s mostly for the high school students.  The older kids, they have the Internet class…. If you want to use the Internet for a project, it has to be on your own time…at home, or whatever.” – Middle School Boy

The primary reasons for this digital disconnect between how students use the Internet for school and how schools have them use the Internet are tied to the ways that schools and teachers are oriented towards the Internet, their inability in many instances to integrate online tools into schooling, and the real and perceived barriers students face as they seek Internet access.

School Administrators Set the Tone for Student Internet Use

Internet-savvy students make clear that school leaders—more so than individual teachers—set the tone for Internet use in their classes.  The differences across schools from which our students were drawn are striking.  Schools have different levels of access to the Internet, different requirements for student technology literacy skills (i.e., some schools required students to take a course that taught them basic computer and Internet skills, others had no such requirement), and different restrictions on student Internet access. 

  • “The quality of the computers at my school is very poor, which is an enormous factor in the limited time that I have for Internet usage…. I would hope that my school is thinking about upgrading or even replacing the overused computers in my school, especially in my computer lab.  The teachers are always asking the network administrator to come and fix the broken ones, but it seems as though he is way too busy to worry about those kind of things.” – High School Boy

Some of the more Internet-savvy schools offer a range of classes that require the use of the Internet—on such topics as Web site design or e-commerce—or allow students to take wholly online courses.  Other schools maintain school Web sites that contain up-to-date information about the school, its schedule and events.  Some schools encourage teachers to provide their email addresses to students and their parents.  And, some Internet-savvy schools even provide students with remote access over the Internet to password-protected personalized network folders and files—online access to virtual school lockers, if you will.  In contrast, 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.

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 (often as a supplement to other sources and tools), or even forbid its use. 

  • “We use the Internet at school just because the teachers tell us to.  Mostly, I use the Internet for school in history, because our teacher gives us worksheets.” – Middle School Girl
  • “Well, I never had a teacher that assigned an assignment that was based completely on the Internet.” – High School Girl
  • “I’m taking a course called video production, and our teacher is telling us not to work out of books.  She actually requires us to do our stuff on the Internet.  There’s this one Web site that we usually go to.” – High School Boy
  • “Sometimes our teacher gives us a whole entire page of work we need to do on the computer, and we’ll work in partners and will spend the whole entire day just learning about the things our teacher tells us to learn, and then we write it all down on this paper and turn it in at the end of class.” – Middle School Boy
  • “I never really got an assignment that specifically said you have to use the Internet.” – High School Boy

The decision to make an assignment involving use of the Internet is influenced by many factors: the ease of in-school access to the Internet, the school’s orientation toward the use of the Internet, a teacher’s Internet skills and knowledge, and a teacher’s sense of whether students have home access to the Internet or not.

Students also told us that the types of assignments that teachers make and how often they make them is a function of the subject matter they teach.  The students told us that teachers of social studies/history, science, and English classes are the most likely to assign them work that requires the use of the Internet.  Math teachers were reported to be the least likely to use the Internet in their classrooms. 

Some Internet-Based Assignments Are Engaging, Many Are Not

  • “Our teachers usually… don’t really know what to do with it.” – High School Boy

The way that students use the Internet for school is largely driven by the kinds of activities and assignments that teachers create.  Thus, we asked students to tell us about the kinds of Internet-based activities and assignments they receive from their teachers. We asked students to cite examples of “good” Internet-based assignments given to them by their teachers that engaged and excited them about the topic they were learning.  We also asked students to tell us about “bad” Internet-based assignments that seemed either unconnected to what they were learning, or misused the Internet, or were a “waste of time” or boring.  While students in all of our focus groups were able to relate examples of both exciting and poor instructional uses of the Internet, they said that the not-so-engaging uses were the more typical of their teachers’ assignments. 

  • “A…[biology] teacher made us go online and take surveys and it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  We did surveys on the parts of a frog that we knew.  It was really pointless and dumb.” – High School Girl
  • “We’d all have to go into the library and use the Internet.  Like, it would be so much simpler to use an encyclopedia or book.  I mean that sometimes teachers just want you to use the Internet because its the Internet – let’s integrate it into schools…Sometimes teachers just don’t know…when it’s easier to read a book and when it’s easier to use the Internet.” – High School Girl
  • “Doing labs online – that’s stupid.  I think practical is much better.  Interactive dissecting.  It’s stupid.” – High School Boy
  • “My teacher had us do a review of a Web site that didn’t have very much content to review.  It was a pretty good Web site, but there just wasn’t much to review about it, so…that wasn’t very much fun.” – High School Boy
  • “In English class last year we were supposed to be working on a Web page, but we got bored and downloaded music.” – High School Girl
  • “I also wholly agree about teachers generally encouraging people, at least at my school, not to use the Internet.  I remember, at least one teacher gave me an example, about some student who once turned in a paper with a citation from a Web site that claims the government created AIDS to control the population, and she said this was just some crazy guy, and it really didn’t work out.” – High School Boy
  • “I also use this online [career-matching program].  Its pretty worthless and a waste of money.  It helps you decide what you should do after high school.  It told me I should be a bowling machine repairman.  I swear it said that.  It is ridiculous.” – High School Boy

Despite the apparent prevalence of poor or rote uses of the Internet, students did speak at length about activities and assignments their teachers had developed that sparked their interest for learning, that exposed them to information and images of actual people and places, and otherwise helped students connect their day-to-day lives to their schoolwork. 

  • “I had a little group for my history class where, we, everybody in the class had to do a project, and my group was doing a painting of the west pediment of the Parthenon, and we had to use the Internet to find out what the sculpture actually looked like so we could paint it, because we had no idea what the sculpture looked like, and couldn’t paint it, which…and this would have been extremely hard to get without the Internet, we had to find the names of all the people in the sculpture and who they were, and we succeeded.” – High School Boy
  • “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.” – Middle School Boy
  • “Teachers ask us to use the Internet on projects, essays, vocabulary words, or they may just have some odds and ends for us to do.  In the subjects like Science, Religion, Social Studies, Computer, Language Arts, Family and Consumer Education we have used the Internet.  Teachers give us worksheets and then we have to go to the Web sites and find the answers. Some are very easy and some are very hard…. Also some of the assignments we get I love because we get to research some people we like or Black Americans like Jesse Owens.” – Middle School Girl
  • “For chemistry, we actually go to these sites.  Some of them are actually  helpful.  There are interactive movies that explained things.  It was really  a good way to study.”  – High School Boy
  • “In Science, we had to do this project on volcanoes.  [Our teacher] said  maybe you should go on the Internet to find out and see if there’s more  things you can learn about volcanoes…When I went on the Internet and it  had more things like why the volcano will explode and the types of gases  inside of it…or if there are any close to cities around the world – that  kind of stuff.  So, it made it easier to understand it and I got a good  grade on my assignment.”  – Middle School Boy
  • “What we are supposed to do is try and piece out a history of our family  tree.  Our teacher wanted us to see if we could find out from information on  the Internet.  She gave us some sites and others she wanted us to find out  on our own.  I found the Internet really helpful for that.” – Middle School Girl

In our conversations with students about the quality and nature of their Internet-based assignments, they repeatedly told us that they wanted to be assigned more—and more engaging—Internet activities that were relevant to their lives.  Indeed, many asserted that this would significantly improve their attitude toward school and learning.

Real and Perceived Barriers to Student Internet Use at and for School

The Internet is used differently by students depending on whether the use occurs inside or school or outside it. One reason for this disparity, of course, is time use.  Within a typical six-hour school day, students routinely move from place to place and from teacher to teacher, from math class to lunch to gym to English class, etc.  There is simply not much time within the school day for students to be sitting at Internet-connected computers.  Skipping lunch to be able to access the Internet for 10 or 15 minutes during the school day was seen as an acceptable trade-off for some students who felt like they needed that little extra in-school access.  That situation contrasts sharply with the online experiences of Internet-savvy students once they leave school. Some of the heaviest Internet-using students are online several hours a day—from when they come home from school until dinner and sometimes after dinner as well.  Students are simply much more in control of their time out of school than inside it.

In addition to time, the most substantial barrier to using the Internet at school is a lack of easy access to it. In many cases, this limited access has to do with a lack of enough Internet-connected computers—that are also in working condition—in schools and classrooms. 

  • “When I go to school, it takes a long time to get online, and by that time, the project you’re trying to do is already half over…it’s no use anyway.” – Middle School Girl

However, even in schools with considerable numbers of Internet-connected computers, students described the lack of access as more of a function of restrictions placed on their use.  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.  Of course, this is perhaps justified by the fact that students reported that some of them do use the Internet inappropriately at times to view adult-oriented sites, to shop while in school, to pirate and download music, etc.

  • “With all these benefits to the Internet, there are downfalls as well.  Along with all the useful information, there are Web sites that have to be restricted and monitored.  This can be a hassle for parents and administrators.  However, just like everything else, people have to be responsible, and in doing this, a lot of good can come.” –High School Girl
  • “At our school, we’re not allowed to use the Internet any more because some students were getting into bad stuff and then they take it out on us…. We have to go to the administrator – we have to ask her and she has to give us permission.  Then we’re allowed to go on it.” – Middle School Girl
  • “There are lab people who have a monitor and can send a message to say, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this.’  I was looking up cattle one day, and the message said, ‘you can’t be here and you have to get off of it.’”  – High School Girl
  • “There is a way for them to get into your computer.  You can be doing things and they can just take over your computer.  One day I was emailing a friend some work when she was sick at home.  The monitor told me I shouldn’t be doing that.  The principal came down and when they read it they said, ‘O.K.’” – High School Girl

While many students recognize the need and a desire to shelter teenagers from inappropriate material and adult-oriented commercial ads, they complain that blocking and filtering software raise significant barriers to their legitimate educational use of the Internet. 

  • “A lot of time when you use the Internet at school, you’ll get on a site – even for educational purposes – and you’ll be blocked out…They don’t think you can handle it, so it hinders your research.  I went on to the history page and I typed this thing about a country that I was doing and they wouldn’t let me see it and it happened four times and it got on my nerves so I stopped using the Internet for [the project].” – High School Boy
  • “Whenever I’m on the Internet here at school, there’s always somebody walking around behind you, checking over your shoulder to make sure you’re not doing anything inappropriate.  I think if you are going to learn, you have to do some inappropriate things.  If you’re learning history, you can’t just learn what is proper, you have to go read what others have written and some of it may just be inappropriate.” –High School Boy

In addition, many students describe schools that do not allow them to access their outside email accounts—the vast majority of students are not provided with school-sanctioned email accounts. In many cases, schools also prevent students from using instant messaging technologies, save their files to the school network, visit Web sites that teachers do not explicitly authorize them to visit, and—in perhaps the most extreme case we heard about—perform “right clicks” of their mouse to launch a (seemingly) innocuous pop-up menu within the Microsoft Windows operating system.

  • “Another thing about our computers at school is that they are all protected.  You can’t even ‘right click,’ you can’t send things or save things.  You can’t use the ‘right click’ or the ‘start menu,’ so it’s a waste and a hassle…I’d rather use the computer at the library or my house.” – High School Boy

One clear opportunity to leverage the use of the Internet for school would be for teachers to assign Internet-based homework to students.  While some students report that their teachers do assign Internet-based homework, the vast majority says their teachers make no such assignments.  In fact, we heard of more than one occasion when a teacher had made such an assignment only to rescind it shortly thereafter.  Why?  Not every student has access to the Internet outside of school.  Strikingly, students in every one of our focus groups provided this same rationale to us. 

  • “I want to point out that at most schools, they don’t really require you to use it at home, because, like I say, everybody doesn’t have access to the Internet, whether it be at home, or maybe they take it to a library, or, like our schools may not have Internet.” – Middle School Boy
  • “They don’t assign Internet usage because some kids don’t have the Internet or have computers, so we do most of it in the lab.” – Middle School Girl
  • “Like I said about that science project, at the school they don’t assign it.  If you honestly want to, you can do it at home…mostly, they don’t assign things for home on the Internet.” – Middle School Girl
  • “I think it really depends on the school here, though, because in my school teachers don’t expect that every student has the Internet…. Our school is different…we don’t have a lot of rich people, so we don’t have a real nice school.  When I was…[at another school], we actually did get a lot of assignments, Internet assignments.” – High School Boy
  • “My teachers, they don’t actually require you to do anything online, unless they’re taking you to a lab to do it, because some people don’t have the Internet at home, so they can’t get on.” – High School Boy

The reality, of course, is that not all students have computers at home. Even some who have computers are hampered because they are broken or outdated. Others have computers but do not have Internet access.

  • “My friend, she doesn’t have a computer.  I don’t know how she does her stuff, but she doesn’t have a computer or Internet.” – High School Boy
  • “I know a lot of times a lot of people say, ‘Oh, you can go online and do such and such.’…And even if you don’t have [the Internet] they say, ‘Oh, you can use the library.’  Sometimes that’s hard for people.  You don’t have a computer and maybe you don’t have the transportation to the library and it makes it really hard.” – High School Girl

Some students feel, however, that certain of their peers might exaggerate this lack of access—that students would claim not to have access to the Internet outside of school when they really did—as a way to avoid extra work. 

  • “It’s not like there aren’t computers in the library and they’re available all the time so I think it’s a pretty stupid excuse [that you don’t have a computer.]” – High School Girl

Either way, our focus group students seem to think that their teachers do not always have a good handle on the ease with which students could access the Internet outside of their particular class.

  1. The Pew Internet & American Life Project (June 2001). Teenage Life Online; op. cit.
  2. The Pew Internet & American Life report (May 2002). Use of the Internet at Major Life Moments. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2002/Use-of-the-Internet-at-Major-Life-Moments.aspx