What Percentage? by Bob Sprankle

I'm currently finishing up my survey collection of Internet and media usage from 3rd and 4th graders. I've been doing this in the first few months of a new term for the past couple of years in order to see how student behavior has evolved online. The survey is invaluable as it helps me know how to adapt my lessons to the changing times and what resources I can offer parents. I'm learning that things have definitely changed since last year. The results show that there are more students using chat rooms, email, and instant messaging than previously reported. This year, I've been using some of my own questions, and others from the Common Sense Media resources. One question that I used from Common Sense Media for the first time this year was:

On a typical SCHOOL DAY (Monday-Friday), how many hours do you spend using the Internet for homework or school?

I was pleasantly surprised by the results to this question:

As you can see from the results above, more than half of the students surveyed (109 out of 199 students) report that they use the Internet for homework or schoolwork for an hour or more on a typical day. True, this may be "perception" more than reality, but they are clearly identifying the Internet as a tool that assists them academically. The irony here is that the number of teachers who actually assign Internet-related homework at my school is a minority. I know this because I asked the surveyed students if they currently have or previously have had a teacher who assigns homework that must be completed by way of the Internet. I must admit that when I was in the classroom I too was reticent to explicitly connect homework expectations to the use of the Internet because I knew that not all my students had easy access. I think this lack of Internet-homework is perhaps more prevalent in the elementary setting (which is where I teach). I know that when I assigned homework in my class, I worried about the family that would have to go find public Internet access to help the student accomplish the assignment. Perhaps teachers in the upper grades are more likely to assign Internet related homework because older students have more independent access to the Internet resources.

The interesting thing I found in talking with the students, is that even though teachers aren't mandating Internet use for homework, our elementary students are using it anyway. They understand that it is a natural fit for schoolwork and offers more than just games and online virtual worlds. Examples they gave for how they independently incorporate the Internet into their homework included:

  • looking up the correct spelling of a word
  • looking up the meaning of a word
  • research
  • further studying something they learned about at school (independent of homework expectations)
  • finding graphics or photos to compliment their research

When I saw David Weinberger speak at the Building Learning Communities Conference (BLC09) this summer, he showed us a picture of an assignment his son received from school for a research paper (to be completed at home). The teacher included in the directions that "no more than 3 Internet resources could be used" in the paper. We all laughed at the absurdity of this, because, as David pointed out, it is ludicrous to limit the use of this expansive resource. Imagine if we told students that you can only use 3 books in the research. Most of us teachers still see the Internet as something external to what we traditionally believe research to be.

As you see above, I too have been susceptible to this illusion, careful not to "overtax" families by expecting them to scrounge up the bandwith to accomplish continued learning at home. Truthfully, we could apply this same concern toward the acquisition of books or any other "traditional" media. Last Friday, The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy released a report that compared the necessity for nationwide broadband access to that of Eisenhower's building of an interstate highway system. According to my students' survey results, they already understand that this access and use of Internet tools is a necessity even when not directed to use it by their teachers. According to the Knight Commission, only 60% of Americans have the access to "digital tools and skills [that] have distinct political, social and economic advantage over those without them."

According to the survey conducted with my 3rd and 4th graders, there are 10 (out of 199) that do not have the Internet at home. I want to be in a world where I don't even hesitate to assign my students to use the Internet for homework because we've reached 100% of connectivity. As the Knight Commission states, access to this free-flow of information and resources "is as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools and public health."

What percentage of students are without in your school?