For some, Net puts library on shelf; Students prefer Web for academic research, new Pew survey shows

Tuesday, September 4, 2001
Page 1A

For some, Net puts library on shelf
Students prefer Web for academic research, new Pew survey shows

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

It was while listening to a longish church sermon one Sunday in 1876 that librarian Melvil Dewey had his moment of genius. “I jumpt in my seat and came near shouting ‘Eureka!'” he wrote later, marveling at the “absolute simplicity” of his idea.

But for many of today’s teenagers, the Dewey Decimal System sits squarely in the ash bin of history, right next to the Victrola and the Model T. Libraries, once the great storehouses of academic knowledge, are coming in second to search engines.

The extent of children’s reliance on the Internet for research was one of the findings of a new report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The study gives a hint at how quickly – and pervasively – the Internet has been integrated into the way children learn.

Seventy-three percent of the 12- to 17-year-olds who were interviewed said they used the Internet. And of the 754 Internet users surveyed, 94 percent said they had used it for academic research.

The Pew survey asked students which they had used more in researching their most recent major school project: the Internet or school and local libraries. Seven in 10 said the Internet.

“You can find stuff about basically anything on the Internet,” said Brittany Pittman, a sophomore at Marcus High School in Flower Mound who used the Internet for a paper on Princess Diana last year. “It’s so much easier than finding something in the library.”

Linda Thiebaud, librarian at Flower Mound High School, said the Internet was a good complement to books but would never replace them. One reason, she said: A power outage or software error can’t make a book unusable.

“The Internet can provide a lot of things our books can’t,” Ms. Thiebaud said. “But I still think our books are here to stay.”

Spurred by students’ use, teachers are making the Internet an essential part of many classes. Seventeen percent of students surveyed said they had created a Web page for a class assignment, and 58 percent said that they had used Web sites created specifically for their school or class.

Susan Wrenn, a Spanish teacher at Marcus High, uses a Web site to drill students on verbs and adjectives. “As soon as they finish taking a quiz, they find out how they did and what they got wrong,” she said. “They can see immediately where they need more work.”

Students in Coppell middle schools are getting their language arts textbooks online for the first time this fall. They’ve received the standard print volumes as well, but they’re being encouraged to access the materials online, where they can also complete homework and take tests.

“The kids are so excited,” said Laurel Kron, a seventh-grade teacher at Coppell Middle School West. Technical difficulties are holding up parts of the online system, but “they’re asking me all the time when it’ll be ready,” she said. “I think … [language arts homework] will be the first homework that gets done at night, because it’s cool and new to do it online.”

But the study found that the Internet has proved to be more than a source of static information. It has taken on the role of school hangout – a place for students to talk among themselves. More than 40 percent of those surveyed said they had used e-mail or instant messaging to communicate with teachers or fellow students about schoolwork.

For teachers, e-mail is a new gateway to communicate with students and parents. Educators once accustomed to giving out their home phone numbers on the first day of class now routinely hand out an e-mail address.

“I tell my kids that if they e-mail me before 9:30 [p.m.], I’ll guarantee them a response that night,” said Matt Cone, a history and government teacher at Plano Senior High School.

Of course, the myriad possibilities of online learning come with corresponding dangers.

Nearly one in five students surveyed knew of someone who had used the Internet to cheat on a paper or test. Web sites offering term papers and research for a fee make cheating tantalizingly easy.

“I’m not naive enough to think there aren’t answers being shared inappropriately out there,” said Kristen Moitz, assistant principal at Lamar Middle School in Flower Mound.

Mr. Cone said he had typed phrases from students’ papers into Internet search engines to see if they appeared anywhere online, on a reference page or on someone else’s academic work.

In a few cases, he has sent papers electronically to an online service that does more detailed checking for plagiarism. In a handful of cases, he has caught students red-handed.

“I think kids get spoiled and lose the ability to really track down good information,” Mr. Cone said. “I’ll have a student come in and say, ‘I can’t find any information on my topic.’ I ask where they looked, and they’ve just checked the Web.”

But no matter how pervasive the Internet is for many children, 27 percent of the students surveyed said they don’t use it at all.

Some might be uninterested; others might not have easy access, despite a federal initiative over the last five years to get every school in America wired for technology. Students from wealthier homes are much more likely to have computers.

“Clearly, Internet access is not yet in the places where it’s easy for every student to get at it,” said Lee Rainey, the Pew project’s director. “Whether it’s a logistics issue or something else, not everyone has been able to get online.”