Plugged In: The Effect of Internet Access on Education


Schools worldwide are purchasing evermore computers in order for students to access the Internet. With this equipment, they can utilize the emerging opportunities available in 21st Century education. With the growing population of schools using technology, teaching in the classroom by Internet is becoming more common. The Internet is also being adapted for other educational tasks as well, notably for taking tests and assessing achievement. But, this new phenomenon raises the question: Are students well-served by this change and can they learn as well online as they do in the traditional classroom environment? Research shows that students who learn online, assuming they are motivated, do just as well as if they were being taught in a traditional classroom. However, this may not be true of less-motivated students.

The purpose of this essay is to consider the potential that Internet access has on improving student achievement in schools of today, specifically considering the role of computer access to the Internet in grades K-12. It is presumed that such access does have a beneficial effect but that the degree may depend on the nature of the individual program, the degree of access provided, and whether or not the students have Internet access at home.

Computers in the Classroom: An Overview

In 1994, Pacific Bell began a $100 million program to put public schools and libraries in California on the information superhighway. The company installed digital wiring at an estimated 7,400 elementary and secondary schools, community colleges, and public libraries in the state to give students and teachers access to worldwide databases. Hundreds of students from various locations could be taught by video conferencing Pacific Bell promised to provide schools and libraries with multimedia like video-on-demand. Today, more than 75 percent of the schools in California have access to cable television, with some two dozen cable networks currently producing programming for the classroom (Einstein, 1994, p. A1).

But with this new way of teaching comes hassles. One problem with new technology is that teachers have to be trained if they are to help students make full use of the possibilities. In California, this problem was addressed through a special summer program at San Jose State University to train 450 teachers, 100 students, and fifty administrators. Part of this program involved the installation of computer workstations with Internet access in each teacher's classroom.

John See (1993), a member of the Minnesota Department of Education, to update the information that they might have developed in the 1980s. The speed with which technology is changing, the ubiquitous electronic gadgets that are helping to change them, and the upgrades on already-used programs today make it nearly impossible to plan for a technological project long-term. He recommends teachers create a plan that specifies what students, staff, and administration ought to be able to do with technology in general. Outcome planning can be used as well to assist in determining which brand of computer and what specific technology the district should buy, with the knowledge of what applications will help students, staff, and administrators. The principal should see beyond buying technology to teaching technology, following certain steps: 1) Integrate technology into the educational system. 2) Make technology a part of the daily cost of doing business. 3) Create a vision for the future. 4) Remain aware of the important elements of effective technology and fit these into the teaching situation. The head of staff at schools know that it is there job to help teachers be efficient in these computer tasks, but it also helps if the teacher is enthusiastic. If the teacher has access to a computer at home, or can make time to try programs out on her own when the computers arrive, it would not only help the students but give the teacher a first-hand experience with these tools.

Another reason schools should take care in developing the way new technologies are to be used is seen in the tendency to place too much hope in them. Technology is not a cure for improving education, only a potential assistant. Many people develop techno stress, the anxiety of learning or being introduced to new technology, including teachers who would be expected to know how to work this equipment if introduced in the classroom.

Technology of the blackboard was new at some point and today multimedia computers and telecommunications are spoken of as if they were the masterpiece solutions to correct problems in public schools.

But with educators teaching the way they teach by modernizing their equipment, sometimes students get the raw end of the deal. For instance, it could be pointed out that high school seniors who take the Calculus Advanced Placement examination today are required to follow a new set of rules passed by the College Board and must take the test using a graphing calculator. Any students who do not have one of these appliances is required to sign a waiver promising that they will not challenge their scores if they do not do well on the exam because they are not using a graphing calculator. However, those involved in the “calculus-reform movement” promote learning through technology, so they see using these devices as essential. It has been noted by other teachers, however, that many students cannot afford these devices, which generally cost between $80 and $100 each. These teachers further point out that the effort required to learn to use the machines outweighs the benefits, and this is because the effort makes the students dependent on the machines and so undercuts the education effort (Gleick, 1995, p. 52). Now after all the trouble a student must go through to get a tool that they may know nothing about, they have to learn how to use it, and then actually use it continuously in the course. This student may have already built him/herself up for disappointment just from the buying experience alone.

Surveys have been conducted and demonstrate that many students have been left out of the technological revolution at every grade level because their families cannot afford computers, calculators, videos, and other devices. This problem is most evident in lower-case areas with predominantly minority students. Low socioeconomic schools get extra federal funds for technology through the federal Title I program, a program targeting academic help for disadvantaged children, and these schools also receive money from corporate sponsors. Still, it is apparent that most poor schools continue to trail in the technology race. A recent survey shows that 98 percent of all schools own computers. The current national student-to-computer ratio is ten to one, which is not good enough given that the government recommends a ratio of five to one. The ratio varies from state to state, standing at six to one in Florida, Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota, while it is as high as sixteen to one in Louisiana. Some 85 percent of U.S. schools have multimedia computers, and 64 percent have Internet access. For both, poor and minority schools have less access. In terms of how effective technology is in the classroom, the survey shows that drill-and-practice forms of computer-assisted instruction are effective in improving achievement for students. However, another result of the survey demonstrates that most teachers have not had enough training to use much of this technology in their teaching. Only 15 percent of U.S. teachers have had at least nine hours of training in education technology, and 18 states do not even require technology courses for teacher licensing (Henry, 1997, p. O6D).

There are some efforts to correct this situation. A computer center has been created in Los Angeles at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Central, Los Angeles to help bring the computer to the poor area of the city. A learning center has been created in the poverty-plagued city of Cudahy to the east, and this center has been provided with portable computers to use for lesson plans and other take-home projects. This is called the Elizabeth Learning Center, whose student population is 90 percent Latino, and now those students have access to laser disc encyclopedias and other high-end tools, thanks to the Los Angeles Educational Partnership. Such programs remain the exception rather than the rule (Kennedy 1).

Emerging technologies which can be utilized for educational purposes and the opportunities presented by them are quickly adopted by schools in the Silicon Valley region: the epicenter of the Internet in the U.S and indeed the world. One student in Cupertino recently suggested the development of a virtual reality classroom where students could interact with figures from history, as an example. Another student suggested carrying laptops instead of books. A third referred to videoconferencing capabilities so students could connect with other schools. As Barnett states, “Our students know more than we do. . . They know the technology's out there. They're hungry for it” (Boubion 1994).

The experience at Cupertino points out some of the problems, which are highlighted, because while Cupertino is one of the more advanced school districts in terms of technology, it is still not sufficient. Grants helped place at least one computer in every classroom in the twenty-two schools in the Cupertino district. At one school–Kennedy Junior High–a parent donated another $5,000 in networking software for the computer lab, and Pacific Bell gave the school a low rate of $250 per month for Internet access. This made the ratio of computers one for every eight students.

All these gifts have brought the ratio of computers to one for every eight students. For California as a whole, however, the situation is much less developed. California has technological riches, but the state ranks forty-ninth among the fifty states and the District of Columbia in the number of students per computer, standing behind even the poor Southern states of Louisiana and Mississippi, based on a survey by the Denver-based Quality Education Data. The statewide ratio in California is one computer for nearly twenty students, compared with the national average of one for fourteen. Among the reasons for these problems are California's large class sizes and huge student population, but other populous states such as Texas and Florida have achieved more. Texas schools have one computer for every thirteen students, and Florida one for every eleven. In the San Francisco area, schools face problems including too few phone lines and electrical outlets and little or no money to train teachers in how to use technology (Boubion, 1994, p. 1A).

Technology is being adapted to the classroom in new ways every day. Teachers and administrators must be trained in every new technology if it is to have any value. The technology also must be installed in more and more classrooms to give every student an equal opportunity. At the same time, it is important not to see technology as the ultimate solution for all problems, because to do so is to invite disappointment and failure.

Teaching and Methods In a Technological World

There are advantages to using teaching methods, which involve project-based, problem-based, and inquiry-based learning. Ideally, technology in the classroom should be selected because it involves these characteristics to interest students. These three methods are related to the information processing approach and are seen as fitting well with technology-rich learning environments where the focus is not on the hardware and software, but on the learning experience. Technology in each case is used to facilitate learning, perhaps as a tool to organize ideas, to search for current information, or to present ideas. Project-based learning focuses on developing a product or a creation. Problem-based learning focuses on the process of solving a problem and acquiring knowledge. Inquiry-based learning is a student-centered, active approach that focuses on questioning, critical thinking, and problem-solving (Lamb, 2004). Each of these learning approaches benefit from the use of technology, and the sort of technology implemented in most classrooms serves the needs of students in all three types of learning. Owens, Hester, and Teale (2002) note that there is a series of actions in inquiry-based learning. The student first selects a topic of interest to research, and then formulates questions about the topic. The student then gathers, sifts, and synthesizes information before doing something with it.

Among the specific uses of technology making it possible to support inquiry are data gathering (Internet searches, multimedia encyclopedias, online interviews, content-specific software packages), data management (note taking, charts, graphs), and presentation (creating a brochure or pamphlet, building a Web page, writing a PowerPoint presentation…).

Blumenfeld and Fishman (2000) also report on work by a research group to bring a middle-school inquiry and technology science innovation to become the norm in a systemic urban school reform context. Many systems developed in the past two decades have helped develop students' thinking skills, motivational dispositions, and knowledge. This has become more important in a new global, information-rich, technology-oriented world.

As might be expected, technological teaching methods have attracted particular attention for inquiry, project, and problem-based learning in science education first, as indicated by the above and by Krajcik, Blumenfeld, Marx, Bass, Fredricks, and Solway (1998) when they describe the reason why inquiry is an essential element for science learning and try to describe realistically what middle-school students do and where they encounter problems in their first encounters with inquiry learning. They find how students ask questions, plan and design investigations and procedures, construct apparatus, carry out their work, interpret data, draw conclusions, and present their findings. The authors find that middle school students are thoughtful in designing investigations and in planning procedures, but there are areas of weakness, such as failure to focus on the scientific merit of questions generated and to collect and analyze data systematically and draw conclusions. The inquiry process can be improved by the way the technology to implement it is designed and explained.

How well any technology is implemented is based on how successful the learning process is, how well the teacher makes use of it, and how well it fits in with the curriculum. Owens, Hester, and Teale (2002) note that it may be best if teachers play a more direct role in selecting a topic by suggesting themes from which students choose their particular areas for research to ensure that reading matter, technology resources, and other materials are available for students as they engage in the inquiry process. Theme selection also helps teachers align students' inquiries with the school's curriculum. This also allows the teachers to facilitate the process of gathering and presenting information. Each teacher is important in making this sort of learning effective, and it has been found that teachers who take the time to get to know the students and their interests, use their time with the students to facilitate the inquiry process rather than counsel them regarding their underachievement, provide resources when the students reached a roadblock, and give opportunities for the students to share their experiences will achieve the best results (Owens, Hester, and Teale, 2002, p. 616).

Technology assists in these methods by providing projects to be developed, aiding in the process of inquiry, and developing and solving problems. Computer-based technology is particularly well-suited to the needs of students in these types of learning environments, answering many of the questions raised and shaping the way the student approaches material.

Technologically Assisted Distance Education:

Distance education means the act of attending classes from a distance, including over the Internet. This type of teaching is not yet common below the college level, but some students take advantage of it, notably those who are being home-schooled. Distance education is considered to be a more and more effective method of teaching. Because of this, educational researchers have looked at the purposes and situations for which distance education is the best choice. Research on distance learning indicates that the instructional format itself (such as interactive video vs. videotape vs. “live” instructor) has an insubstantial effect on student achievement as long as the technological means of delivery is appropriate to the content of instruction and all students have access to the same technology. It has further been found that achievement on various tests administered by course instructors tend to be higher for distant as opposed to traditional students, though there is no significant difference in positive attitudes toward course material evident between distant and traditional education. Traditional instruction is thought to be better organized and more clearly presented than distance education.

Studies have also shown that similar factors determine successful learning whether the students are distant or traditional and these factors include:

  • - Willingness to initiate calls to teachers for help.
  • - Having a more serious attitude regarding the courses.
  • - Employment in a field where advancement can be readily achieved by means of added education in a distance education environment.
  • - Previous completion of a college degree (Is Distance Education Effective?, 2000).

Emerging Technologies and Teaching

The computer revolution began in earnest some two decades ago and has progressed rapidly. Computer developers first created large mainframes in the mid-twentieth century, followed in time by the PC, enabling the average consumer to make use of computers for a variety of purposes. Since that time, computers and computer devices have become more varied and much smaller, leading to the many hand-held devices in use today.

Laptops are becoming more and more prevalent, while handheld devices such as iPhones are almost ubiquitous amongst certain demographics of students. There are other handheld devices in use, but laptops, iPhones, Android Phones and Blackberrys are the most common. These and other ultra portable technologies are used for note taking purposes, downloading data, virtual socializing, sending emails and writing reports. Schmeltzer (2000) points out an interesting example of how technology is being used in an educational setting. At Lessenger Middle School in Detroit, Michigan, students were given a lesson plan to figure out how large objects were mechanically built. The students were given PalmPilot computers to create maps and compare answers later with their fellow classmates. Afterwards, a field trip was organized to go to the construction site, keep track of what they saw while they were at this site, and upload their findings in a computer database. Lessons like these not only keep the students attentive, but makes them work as a team on products that are usually considered independently used. In addition, Schmeltzer notes, the student may take the handheld home and use it for study. This practice is being commonly practiced in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Detroit, Michigan.

It has been shown that increased access to handheld devices such as iPhones results in better student academic performance, ironically increased concentration and enhanced drive.

For the most part, however, K-12 schools in the United States have not felt the expected positive impact of technology as they should, as Norris and Soloway (2003) report. From different parts of the country, while American schools have more technology than any other country's schools, student achievement does not show that this has increased learning to the degree predicted. The authors find that one reason for this is because the six conditions cited above have not been fulfilled, problems with access being one of the major failures.

Crane (2001), on the other hand, finds that technology is being used much more at the high school level, with handheld devices like iPhones seen in the hands of students producing cultural affects such as increased independence and agency. Students utilize these emergent technologies throughout the day, revising their schedules and to-do lists, keeping locker combinations handy, using the devices as a calculator for mathematics, reading current events on downloaded newspapers, taking notes directly into their device, uploading notes from others when class is missed, and so on.

Branch (2000) reports that many companies offer assistance to teachers in the process of introducing handheld technology to the student, such as a recent multi-company summer session, showing teachers and administrators how to use and integrate technology into their school districts.

Schmeltzer (2000) discusses a program intended to accomplish many of the same tasks by introducing students to the handheld devices available and training them in their use. This is only one of several programs of this type. The one he discusses was started by experts at the University of Michigan's prestigious Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education (HI-CE Center). The experts at the center developed “learner-centered technology and curriculum that addresses the needs of today's schools.”

Crane (2001) points out some of the other great things about this new invention. Legibility of student’s handwriting is no longer a problem, since data is typed into the computer for teachers and students to read and use for later assignments. Students don’t have to worry about how their notes look or teacher’s don’t have to worry about trying to decipher the information from their students.

Many of these benefits might be achieved without the use of handhelds, of course, but the training students receive in this way translates to further use of technology later, which is becoming more important as the world becomes more technologically-oriented and as employment may depend on the ability to adapt to new technologies.

Handhelds include small computers, schedulers, telephonic devices, even teaching aids that offer specific content to users. More and more schools are utilizing these devices in the curriculum as a way of aiding students in their learning and for training students in the new technology at the same time.


The Internet is becoming essential not only as a teaching tool, but as a ubiquitous aspect of contemporary life. On one level, access to the Internet links students to a vast amount of information from a wide variety of sources and encourages students to become interested in a topic and to pursue it from site to site. On another level, the Internet provides a means for instruction, making use of websites, streaming video and audio, and similar means to shape an electronic curriculum that serves the needs of the school, the student, and the teacher. How these sites will be shaped and decided upon remains unclear, though many exist today and more technology and new software is being developed for this purpose all the time. Students who learn online are at least as high on achievement as students taught in the traditional fashion, and often they show an increased ability to learn. They are also learning to use new technological inventions, such as iPhones, as a rapid rate, which further encourages the listening process and note-taking process in an educational facility.


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