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Are bits to the desktop a good idea?

The war cry (or is it mantra?) of the moment seems to be "The Internet in every classroom." The idea sounds great, putting the world at the beck and call of young exploring minds, but I'm not quite so sure.

From the President and Vice President on down this seems like an idea whose time has come. The idea is not all that new but was strongly revitalized near the end of the presidential campaign. The new administration's effort builds on a series of "Net Days" that have been held around the country for the last year or so. The idea is to wire the schools in a way that can support Internet access from every classroom. The Net Days seem to have been a big success with many schools benefiting from a great deal of volunteer labor and donated supplies.

There is a bit of a problem in how to get, maintain and update the computers that will be needed but lets put that issue aside.

How the on-going connections to the Internet should be financed is still foggier. There are suggestions that Internet service providers (ISPs) should be required to provide access for significant discounts (80% discount is one number I read) or even for free. This could be mandated of the ISPs or subsidized with money from the existing universal access funds maintained by the telephone companies. This aspect could get astonishingly complex in a quite short order. Creating a set of rules that can span the range from AT&T and MCI to "Ma and Pa's Bits to Go" is more than a challenge. But lets just put off any concerns about that as implementation details. Lets think about a more basic question--is it a good idea to bring Internet access to all classrooms?

Some people are worried about what inquiring eyes might see or read out there on the 'Net. One proposal I saw would block kids from using the Internet connection until they had a signed note permitting it from their parents, and the note had to absolve the school and teacher of all liability in the case of a glimpse of what shouldn't be seen The definition of this varies quite a bit from parent to parent. But even putting that worry aside, is this omnipresent school-based access a good idea?

I think a more fundamental issue is that of teacher preparedness. If the classroom teacher is not ready to guide the experience, the Internet can be an overly confusing place. It presents a cacophony of information, images, ideas, and experiences. Even sidestepping the problems involved in shielding kids from some things they would like to "research" if left on their own, the Internet is not a structured learning environment. T.S. Elliot once said that "hell is where nothing connects to nothing". There are few things that can disrupt the learning process more effectively than random, disconnected pieces of information.

For those of us who remember the "new math", there may be the same side benefit in wiring the classrooms as there was in that restructuring of math education; it meant that the teachers had to go back to school to learn what to teach, and along the way they might get a refresher course in how to teach. That might not be all bad.

disclaimer: Harvard claims not to be hell (though it may be down the street) and does not have an opinion on the new math or any or the above.