By Ellen McCarthy Washington Post Staff Writer
A study released yesterday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that students are independently using the Internet for a variety of educational activities but do not think their schools take full advantage of the Web as a teaching tool.
The study was based on interviews with 136 teenagers -- most of whom consider themselves heavy Internet users -- and nearly 200 personal essays. The research was completed between November 2001 and March 2002.
"Even though we spend all this money to wire the schools, we're not all that well prepared to use it. The kids really do know how to use the Internet and they want it to be exploited in the ways they know it can be exploited," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "Outside the classroom and outside of any formal instruction, the Internet is a key part of their educational instruction."
Students use the Web as a reference tool, a homework helper, a method of collaboration, a source of advice, and a replacement for books and newspapers, according to the study. And while most of those interviewed say they use the Internet for education-related work, little of it is specifically sanctioned by their teachers.
A previous Pew study found 78 percent of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 use the Internet. Rainie estimates 30 percent to 40 percent of the teenagers would be considered "heavy" users, those who log on for more than five hours a week.
But only slightly more than half of all U.S. homes with school-age children are connected to the Net, according to the 2000 census. The Pew study found teenage tech mavens recognize this gap as a potential roadblock for teachers who want to incorporate the Web into their lessons, reporting that students with access to the Internet know they have an advantage over those who do not.
Students want policymakers to address the digital divide and administrators at their schools to provide support to teachers who may not have the training or materials they need to effectively use the Web, the study found. Restrictive content filters, usage policies and time constraints discourage Internet use at school.
The study found that while most students knew of others who used the Web inappropriately, they said the restrictions implemented to counter such actions hampered legitimate efforts.
"One of the bigger concerns is when teachers don't understand what is online. Some teachers will say, 'You may not ever use the Web for any project in my class,' " said Doug Levin, a senior research analyst for the American Institutes for Research, which conducted the study for Pew. "Given funding in education, there are many schools that look to students to run their networks -- and yet there are times when the Internet is horribly restricted or forbidden to be used."
Most teenagers who participated in the study said they want more Internet-related school assignments but want that work to be interesting and engaging. Most students said their teachers did not assign homework that required the use of the Internet because not all of their peers had access outside of school.
Rainie said the study's mission was to capture the experiences of teenagers as consumers of education.
"In the kids' voice, they are saying, 'Help our teachers embrace this stuff.' The teachers say things that you would expect: 'We don't often get a lot of support in this stuff -- tech support, training, curriculum material. It's one more burden on us -- we've been asked to be disciplinarians, den mothers and now technicians.' The message is 'Help us out,' " Rainie said.
"This is an issue that's been raised before, though I think there's a lot of progress being made in that area," said Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. "My experience tells me that more and more teachers are becoming technologically proficient and using the Web."
But training is critical, Lyons said.
"No corporation in America would establish a new computer system and not take the time to train their employees, and that is happening too often in school districts."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company