When Joanna Hoffman had to write a report on melanoma last November for her health class, the Maryland high school sophomore researched it entirely at home -- and entirely online. Searching the Internet's vast resources, she found useful information on 20 World Wide Web sites, ranging from university studies on skin cancer to the American Cancer Society's site.
"For this particular report, I only used the Internet," says Joanna, 15, adding that without it she probably would have depended on encyclopedias at the school library. "I found it more convenient to simply print out pages of information rather than to hand-write notes from a book."
Connected to the Net since her older sister taught her the basics three years ago, Joanna keeps up with online news about her favorite music groups and surfs for other interests. And as the homework assignments have become more demanding, she has been going online more than ever to do them.
"I think it's a great way to get kids to do their schoolwork -- and she likes it," says Barbara Hoffman, Joanna's mother, who sometimes has to restrict her daughter's online time because it ties up the phone line at their Silver Spring, Md., home. Hoffman also likes that her daughter has been more enthusiastic about homework on the Internet than she has about trudging to the public library.
"There is always an answer somewhere on the Net," says Joanna, who earned an "A" on the melanoma report. "In this day and age, the phrase `I don't know' is hardly ever applicable."
Need to write bios of ancient Greek statesmen? Want help on algebra equations? Looking for the latest data on Mars? Students from elementary school through high school are increasingly diving into the Web's 150 million-plus pages to find answers and resources -- many previously beyond their grasp.
A big chunk of today's online population (from 15 million to 22 million in the United States, according to current estimates) already is "kids from 7 or 8 years old to high school," says Robert Kraut, professor of social psychology and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University.
Most students first encounter the Internet as little more than an awesome electronic research library. With a decent search engine, some know-how and a little patience, they can find answers online to nearly any factual question. The Net speaks volumes (some sites, literally) of searchable encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauruses, atlases and almanacs.
"The Internet is an ideal learning tool because it allows children to seek knowledge at their own pace and interest level," says Kari Sable Burns, a former kindergarten teacher who now runs an information technology consulting firm, Kari & Associates, in Olympia, Wash.
She noted how the Internet multiplies ways for youngsters to learn: "If I were studying birds, I could go to a site sponsored by a museum in New Zealand and listen to the distinct bird calls while looking at their description and reading about their habitat."
It's also true that the Internet can multiply ways for youngsters to cheat. Teachers worry about how easily entire pages of information can be copied into reports without properly citing them -- either intentionally or through simple forgetfulness. Term-paper factories are now hawking other people's reports and original term papers on the Internet. Some children even post their own reports online, only to have them ripped off by students elsewhere.
"What I'm hearing from teachers is, `How are we going to stay one step ahead of the kids?' " says Charlotte Thompson, the library media specialist at a Maryland high school. "So teachers are changing their strategies."
At that high school and elsewhere, some teachers are structuring research paper assignments with many checked and graded steps. "We don't just do a paper, we do a process," says Thompson. "That makes it nearly impossible to use a canned paper."
But most are assigning work that emphasizes "higher-level learning" -- synthesizing, analyzing and evaluating, says Thompson. A paper making a case for Hamlet as a hero or villain, for example, is harder to plagiarize than a basic summary of "Hamlet." "It's going to be a real challenge for us, but all for the good," says Thompson.
At home, too, some online-savvy students have also found that when parents often stumble over long-forgotten lessons, the Internet provides credible help with basic homework. At "schoolwork.org" (also known as "schoolwork.ugh"), students find links to dozens of on-line resources in 22 categories, from Art to Statistics.
"I think young people like the site because it acknowledges that having to do homework mostly sucks," says Maureen Shields, head of Adult Services at the New City Library, in New City, N.Y., who created schoolwork.org in the fall of 1996 to help students find good information online.
Shields believes the Internet is already a vital and necessary part of learning. "As a librarian, I know that print and CD-ROM resources can't keep up with the complexity and depth of subjects taught in a lot of courses," she says. "They certainly can't keep up with the expectations that students, parents and educators have -- which is fast, detailed information that exactly targets the question asked."
That may explain why "homework helper" sites are increasing online. Some, like America Online's "AOL Homework," emphasize forums, message boards or "Ask a Teacher" features in which students e-mail or post questions and get rapid responses. Some get more subject-specific: When desperate students interrupted the humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare newsgroup's ongoing discussions of the Bard's oeuvre during finals last December, its regulars gently redirected them to "The Shakespeare Homework Helper."
But some homework helper sites are to academia what Hamburger Helper is to the culinary arts. "About 65 to 70 percent of the posts on this board are either degrading to school, selling something or irrelevant," says Tyler Riggs, 13, who joined the alt.school.homework-help newsgroup a year ago and recently volunteered to be its "Answer Man."
An honor role eighth-grader in Logan, Utah, Riggs says the newsgroups' members are mostly middle- and high-school students who primarily ask for help with languages and math problems. "There have been times when I have done one-on-one help, and I had to get out a book and do it step-by-step with them," says Riggs, who tackles his own homework before anyone else's. "Other times, I have referenced the person to a teacher or professor who was an expert in that particular topic."
Interviewing an expert source for school projects was once almost unthinkable. But now government, university and institutional Web sites often provide e-mail links to staff members and faculties, and compendium sites such as Pitsco's "Ask the Experts" provide direct links to experts in various fields who have volunteered to field questions from students.
Meanwhile, online field trips and collaborative projects provide ongoing "first-hand experiences" for children built around a journey or topic of investigation. On the Public Broadcasting System Web site, kids climb Mount Everest and explore the pyramids. At the Discovery Channel Online, children recently learned about "the brief history of skateboards" and chatted with NASA experts about renewed interest in returning to the moon. Says Burns: "Instead of a TV program being the entire lesson, it's the introduction to the lesson."
Seymour Papert, a professor of learning research at MIT's Media Lab who has studied children and computers for more than two decades, says these kinds of opportunities on the Internet will change the nature of education. "They are getting the sense that they can direct their own learning," says Papert. "They can do it with this highly empowering and exciting sense of pursuing knowledge themselves."
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