Most kids hate being stuck in the school library doing research. Not Nick Pierce.
The other day, he tapped a few keys and went city hopping: CNN in Atlanta, Time magazine in Chicago, the Washington Post archives.
Research for his paper on President Clinton’s education policy rolled out of the printer next to him in the Rogers High School library.
The Net is totally cool, the 17-year-old senior said.
“This is the best resource because they have, you know, papers from the Christian Coalition and everything,” he said.
After more than a year of hand-wringing debate and planning, Spokane School District 81 is allowing thousands of students, from third-graders on up, to have access to the world’s biggest library.
The district is the first in the region to offer Internet access to students in every school.
“The Internet is the instructional tool of the future. It must be in schools,” said District 81 Superintendent Gary Livingston. “But we all know there is also a dark side to the Internet.”
To police student access, administrators are receiving guidance from John Stuart Mill philosophy texts: Students are responsible for themselves, and must face the consequences if they violate the rules.
Parents must sign a permission slip, but once students are on-line, there is no software filter to keep them from Internet smut.
That means Pierce’s inaugural trip on the Internet could have been to the “House of Sin” home page. The only thing preventing him was his conscience and a librarian’s occasional glance.
And the school bell. “I’m kind of in a hurry,” he said.
And heavy penalties. Students’ Internet access will be revoked if, among other things, they view something that is obscene according to “generally accepted social standards,” try to run a business off a district Internet account, or hack into computer networks.
Administrators are still considering software that would block access to nudity or obscenities. But it’s expensive, and it could cut off information that would be educational, said Joe Austin, district director of technology services.
For example, a student doing a report on breast cancer should be able to search for “breast.”
Making sure the search doesn’t become tawdry would be up to teachers. Most teachers spent 10 hours in Internet training this summer.
“A teacher can’t stand over one person’s shoulder, but they should be monitoring a student’s engagement with the Internet,” said Austin.
Still, the freedom concerns some parents.
“Are you going to tell me if a teenager is surfing he is not going to go look for that?” asked Larry Harpster, a former youth minister and parent of Finch Elementary and Glover Middle School students.
“It’s like putting pornography in the school library.”
Most other major Northwest school districts don’t use software that blocks sites with nudity or foul language.
The Seattle and Portland districts have had unfiltered access for almost two years and have seen few problems. In Portland, just five students out of 57,200 were caught violating the use policy, with one student suspended from school.
“You might call it optimistic, but so far from what we’ve seen, it’s worked well,” said Gary Scheel, Portland’s school network supervisor.
But Seattle School officials just bought a filter and don’t think students will miss the blocked information.
“If there’s anything we can do to avoid bad information on the desktop, we’re going to do it,” said Don Cowan, Seattle’s director of information services. “If we don’t, we’re negligent.”
In the first weeks of Spokane’s school year, there were no students disciplined and no complaints.
But at least one student, who wouldn’t give his name, used a district computer to view on-line pornographic trading cards. He wasn’t caught, but bragged about his find to a reporter. Others in several high schools accessed the Internet without a signed permission slip.
During open house meetings, most principals and teachers reassured parents they will carefully monitor students.
Chase Middle School Principal Alison Olzendam rearranged her library to have a librarian facing all five on-line computers.
Educators say concerns about Internet smut distract from Internet benefits.
Indian Trail Elementary teacher David Rolando helped a fifth-grade student search the Internet for information on sunflowers. They found volumes of useful research.
“There is more info than any of us want to use,” said Rolando. “We need to learn how we can throw out the stuff we can’t use, don’t want to use, shouldn’t use. With any new tool, there should be new skills. We are learning to be critical readers.”
The possibilities have educators talking big.
Said Austin: “There are things out there that are beyond the wildest dreams of a 46-year-old like me.”