Connecting Schools to the Internet

While the Internet can be a valuable tool in education, lack of training and difficulties with funding are significant problems for K-12 schools.

by / June 30, 1995 0
July 1995







Problem/situation: Schools generally lacking resources to hook into the Internet.



Solution: Grants, bonds, partnerships.



Level of Gvt: Local school districts.



Function: Education.



Jurisdiction: Mendocino, Calif; Haverstraw, N.Y.; Houston, Texas; Kobe, Japan; Santa Cruz, Calif., U.S. Department of Education, local school districts.



Vendors: Sun Microsystems, Apple Computer, Students Online, American Electronics Association..



Contact: Students Online Inc. 800/258-3517.







by James Evans



Contributing Writer







The fact that Freda Rose Moon is a high school honors student and star soccer player aren't the only distinctions setting her apart from other students across the country. She also attends a school with fewer than 200 students that offers daily access to the Internet, placing her among a pronounced minority.



"I use the Internet to look for information for school projects," said the Mendocino High School freshman. "I found information about Guyana for my social studies class. I got some of the information I needed, but not all."



Moon, at age 15, has been using the Internet for two years through a computer lab set up by her rural Northern California school district, which offers classes and Internet access to students and anyone else in the community.



"It definitely adds something to classes," she said. "I probably spend about two class periods a week using the Internet. Nearly every student in school has used [it] at some point."



That puts Moon and Mendocino High School at the forefront of a new and expanding factor of elementary and secondary education - integration of the Internet into a school's regular curriculum. Although the Internet has been with us for nearly 25 years, only recently has word spread to school districts that the enormous amount of data - on almost any subject - could enhance traditional methods of study. Schools, like the general population, are beginning to recognize that the Internet has evolved from a relatively private domain of computer enthusiasts to the fastest growing area of information and commerce on the planet.



An irony in education's slow but tender embrace of this global electronic library, composed of networks of computer networks, is that the Internet was conceived in the late 1960s as a military defense strategy. University researchers and their Pentagon bosses realized that computers were destined to assume a very important place in the way the United States communicated during war.



The generals especially didn't want an enemy nuclear warhead to paralyze the nation's war machine by striking the center of its computer operations. The solution was to design a network of many centers. All would be connected, but none would be dependent on the other. If one center was taken out by a warhead, other centers would be able to stay online.







ARPANET TO INTERNET



In 1969 ARPANET was born, but academic use of it increased so rapidly that within a few years the Pentagon separated military and civilian traffic, altered the network's administration and funding sources and changed its name to the Internet. From four initial host computer systems, the Internet has grown to accommodate more than 1.5 million hosts providing access to an estimated 30 million people worldwide, with no signs of a slowed expansion.



Recent studies give a mixed report card to the nation's public schools when it comes to adopting new technology, yet the consensus is that the Internet is gradually winning students, teachers and administrators to its side. A report released last March by the American Electronics Association's National Information Infrastructure Task Force claimed that meager computer systems primarily were housed in school libraries, which students seldom used. Only 59 percent of teachers had access to computers and only 20 percent of those had Internet access. On the other hand, 85 percent of librarians had computers and 50 percent were connected to the Internet.



Another study, conducted last fall by the U.S. Department of Education, concluded that nearly 70 percent of schools across the country are anxious to jump aboard the accelerating Internet train, but only about a third of them have. The study, titled "Advanced Telecommunications in U.S. Public Schools," surveyed 1,380 public elementary and secondary schools, also found that:



+ While 75 percent of all public schools have computers with telecommunications capabilities, only 35 percent have access to the Internet, and only 3 percent of classrooms, laboratories and media centers actually connect to the Internet.



+ Only 30 percent of elementary schools and 49 percent of secondary schools have Internet access.



+ In schools with enrollments of more than 1,000 students, 58 percent have Internet access, while only 30 percent of schools with less than 300 students have access.



+ E-mail is the most popular Internet feature, used by 90 percent of the schools plugged in; newsgroups were next at 64 percent, then gopher at 62 percent. Only 21 percent of schools had access to the graphical functions of the World Wide Web, the newest and fastest growing Internet feature.



+ Of the 67 percent of schools that have plans to implement Internet connectivity, 81 percent are part of a districtwide plan and 27 percent are part of a statewide plan.



+ About 70 percent of schools with Internet access offer training to staff and teachers, while about half give training to students, and about 20 percent provide training to students and their parents.



+ Funding for computer equipment is the major barrier to Internet access, according to 69 percent of schools. Antiquated computers and too few Internet access points in schools also were cited as important problems.







FUNDING OBSTACLES



The funding obstacle is reiterated by teachers, school librarians and businesses providing Internet access specifically to schools. Craig Tunks, head of Students Online, a non-profit Internet service company in Haverstraw, N.Y., said one of his most important jobs is counseling schools about seeking grants. His advice - look to local corporations and organizations, which are most likely to finance or equip local schools.



Yet while funding is a major headache for schools that covet Internet access, those that already have it complain that lack of training is a significant frustration. School districts may provide training on paper, but the reality is that teachers aren't getting it as fast as they want. Without appropriate training, teachers are unable to guide students through the often confusing maze of Internet features, menus and files.



"We're just beginning to understand it," said Anne Knickerbocker, the librarian at Cedar Brook Elementary School in Houston, Texas. "Everyone is extremely excited, but I'm scrambling to learn it faster than the students."



Absent training, she said, use of the Internet has been random, from sending and receiving e-mail after the Kobe, Japan earthquake to learn the status of a classmate who happened to be in Japan at the time, to using gopher to gather material about the debate over illegal immigrants. Recently, students have been learning to use Mosaic, graphical software that allows browsing through information contained in the World Wide Web.



"The reception has been overwhelming," agreed Ed Gifford, executive director for computer services at the Spring Branch School District in Houston, which boasts one of the country's most advanced uses of the Internet. "The request for staff development has been staggering. Teachers want to be trained to a proper level so they can help students have access. We'll be conducting teacher boot camps during the summer."



Spring Branch runs its network on a Sun Microsystems server, connected to an average of three computers per classroom - predominantly Apple Computer Macintoshes - in all of the 40 schools in the district. Funding for the massive project was provided by a $3 million bond issue in 1992, and Gifford was hired specifically to implement a five-year computer plan.



"The Internet is used primarily for special projects," he said. "The latest craze is to dissect frogs electronically through the World Wide Web. You can obtain a tremendous amount of information about frogs on the Internet." Gifford added that the district will be moving away from Mosaic to Netscape, the Web browsing software that has emerged as the standard for exploring the Web, and he is creating the district's own World Wide Web site, known as a Web page.







School Web Pages



While Gifford and the Spring Branch School District may be at the head of the class in terms of integrating the Internet into schools on such a large scale, they are late in terms of being a presence on the Web. Numerous schools and even separate classrooms - both elementary and secondary - have prepared and posted Web pages on the Internet.



Santa Cruz High School in the Northern California beach enclave of the same name offers a Web page (URL: http://www.armory.com/~cards/edu/schs/index.html) with a picture of the high school, along with alumni material, Associated Student Body and PTA information, school telephone numbers, data about the various academic departments, a student magazine and access to an electronic version of the school newspaper. All of it is available at any hour to anyone with Internet access.



"There's a lot of interesting things to learn on the Internet," observed Moon, the student at Mendocino High School. "It's really worth taking the time to learn, though it can be discouraging. But you can get help, and it's really fun most of the time."