Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Minotaur (Sceptics Column)

Mary Hope doubts the wisdom of children using the Internet at school.

The Internet cannot be avoided. Our children will be affected by it whether we like it or not and, as information specialists, we need to get involved. Ignore it and we are doing a disservice to students young and old.

Most articles with this sort of opening then go on to laud the learning opportunities of the Internet and suggest ways of getting online. A particular growth area for Internet use at present is in our children's schools. I would like to suggest a different approach. Let us do a thought experiment about why children in school should not be given access to the Internet. The arguments for signing up have gone unchallenged for too long.

Imagine, first of all, a child doing a project on trees. She collects leaves, flowers and fruit. She draws tree shapes, takes bark rubbings and estimates size. Mentally compare two ways of doing this. The first is the concrete experience of going out to the local park to collect the artifacts and data and then writing about them back in the classroom. The second involves sitting at a computer and downloading, cutting and pasting. Surely the direct experience has a greater richness and depth? The senses of the child are fully involved. Most readers of this column will have taken part in such projects as children, and can recall the experience by use of the imagination - the dizzying perspective, for a child standing taking a bark rubbing from a tree trunk; the smells; the feel of wind and the sound of leaves and branches moving. Would a virtual experience provide such food for our imagination? Do we need to enter the Piagetian debate about the necessity of concrete experience before the abstraction of principles? Computer-mediated learning is abstract. As such it has its place but it is too easy to negate the value of the direct concrete experience.

Secondly, Net learning is superficial learning. 'Surfing' says it all. The natural style of Internet use is to start at one point and end up at some unknown destination, having flitted from one hot link to another. Certainly there is breadth and there are occasions when this is valuable. But the Internet assumes a short attention span. Combine this with a high noise ratio and you have the antithesis of a reflective, analytical learning style. We need to pause and consider what learning skills we wish to develop in our children.

We are also seduced by the glamour of distance. Why does e-mailing a child in some far part of the globe, with questions about his life, seem more stimulating than local discussions with a child from a different culture in our own home town? In our multicultural society there is no shortage of opportunities to exchange facts and feelings about different lifestyles. We are turned on by the idea of comunicating across vast distances, and fail to notice the opportunities on our own doorstep.

What else could a school do with the money it costs to use the Internet? Costs will vary widely depending on the size of the school and the commitment to use the Net for learning, but they are generally going to be in the hundreds (even ignoring the cost of computers and simply considering the joining and connection costs).

Every purchase a school makes denies it something else. What are the alternative ways in which this money could be used to enhance the aesthetic and cultural life of our schools? How many drama trips, musical instruments or art events could have been funded?

If you accept the argument that the Internet is a fundamentally important information medium and children ought to have experience of it, you still have to consider whether they will obtain access outside schools. The danger is that children in middle class homes will, and the rest will not.

In any case, children already have an excess of virtuality. They spend vast quantities of time watching television and then, for diversion, play computer games. Outside leisure is as likely to be a shoot-out at Quasar as a game of football. If you need convincing about the dominance of the virtual world read The Sun and The Daily Mirror, and note how little of their content relates to reality!

Do our children really need any more virtual environments?