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October 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 2

Toward a 24/7 Learning Community

Increasing numbers of students have access to the Internet at home. How can schools expand student learning opportunities outside the classroom?

At 8:30 p.m., Ms. Saunders' 8th grade science class is deep into a discussion about global warming.
"What evidence do we have of worldwide temperature trends?" Ms. Saunders asks.
"I found this site full of statistics," writes Susan, as she posts a Web address.
"Suze, I'm looking at that site right now, and I think you'll want to confirm these stats with another source," responds classmate Jorge.
"Just because they're from an environmental group?" interjects Marti. "I'm looking at the background area on the site, and the research seems solid."
"Here's a government agency site that confirms what Susan found," breaks in Morgan. "Great graphics, huh?"
"Morgan, can you and Susan figure out how best to compare the stats side-by-side?" Ms. Saunders asks.
"I'll set up a spreadsheet and e-mail it to you, Morgan," Susan says. "Maybe you can do a chart?"
"Jorge and Marti, your assignment is to track down some counter statistics," Ms. Saunders continues.
Marti types, "Jorge, let's get together at 9:30 . . . my mom's calling me to do the dinner dishes."
"Same chat room?" Jorge asks.
"I'll Instant Message you if you're on."
"Thanks, guys," Ms. Saunders says. "See you all in 12 hours!"
Students and teachers so engaged in a topic that they extend the school day into the evening? Kids collaborating in real time, using sophisticated tools? Critical-thinking skills developing through group analysis of Web resources?
Such exchanges may seem like science fiction. Yet teachers and students in school communities across the country are taking advantage of the explosive growth of Internet access on home computers to do exactly those things.
At the same time, school leaders are grappling with the reality that not every child has a computer and Net connection at home. Educators may wonder whether they can, and should, put a brake on any headlong rush to assume that students can be connected 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

A Snapshot of Home Access

Recent statistics show that almost two-thirds of all family households have home computers and that 46 percent of those households are connected to the Internet. More than 17 percent of children currently have online access from home, with the number expected to almost double within the next five years (Grunwald Associates, 2000). From 1997 to 1998, home-Internet access increased 53 percent for white households, 52 percent for African American households, and 48 percent for Hispanic households (National Telecommunications and Information Administration [NTIA], 1999).
Despite the increase in home-Internet access, persistent and troubling gaps remain. Although more than half of the children from families with incomes of $75,000 or more currently use the Internet from home, the same is true of only 12 percent of kids with family incomes of less than $40,000 (Grunwald Associates, 2000). Among two-parent households earning less than $35,000 per year, white households are nearly three times as likely as their African American counterparts and nearly four times as likely as Hispanic households to have Internet access (NTIA, 1999).
Even given these digital divides, however, students with home-Internet access are becoming numerous enough for schools to begin taking good advantage of the connection. Further, private-sector businesses are proliferating to support and extend Internet access for all students. Given these trends, let's look at some of the ways schools are taking advantage of their students' home-Internet access.

Online Schools

Like practically every other U.S. institution, schools have been scrambling over the past few years to develop their own Web presences. The number of school sites has exploded, with recent statistics showing that more than two-thirds (67 percent) of schools have their own home pages (Quality Education Data [QED], 2000). Most of these sites function as news bulletins, containing information about the school's administrative structure, policies, schedules, and special events. Their audience is typically parents and the community at large, but many families (as many as 65 percent of those with children ages 9 through 12) simply don't use the sites on a regular basis (Grunwald Associates, 2000).
Instead, Internet-connected families are looking for more personal and interactive connections with schools. More than 60 percent of these families want to be able to communicate online with teachers and more than 50 percent want to do the same with the local school board. Nearly 60 percent of the families say that they want to view their children's schoolwork online (Grunwald Associates, 2000).
Schools are slowly beginning to respond to these demands. Only a little more than one-quarter of teachers report that they exchange e-mail with parents. Slightly more than 18 percent of schools use their Web sites to post homework assignments (QED, 2000). Over the past year or so, a number of companies have emerged to accelerate and extend these communication channels. For example, PowerSchool and Chancery Software's K12 Planet allow the school to make such student information as grades and attendance available to parents online. Companies like HiFusion, bigchalk.com, Blackboard, and Lightspan.com provide teachers with tools for posting homework assignments for students and parents to read. Most of these companies also encourage parent-teacher e-mail exchanges.

Beyond the Homework Hotline

In addition to facilitating communication, the Internet has already transformed the nightly realities of homework for students and their teachers. Most teachers tell both horror stories and miraculous tales about the impact of the Internet on their students' out-of-class work. On the downside is how information-packed Web sites can lull even well-intentioned students into plagiarism (or at least very sloppy research). "The younger the student, the more she or he is apt to just copy and paste information, literally without reading it, to fulfill the requirement of so many typed pages," says Robin Morgan, technology specialist at Pine Ridge High School in Deltona, Florida. To combat this tendency, Morgan requires her students to do all of their prewriting, drafting, and revising in class and to provide printouts and bookmarks for any Web information they plan to use.
At the same time, teachers such as Morgan recognize that Net access allows their students to explore subjects and tap into sources that would be inaccessible in an all-print world. Many teachers embrace the Internet as an instructional tool, providing homework assignments and announcements via the Web, posting links for students to explore in and out of class, and inviting electronic homework submissions. This is especially true in school communities where home-computer ownership and Net access are the rule rather than the exception. "I do ask the students to do most of their writing at home on the computer," says Katherine Wallis, a 5th grade teacher at Episcopal Day School in Pensacola, Florida. "Many of them prefer it." In fact, close to 50 percent of students ages 9 through 17 say that they use their home-Internet connection for education—more than for any other purpose, including e-mail or games (Grunwald Associates, 2000).
Researching homework assignments and drafting papers is just the beginning, however. Both students and teachers are discovering that the Internet is as much about person-to-person connections as it is about information. For a truly eye-opening experience, spend time in the homework-focused chat rooms in the Kids Only area of America Online. For prescribed periods, teachers field students' questions in real time, and there are plenty of takers. Students queue up to pose queries ranging from "What's the correct name of the Indian tribe, Blackfoot or Blackfeet?" to "Help, I can't figure out how to multiply 7/8 and 9/10!" It's a text-based, lightning-paced version of the homework hotline model, but one in which other students can see (and possibly benefit from) both the question and response, which typically takes the form of "here's how to figure it out." Student-only chat rooms, on the other hand, are rife with desperate pleas for "the answer."
Some services seek to make chat rooms the direct extension of specific classrooms, restricting access to a teacher and his or her students. Other services extend that model by providing online whiteboards for scrawling and correcting everything from equations to draft charts.
Take the person-to-person interaction to the next level, and you have online-tutoring services, which connect students with personal online help for subjects from algebra to the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). Companies such as Tutornet and TopTutors.com provide these services by subscription, often contracting with schools to make online tutors available to kids at home. In fact, close to 60 percent of families with incomes of $40,000 or less say they are somewhat or very interested in online tutoring (Grunwald Associates, 2000).

Toward Community

But for many technology-focused educators, the holy grail of the connected school community isn't just better homework. They'd like to see the Net bring to their students the kind of group synergies that technology makes possible in the "real world," where work teams conduct projects across great distances and communities form around common interests.
For example, principal Kevin Silverberg of Centennial Elementary School in Bakersfield, California, admires the Web-quest model facilitated by companies such as Classroom Connect. During the online AmericaQuest project last spring, 4th through 6th graders at Centennial participated with kids from across the country to direct the work of a team of researchers in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest. For example, when the scientists discovered what appeared to be human bones in a streambed, they posed the question to their student colleagues: Should we explore this find in-depth or, in keeping with Native American cultural preferences, leave the bones alone? Children from Centennial and across the country cast their votes and got the results in real time. The students overwhelmingly preferred that the bones be left undisturbed, so that's exactly how the researchers proceeded. "It was almost magical, the way the kids bonded with these scientists," Silverberg says.
In addition to carrying out their quests in class, students at Centennial conducted research at home and regularly checked the expedition's progress from their home computers. "Different kids were in charge of the project each day, and they were always excited about presenting what they'd discovered overnight," Silverberg says. Online projects that use technology to extend students' experiences far beyond the classroom and family-room walls are especially compelling to teachers and school leaders, he adds.
Technologies that create the equivalent of an online intranet for communities formed around a common interest—such as eCircles.com—also intrigue educators. Using a combination of group e-mail, chat, message boards, and shared online photographs and graphics, such services make it possible for geographically dispersed cooperative learning groups to work outside and inside the classroom. Students can produce remarkable projects, as demonstrated by the long-lived ThinkQuest program, which allows teams of students (often on opposite ends of the globe) to collaborate on researching, designing, and maintaining their own information-rich Web sites on topics of interest to them, from chemistry to rock and roll.

Investing in the Future

Few educators believe that they should require students to participate in such collaborative projects—much less online homework posting or class chat room discussions—from home, given the disparities in Internet access outside the school building. But as home computers and Net accounts become more common, schools are beginning to explore how to make the most of home computers. A number of schools across the country now have laptop programs that let students carry their computing power with them wherever they go, including home at night. Governor Angus King of Maine, for example, recently proposed providing laptops to every 7th grader in his state. In other places, donated computers that might have once ended up in classrooms are refurbished and given to needy families. The Dallas Independent School District, through its Connect a Student to Technology program, distributed thousands of refurbished computers last spring.
With computer prices dropping, inexpensive Net-access devices proliferating, and the rise of free Internet service, most families—certainly those above the lowest income levels—might soon be able to equip their kids with these latest school tools. Already, children's education is the number one reason most families now give for investing in home technology, and families use that technology primarily for educational purposes (Grunwald Associates, 2000). Many educators want to take full advantage of those trends. "I see it as the school's responsibility to push the issue with parents," says Kevin Silverberg, whose school already has about 45 percent of its homes online. "With everything from our school Web site to the kinds of projects we involve our students in, we need to give families plenty of reasons to make that investment for their kids."

Grunwald Associates. (2000, June). Children, families and the Internet 2000. San Mateo, CA: Author. Available: http://grunwald.com.

National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA). (1999, July). Falling through the Net: Defining the digital divide. [Online]. Available: www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/digitaldivide.

Quality Education Data (QED). (2000). Internet usage in public schools 2000 (5th ed.). Available: www.qeddata.com.

Mickey Revenaugh has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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