Internet in America's Schools
First Monday

Internet in 
America's Schools: Potential Catalysts for Policy

As societies move toward the new millennium, Internet initiatives are being introduced in schools throughout the world. Yet, not without controversy. For example, in the United States fears of access to Internet pornography has dampened the potential enthusiasm for the further introduction of the Internet in schools. Furthermore, a recent study by Carnegie Mellon University found that increased exposure to the Internet led to increased levels of depression and isolation. With these fears circulating, it is inherently more problematic to urge policy makers and parents to desire technology in the classroom. In this article, in an effort to introduce potential points of dialog entry for policy makers, I examine three views that advocate the further implementation of Internet in schools: human capital, democracy and empowerment.


Human Capital Argument
Democracy Argument
Empowerment Argument
Resistance to Change


The march of human progress has been marked by milestones in science and technology. Gutenberg's creation of movable type in the 15th century laid the foundation for universal literacy. Watt's invention of the steam engine in the 18th century launched the Industrial Revolution. The inventiveness of Bell and Marconi in the 19th and 20th Centuries - creating the telephone and radio - helped bring a global village into being [1].

Since 1991, the United States has spent 24.4 billion dollars on implementing hardware, software and wiring American schools for the Internet [2]. Yet, it is estimated that an additional $109 billion would be needed to provide all of America's classrooms with Internet access [3]. With Internet access continuing to provoke controversy these funds may prove to be difficult to raise. For example, many Americans fear the introduction of the Internet in schools due to increasingly negative press reports of virtual pedophiles and access to pornography on-line. This "publicity" fuels fear and leads to a rigid rejection of Internet on some initiatives by schools. These concerns over Internet pornography and virtual sex crimes cognitively convince many parents that information technology is not appropriate for implementation in America's schools.

Furthermore, policy makers produce and promote educational policies that appeal to voters rather than suggesting policies based on student learning. Recently, these reforms have taken the shape of accountability and standardized testing. In contrast to learning as a catalyst for change, recent reform efforts have centered on international competition and productivity brought about by an evolving job market. As I suggest later in the article, this may be a place to enter dialog with community members and policy makers. For instance, recent school reform has primarily been grounded in economic necessity in order to rally community support. Legislators and other policy makers appeal to voters by proposing simple solutions designed to reform education for the better. Yet these changes often reflect short term policies designed for attracting voters. Often real issues involving education are neglected. One such issue is the utilization of information technology in America's schools. In an effort to faciliate policy dialog, I present three views expressing the importance of introducing Internet initiatives in schools: the human capital argument, the democracy argument and Internet for empowerment.

Human Capital Argument

Throughout the globe, policy makers are using the rhetoric of the coming of the 21st century information age to promote the implementation of Internet in schools. From Estonia to Malaysia, Internet for schools initiatives are driving school reform throughout the world. Yet, what is so critical for providing Internet access for students in schools? One argument for the implementation of information technology in public schools is the dissemination and acquisition of information technology skills for graduates. In 1988, the American Society for Training and Development estimated that corporations spent $25 billion annually to train poorly educated public school graduates. In comparison, the ASTD found that companies spent a total of $55 billion on training in 1995. Clearly, industry needs to hire well educated and skilled graduates to fill necessary job positions. For example, according to the human capital argument, schools should provide an opportunity for students to acquire appropriate job skills that are congruent with current market needs. Through the acquisition of these skills, educational institutions will provide industry with well-trained graduates, reducing the cost of re-training currently being absorbed by corporations.

A report released by the Information Technology Association of America, Help Wanted 2: A Call for Collaborative Action for the New Millennium illustrates a serious dilemma which has been overlooked by some. ITAA revealed that currently 346,000 information technology jobs are being unfilled in the American labor market. From 1986 to 1994, ITAA found a 40% decline in the number of computer science degrees being earned. In 1997, ITAA in Help Wanted: The IT Workforce Gap at the Dawn of a New Century found that over 190,000 information technology oriented jobs in the largest 2000 companies remain unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants. This represents a labor crisis. Perhaps policy makers should react to this current IT crisis as they did in 1957 to the launch of Sputnik. A so-called 21st century Sputnik could drive the Internet into America's schools.

With this labor crisis in mind, students need to be prepared for the American work place of the 21st Century, a work place that demands technological literacy skills. With the inundation of technological advancements in our society comes a responsibility for educators to provide students with an adequate opportunity to develop computer competence. Policy makers need to provide resources for educators to accomplish this goal. Indeed, this is a coarse human capital argument. That is, schools must produce students with IT skills in an effort to provide them with symbolic capital to exchange in the labor market. In fields utilizing information technology, technological competence today is needed to prepare learners for employment opportunities in the 21st Century. The ITAA findings demonstrate a potential crisis looming. Due to a lack of qualified applicants for information technology jobs, the future of the economy is jeopardized. This trend will continue if intervention is not swift and efficient. Contemporary findings by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that, with the exception of the health care professions, careers involving computer technology will continue to be the fastest growing employment markets in the United States. Furthermore, by the turn of the century more than 60% of jobs will require information technological skills. I refer to this view as the 21st Century Sputnik argument.

Democracy Argument

In 1996, Kedzie completed a study - entitled "International Implications for Global Democracy" - which examined the impact of various national attributes on democracy. Interestingly, he found that the level of a nation's connectivity (i.e., how connected a nation was to the Internet) was correlated to the level of democracy in that particular nation. For example, the higher the levels of connectivity the higher levels of democracy that were present. Clearly, correlation doesn't imply causation yet connectivity was more strongly correlated to democracy than years of schooling.

Authors of the report were hesitant to claim that connectivity led to democracy. Can you imagine Microsoft advertisements? - "Where do you want to go? You'll Be Free with Windows '98." But seriously, the issue remains whether democracy lends itself to the development of connectivity or vice versa. For example, the flow of ideas that is presented through the Internet can provide an open forum for the exchange of ideas. Internet users are instantaneous afforded participation in a renewed public sphere. Through the exchange of ideas, people learn that living in a democracy offers a better life for them. Consequently, they demand such a life at home. Connectivity has then contributed to the reformation of national governments and a push toward democracy. I refer to this argument as the conflation of democracy and capitalism argument.

In regard to education, a traditional goal of the curriculum is to produce democratically minded citizens who actively participate in the community. Consequently, the utilization of the Internet in schools provides an additional catalyst for achieving this goal of citizenship. Furthermore, participation in the flow of ideas and exposure to different cultures and people may lead to increased tolerance and perhaps appreciation of other cultures and ethnic groups.

Empowerment Argument

Another potentially powerful argument that is tied to the previous democracy model is Internet for empowerment. For example, students can become empowered through the utilization of the Internet in the classroom as well as at home. As discussed in the democracy argument, the exchange and flow of ideas offered through the Internet exposes individuals to ideas from all over the world. Currently, 100 million individuals are on-line offering a variety of perspectives. Indeed, the majority of these individuals are English speakers yet many more perspectives are added to the virtual public sphere each day.

More importantly, the Internet offers the potential for a classroom reconfiguration. For instance, through the utilization of the World Wide Web as a tool for the acquisition of knowledge, students begin to take responsibility for their individual learning. Teachers are no longer viewed as a modernist notion of the absolute authority figure and disseminator of knowledge. Students become free to explore divergent concepts driven by inquisitive minds rather than forced into tight square convergent concepts offered by textbooks. The Internet could revolutionize learning. Yet, current "reform" efforts are stagnating and not providing for divergent and exciting exploration but rather drudgery.

Resistance to Change

Imagine a party of time travelers from an earlier century, among them one group of surgeons and another of school teachers, each group eager to see how much things have changed in their profession a hundred or more years into the future. Imagine the bewilderment of the surgeons finding themselves in the operating room of a modern hospital. The time-travelling teachers would respond differently. In the wake of the startling growth of science and technology in our recent past, some areas of human activity have undergone mega change. School is a notable example of an area which has not." [7].

The emergence of the World Wide Web in classroom has forged new expectations of teachers and learners; students will no longer accept teacher dictated ideologies exempt from the Internet and other information resources [4]. Furthermore, today's students have grown up in a world embedded with electronic technology which has penetrated all aspects of our life [5]. Consequently, current school curriculum practices, in my opinion, alienate the love of learning from the student. For example, children will learn something if they desire to and have the opportunity to utilize it [6]. Papert uses the popularity of video games as a prime example of this desire to learn. Students will master difficult video games through practice and will often read magazines in an effort to improve skill and knowledge. Consequently, video game play may offer us insight into motivation and self-driven learning. Today's school children have grown up immersed in a world of computers and other information technologies. They play video games; they listen to music on digital compact disks; they help their families program the computerized controls of video cassette players. These experiences have given children a different way of interacting with information compared with previous generations [7]. These student demands for technology will affect the direction of education in the future. Yet, systematic impediments gaining momentum through accountability issues will also inflict external demands on the education system and thus restrict evolution.

Papert's harsh condemnation of the education system pains any educator who hears them yet, harsh indictment can lead to reflection and perpetual change. Papert's observation leads to serious questions of why schools have changed so little over the course of the last one hundred years. Yet if technology is to assist in the reformation process then a thorough investigation of the obstacles should begin the process. For example, some consider the standardization movement in the United States is forging resistance against reform. Covaleskie believes that the system of current educational practice resists revision to a constructivist learning environment [8]. According to Covaleskie, curriculum is a product driven by educational testing services which fulfill a managerial need in schools. In addition, textbooks are written in alignment with these standardized instruments [9]. Consequently, the curriculum is developed to fulfill the requirements of standardized tests; it is aligned with the content of textbooks. From these influences, success on standardized instruments has replaced the definition of excellence in America's schools [10]. Although a constructivist learner centered classroom would most likely act as a catalyst for learning excellence, external influences, driven by profit margins, act to maintain the current structure of education.

Further entrenchment of the system was facilitated by the creation of the Carnegie Unit in 1905 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Born out of the scientific management movement, Carnegie units (i.e., one half unit of credit for five weekly forty-five minute periods meeting for eighteen weeks) offered an advantageous method for the maintenance of credits and grades [11]. Consequently, American educational systems adopted 45 minute periods of instruction. Here is the crux of our juxtaposed conflict; our educational system, for the most part, influenced by external influences operates in opposition to a constructivist paradigm. What influences will redirect the system to adapt and evolve into a system which is conducive to a constructivist model? Without the appropriate time to utilize information technology in the classroom, teachers will teach toward state exams and choose not to utilize technology in their classrooms.


I have presented three potential views that policy makers can evoke in an effort to persuade the public of the value of implementing Internet initiatives in schools. Furthermore, I have attempted to offer some insight into the organizational structure of schooling that prevents the process of reform to move forward. For example, in American schools, the impact of the standards movement and the structure of schooling prohibits the effective utilization of the Internet for learning in the classroom. Blocks of time and textbook utilization to improve test scores dampens the spirit of innovation and change. A future policy must certainly take into account that accountability and standardized testing will be a reality for the 21st century teacher. Consequently, any policy advice must move from this reality to offering useful advice. First and foremost, teachers must realize that the Internet offers students the opportunity to learn at their own pace. If states continue to make standardized tests mandatory then teachers will be required to introduce a require a certain curriculum to be learned. Students can supplement textbooks through accessing the World Wide Web. Furthermore, this shift from teacher as an all-knowing disseminator of knowledge to a participant in the learning process makes students more responsible for their own learning. Consequently, They will learn how to learn - which is what will be truly necessary in the next millennium. Students who know how to learn will be those who are adaptive and thus always employable.

If educators can buy into this idea then the concepts of democracy and empowerment will follow. Without consensus on this fundamental paradigm, Internet for schools initiatives are doomed. Fear of pornography and privacy will far outweigh the perceived value added nature of the Internet. Policy makers need to demonstrate that the Internet offers an alternative to the antiquated and dominant paradigm of teacher as disseminator and student as receptacle. First and foremost, teachers need effective training in how to utilize the World Wide Web for learning. This empowers students while ensuring learning takes place. Through a shift away from teacher centered teaching to student centered learning, the Internet becomes a tool for liberating the student from the bonds of educational entrenchment.

About the Author

Joseph Slowinski is an Associate Instructor at Indiana University where he teaches courses in educational foundations and the utilization of technology in education. In addition, he serves as the Central and East European editor and Web Master for the Institute for the Study of Russian Education.


1. United States Department of Education, 1996. Getting America's Students Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge. Washington, D. C.

2. Quality Education Data, 1998. Technology Expenditures in K-12 Public Schools.

3. Education Week, 1998. Connecting to the Internet.

4. L. R. Alvarez, C. A. Barone, P. A. McClure, M. Ringle, J. E. Stuckey and T. W. West, 1996. "Why Technology?" Educom Review, volume 31, number 3 (May/June), also at

5. E. F. Strommen, 1995. "Constructivism, Technology, and the Future of Classroom Learning," at

6. S. Papert, 1993. The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.

7. National Academy of Sciences, 1995. Reinventing the Schools: The Technology is Now. Also at

8. J. F. Covaleskie, 1994. "The Educational System and Resistance to Reform: The Limits of Policy," Education Policy Analysis Archives, volume 5, number 11 (February 10), also at v2n4.html

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. C. L. Wood, E. W. Nicholson and D. G. Findley, 1985. The Secondary School Principal: Manager and Supervisor. Second edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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