Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2006 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 10, Issue 2
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Student Attitudes About Classroom Internet Use
Vanessa Domine, Montclair State University, NJ
Domine, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Educational Technology and a scholar of technology and democratic education. She studies media literacy among young people.
This article presents portraits of student attitudes and understanding of Internet use at home and school. Discursive data reveal a disconnect between social uses of the Internet outside of school and linear individual uses of the Internet for information access in school. These findings suggest classroom teachers should leverage students’ savvy social uses of the Internet outside school to deepen and extend access to information and knowledge in the classroom.
Since 1999, nearly 100 percent of public schools in the United States have been wired for Internet access (NCES, 2002). However, a 2000 National Public Radio (2000) survey reported that of 81 percent of young people (ages 10-17) who had access to the Internet at school, only 58 percent actually used it at school. A 2003 National Science Foundation survey of K-12 schools similarly found that although nearly all schools had Internet access, only 47 percent of students accessed the Internet at school (NSF, 2006). Additional research reports middle and high school students perceive a strong disconnect between how they use the Internet at home and how they use the Internet with teachers at school (Levin et al, 2002). This study qualitatively examines student perceptions and attitudes of Internet use in the classroom, in an effort to bridge the growing digital divide between home and school uses of the Internet.
The context for this study is a conservative, middle-class Urban Public Middle School (UPMS) located in the western United States. UPMS serves 800 students in grades 6-8 with a teaching staff of 48. The student population is ethnically diverse and reflects mid to high academic achievement. A major goal of the study was to dispel or confirm the assumption that a privileged school with above-average funding, moderate level of educational technology, high parent participation and relatively low student to teacher ratio might also have a higher degree of technological literacy among the student population. Since statistics show that many of the UPMS students will eventually attend college and be educators, commercial business leaders and consumers of the future, it is important to document their attitudes and understandings to learn from their successes (and failures) with the Internet.
Another goal of this study was to unravel the complexity of individual experience and to reveal the subtle undertones of spoken language in the public school classroom. Not only is thinking inextricably linked to ways of speaking, but also embedded within language are elements of a particular worldview. Of particular importance is the discourse of young people ages 11 to 13, as research indicates they spend more time with computers and the Internet than students in other age groups (Rideout, Roberts, & Foehr, 2005). It should be noted that the aim of this study was not to produce results that are generalizable to all middle school students; but to instead explore meaning making in depth within a contained and contextualized setting to identify and explain patterns that exist within the discourse (Prus, 1996).
The UPMS principal initially directed me to Mrs. Larson, a Caucasian female with more than five years of teaching experience and currently teaching eighth grade current events. The principal identified her as “extremely helpful and knowledgeable about technology.” Student volunteers were solicited from Mrs. Larson’s class and of 25 volunteers. Eleven were selected to collectively represent the socio-economic and racial composition of the larger UPMS population. Thus, the student participants for this study were purposively assembled rather than randomly assigned. Prior to their participation, each participant chose a pseudonym: Junior, David, Bre, Bond, Fred, Bob, Edgar, Lizie, Pixie, Evy and New York. Discursive data were generated through individual and focus group interviews and were audio taped, transcribed, qualitatively analyzed, and inductively rebuilt according to emergent (rather than imposed) meaning (van Dijk, 1993). To privilege student voices, the remainder of this article provides excerpts of student discourse that illustrate (rather than represent) emergent themes.
Student Attitudes About the Internet Use at Home
All student participants in this study report having access to at least one computer at home. Eight students report using a computer at home on a regular basis and their uses range from once a week to two hours a day. Most of the participants report using the computer alone at home during the evening and five students use the computer primarily for Internet access. Three students reported downloading music files and watching streaming videos. However, most of the students use the Internet for research and to search for sports, celebrity and music-related information. Bob, a quiet, Caucasian female plays on the school basketball team and describes herself as a "good" student who likes to talk a lot. She is passionate about online access to sports events:
Bob: [NBA dot com] has pictures and it has all the players and stuff. And it has what happened in the past games. They have game scores when the game’s not even over yet. Like, it’s in the middle of the game!
Although access to sports news and information is popular among these students, instant messaging (IM) is the preferred means of using the computer and Internet to communicate with friends about adolescent issues, including schoolwork. Bre is an outspoken Caucasian female who plays sports but also likes to go dancing with her friends. She admits that she has an attitude problem with her teachers, but feels she compensates by making good grades and getting along with her classmates. Initially, Bre reported not using computers at home on a regular basis (“because I'm just not a computer person") but later contradicts herself by admitting to spending an entire Saturday chatting online:
Bre: Like, two weekends ago we spent all day and [my friends and I] didn't get dressed until, like, three o'clock. We were in our pajamas still just using the Internet. Cuz it's so fun talking to people.
For Bre, the social may be technological in this case, but when it comes to homework she consults her parents:
Interviewer: Where do you go to do your research?
Bre: I Ask Jeeves to find out where I should look. Or I'll just ask my mom and she'll go straight to it, cuz my mom's a computer freak.
Interviewer: If you don't have access to the Internet, where do you go to do your research?
Bre: Encyclopedias. Or my dad (laughs). Actually, I think my dad is a little smarter than an encyclopedia. My dad is such a genius. He's so smart.
Bre is not the only student who cites her parents as support for educational as well as technological support. Pixie, a Caucasian female who enjoys surfing and skateboarding, is adamant about not learning well in school using books, yet ironically she recently one a national poetry contest. Pixie says the word technology reminds her of her father because he works in the field of telecommunications. Her parents directly support the uses of technology for school:
Pixie: We have, like, a book report [program] where you fill in a couple of—and it just writes out the entire book report for you.
Interviewer: Really? What program is that?
Pixie: I don’t know. My parents gave me this big thing a couple of years ago. It was, like, I don’t know. SoftSource. Yeah, something like that.
While Bre and Pixie follow the technological lead of their parents, a few of the student participants serve as the technological leaders over their parents. Bond is a Caucasian male student who frequently plays the role of the class clown. He is frequently sent to the school office for misbehaving for photocopying his face in the library and singing loudly during gym class. At the same time, he aspires to go to either Harvard or Stanford. Bond describes how he trumped his mother during the holiday shopping season:
Bond: This is the first time my mom shops online, right. She forgot to delete the history. So when I go on to delete the history—because it takes up a lot of room—I see where she's gone. I don't know gifts, but I know the topic of the gift. I went on it and then I went to those web sites.
In contrast to Bond’s technological savvy, Edgar is a Caucasian female who calls herself “strange” because she does not play video games and only occasionally uses the computer. Edgar is a cheerleader and “very involved” in school, performing in school plays and band. She admits one of her favorite activities is “just talking to my mom.” Edgar apologetically calls herself “clueless” about computers, like her mother:
Edgar: We should probably learn how to use [computers] because it would be very helpful. Like now, my mom's a nurse. Before she had no need to use the computer. They'd write everything out. Now everything is on the computer. So she has to figure out how to use it. And she's pretty much clueless (laughs), so it's kind of tough for her.
Not surprisingly, these students use the Internet at home for primarily social purposes. When it comes to educational uses, these students draw on the levels of (in)experience of their parents. Parental access, knowledge and employment (or lack thereof) dominate the student discourse about the use of computers and the Internet at home.
Student Attitudes about Internet Use at School
The discursive data indicate the students use the Internet at UPMS for history, science and most frequently in Mrs. Larson’s current events class. However, Mrs. Larsen says her instructional uses of the Internet are "plagued" with technical problems: Machines that freeze and printers that will not print. Despite the volatile computers and the lack of technical support, ten of the eleven students feel strongly that the Internet should be used in school. The only exception is David, a Caucasian male who enjoys reading and playing soccer. He has a state-of-the art computer at home (his dad works for a computer company) and uses it regularly. He “hates” the computers in the school lab and prefers using books in the classroom. Despite his complaints, David and the other ten student participants still rate the Internet as a "highly favorable" medium for accessing current events as compared to newspapers, magazines and videos. New York, a Caucasian male who plays soccer and listens to rap music, describes himself as an "average" student. He ranks watching TV, talking on the phone, reading magazines, and listening to music higher than using the Internet. However, he readily talks about his high-speed Internet connection at home and is describes in detail his IM experience. When asked what advice he would give teachers about using the Internet in class, he says his ideal teacher “would not even bother” to take students to the computer lab, exception “maybe for looking up information. For history. Like, the CDROMs and stuff. But not, like, for math or PE.” For these two technologically literate students, using the Internet in the classroom in principle is highly desirable, but in practice is highly problematic.
For some of the female students, the classroom uses of computers are benign compared to how they socially engage with the Internet at home. Bob's passion for sports information online is a dramatic contrast to how she describes the use of the Internet in her math class:
Bob: We used the computer to help us find the averages and the sums and stuff. And you just type it in and then hit "Enter" or "Return" and then it gives you the average
Similarly, Bre IMs on a regular basis, yet in the context of school she describes herself as "not a computer person." Edgar passionately searches for sports information during class, yet calls herself "clueless" about computers. Pixie recently won a national poetry contest, yet says she does not learn well with books. In each of these cases, the female students’ actual mediated activity outside the classroom contrasts their attitudes about the media and technology within the school classroom.
While Mrs. Larson wants the students to individually evaluate specific online news stories, only two students complete the assigned task. Four of the five male students instead pursue the interactive features of a popular educational web site. David wants to “jam online,” Bond wants to cast his online vote for the "Symbol of the Millennium,” and New York takes a quiz to determine his “ideal” career. Junior wonders how he can shop online. Four of the six female students click through to other sites: Edgar submits a question to a football player on the ESPN web site. Bre, Lizie and Pixie search for their favorite celebrities on the Time and Newsweek sites. There is much student talk and interaction with one another as they work “shoulder-to-shoulder” at individual computer stations. However, Mrs. Larson perceives such activity as distractive and even tangential to her curriculum goals, referring to the student activity as “going wild,” and “misbehaving.” She wants the students to individually and quietly access, analyze and evaluate online news content. The students respond by keeping their eyes on their individual monitors while talking continuously with one another.
The discursive data also suggest these students apply a social consciousness about computers and the Internet to the classroom context. Fred is a Caucasian female who hangs out with her friends at their houses or talks to them on the phone. She notes that she gets up at 5:30 every morning for concert band practice before the school day begins. Her goal is to get straight “A”s this year. She uses the Internet for some school research, but mostly to download music files and games. She has mixed feelings about using the Internet in school:
Fred: I think [students] should learn about it, but they also shouldn’t cuz we’re seeming to get lazier. Cuz you sit there and it’s entertaining but you don’t do anything. You just use your fingers.
Junior is an African-American male who enjoys playing basketball but is more frequently found in the Homework Center after school. He describes himself as a "visual and hearing kind of learner” but uses the computer at home "only when I need to. I don't like it.” Despite his lack of interest in using the computer, his discourse is utopian:
Junior: Computers are helpful all around, unless you have kids that want to be smart alecs and go into sites that you’re not supposed to look at. But, if you can cut those sites off, it’d be the perfect tool for education.
A sense of awareness emerges that as young people, they need imposed limits to their access and classroom use of the Internet.
Summary and Reflection
There is a disconnection between these students’ uses of the Internet at home and their uses of the Internet in Mrs. Larson’s classroom. At home, students enact their own type of curriculum through and around the Internet: They socialize with peers, interact with celebrities and navigate parental relationships (offline). Other research indicates young people use the Internet outside of school primarily for constructing their own identities and relationships with others (Livingstone, Bober & Helsper, 2005). Furthermore, Internet use can provide students with a powerful means of gathering information, communicating and collaborating outside of school (Schofield, 2003, ISTE, 2000). The students in this study default to their parents for help with school assignments. However their parents are not necessarily Internet savvy enough to lead students beyond what they already know about accessing and evaluating online information. Additionally, most students do not have the level of home computer access as the eleven students in this study, and therefore rely on their classroom experiences to scaffold their critical access and evaluation of online information. Yet in Mrs. Larson’s classroom, unreliable computers and highly social classroom behavior threaten successful student access, analysis and evaluation of information.
While these students can experiment to a certain extent with information access in the classroom, at the same time Mrs.Larson maintains a classroom environment that restricts the students’ socializing—behavior that permeates their Internet use outside the classroom. Her discourse indicates that using the Internet in the classroom poses significant challenges for classroom management. This study suggests that teachers and teacher educators should recontextualize the Internet as more than just a linear mechanism for delivering information into the classroom curriculum. When the Internet is used pedagogically as a communication medium for students to connect with information and connect with one another, it can play a more significant role in making curriculum and technology meaningful for all students.
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