March 7, 1996

Bellwether or Bust?
Educators Debate Value of Surfing

TENAFLY, N.J. -- Before her third-grade class waded into the Internet, Mary Anne Denner, a teacher at the Maugham Elementary School here, selected the White House home page as an engaging first exhibit where they might be able to extract information for future reports.

The first group of four pupils elbowed one another for space in front of the computer screen, clicking the buttons to bring up a picture of President Clinton riding a horse or an image of Socks, the White House cat, that actually meowed through the speakers. "Meow!" the boys and girls shouted back.

"If you were watching the news you might not know what Clinton does because on the news he just talks," said Jeffrey Brunswick, who is 8. "And you couldn't hear the cat go meow anywhere else."

The World Wide Web was a hit. Then the computer access system clogged and no other pupils could hook up. "Technology is the worst thing to teach with," Mrs. Denner sighed.

In fits and starts, the Internet is pushing its way into elementary- school classrooms nationwide. Its fans argue that it will expand and invigorate the way many subjects are taught because it puts the entire world at students' fingertips. Skeptics call it technological razzle-dazzle that will ultimately only distract children from learning.

"Computers in classrooms are the filmstrips of the 1990's," said Clifford Stoll, a computer critic and author, recalling his own elementary school days in the 60's. "We loved them because we didn't have to think for an hour, teachers loved them because they didn't have to teach, and parents loved them because it showed their schools were high-tech. But no learning happened."

Still, most states are pushing their schools on line, and educators are scrambling to adapt the Internet to the classroom. No one is quite sure how to weave such an amorphous mass of unedited information into teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.

"People are trying to figure out how to bring it into the core of the curriculum rather than just a fun thing that we do on the side," said Rod Haenke, the assistant principal at Oxbaw Creek Elementary School in Champlin, Minn., where students have been working on the Internet for four years. "Even though the projects are fun and exciting, they have to be able to show that the kids are actually learning what they are supposed to."

Schools are signing onto the Internet at breakneck speed compared to the general public. The most recent figures from the United States Department of Education indicate that 50 percent now have access to the Internet, up from 35 percent in 1994, well ahead of the estimated 6 percent of the general public with either Internet or on-line access. The number of actual classrooms connected has jumped from 3 percent to 9 percent nationwide in the past two years.

School connections are likely to accelerate even faster given President Clinton's announcement in February that the Federal Government would invest $2 billion toward getting every classroom in the United States connected by the year 2000.

"What teachers talk about is that this is the first real set of resources that significantly expand the textbook and the library in phenomenal ways," said Linda G. Roberts, the director of technology at the Education Department. "From the parents' point of view, it is a question of skills students need for the rest of their lives. Technological literacy is the new basic the public believes is important."

On Saturday, about 200 California high-tech companies organized by Sun Microsystems will hold Net Day, a day with the goal of getting all 13,000 schools in California to connect five classrooms and their library to the Internet on that day alone. Currently, 2,000 California schools are linked to the Internet, said John B. Gage, chief scientist at Sun.

The problem is that beyond the wiring lies an abyss. Once a classroom is connected to the Internet, there is no formula for what to do with it, and the amount of material can be overwhelming. Ask the computer to search for information on the word "biology," for example, and it will come up with 400,000 Internet entries. No teacher could dig through them all.

"There are many statewide programs throughout the United States devoted to wiring, but there are not a lot of good educational applications," said Dr. Edward A. Friedman, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

Stevens is part of a growing band of private corporations, government agencies and educational institutions seeking to shape teaching materials for the Internet, and to steer teachers to well-organized World Wide Web sites.

Stevens received one of the largest grants awarded by the National Science Foundation -- $2.9 million over three years -- to help 500 New Jersey schools get on line, integrate the Internet into their science curriculums and share the results. Only about 50 schools in New Jersey now have classroom access to the Internet, Dr. Friedman said.

Mrs. Denner's class in Tenafly and an eighth-grade class taught by Cornelia Rogers at Public School 22 in downtown Jersey City are two of the schools participating in the Stevens program. Both teachers found what many schools around the country discovered: kids are motivated by contact with students in other countries, and by the thought that their work will be on display around the world.

"They are anxious to improve and don't want anyone to see their mistakes," said Miss Rogers, who has one laptop computer to share with 80 students. They all put their work on floppy disks and Stevens puts it out on the Internet.

Joshua D. Baron, a curriculum specialist at Stevens, has put together Internet packages that help instructors do experiments about genetics, volcanoes or tides and waves. The curriculum materials, which can read like treasure hunts, are expected to get students to tap into sources of constantly updated data on the Internet to conduct their classroom experiments.

One of the first science experiments was a comparison of water samples from the pond in a Jersey City public park with samples taken by students from the Taihei River in Akita, Japan. The exchange was slow in coming and sometimes the messages written in Japanese arrived garbled, as %$$@)*. Eventually, however, both sides determined they had similar microscopic organisms.

The home page for the water experiment now has a drawing of a fly nymph created by Gevris Pujols, an eighth grader, and anyone in the world who clicks on the picture can hear him say: "A mayfly nymph is usually found around weeds. It is real gross and it looks like a roach with a long tail and eyes at the side of the corners of his head."

Nationwide, home pages by individual schools are a growing phenomenon, with hundreds of student newspapers, poems and drawings on display.

Mr. Gage, the California scientist, recalls coming across a home page on which three 11-year-olds were arguing with a noted astrophysics professor about the size of the explosion that would occur when a comet hit Jupiter.

"The old model of the teacher absorbing physics, biology and the physical sciences and then pouring it into kids' brains is gone," Mr. Gage said. "It is the kids that do the exploration; the kids are in control."

For those who dislike the Internet in the classroom, that is the stuff of nightmares.

"A fifth grader is an inappropriate teacher," said Mr. Stoll, author of the book "Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway" (Doubleday, 1995), a critique of the computer industry. "I don't want my children to learn from other students. I want them to learn from competent, paid teachers."

Skeptics think educators need to spend more time weighing the arguments made by huge computer and publishing corporations that making learning more exciting is an improvement. The skeptics say they believe that a decade of computer use in schools has not resulted in any marked improvement in children's learning basic skills.

Instead, they say, the Internet will promote a cut-and-paste style of learning, with students parroting trivial bites of information found on the computer screen instead of developing the critical judgment and analysis engendered by culling through books.

"Kids have to be free to exercise their imaginations," said Neil I. Koblitz, a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington who just published an article arguing that computers should be kept out of math classrooms until students have finished calculus. "To be inundated with visual stimulation and a machine that does it for you is not the best way to learn. It is not science simply because they are punching a keyboard on a computer."

In addition, there is still no organizational framework on the Internet like a card catalogue in a library that allows for a focused review of the materials and some assurance of what is current.

"One of the biggest problems with the Internet is that no one runs it," said Susan Veccia, editor of Multimedia Schools Magazine. "People think because the information is on the computer it is right."

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