Bangkok Post

In this second part of a two-part feature looking at the role of the Internet in education, ‘learning post’ looks at how young people and schools are putting the electronic resources available to them to good use.

Story and pictures by ORATIP NIMKANNON

In the March 29 issue of learning post, we looked at the Goodnet project, which is being pushed by policy makers in an effort to transform Internet cafes from gaming parlours into education-themed “lifelong learning centres”.

There is, of course, another angle to changing the way that kids use the Internet, and that is through educators themselves reinforcing students’ positive Internet habits. After all, teachers have a duty of care to respond to the changing world around us and to adapt accordingly when it comes to student development. After all, for many students, the Internet is already a big part of daily life.

Take 15-year-old Pak Kred Secondary School student Patrajit Mookprapat, for example. Patrajit’s day starts and ends with the chat program MSN Messenger, as well as online music and Web surfing. On average, Patrajit spends about five hours a day on the Internet and says that she cannot live without it.

Patrajit is not all that different from many other kids her age. In 2004, 51.9 percent of all Internet users in Thailand were between 15 and 24 years old, according to the National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre’s statistics, with time spent online hitting 10 hours per day in some cases. Bearing this in mind, teachers have the advantage that many kids are already familiar with the technology, but the disadvantage that they may have already picked up bad habits.

Constructive curiosity
Young people are, by nature, curious. If you put a child inside a room with a computer that has an Internet connection, the chances are the child will start browsing. Curiosity is a basic behaviour that can prompt the urge to learn new things.

Richard Barrow, head of the computer department at Sriwittayapaknam School in Samut Prakan, told learning post that in order to nurture and guide this curiosity, educators have to take the lead. This means introducing students to the wealth of knowledge available freely on the Internet, rather than simply dismissing it.

The most basic way of integrating Internet usage into classwork or homework is to ask students to find information. Sutharat Phuargpu, 16, explained that at her school, teachers would assign students to use the Internet to search for specific subjects, such as narcotics or the history of state agencies.

But using the Internet for this type of assignment is easy. With powerful search engines like Google and Yahoo!, students can often just type in one word to get the answers they want. A more constructive approach is to have them perform “strategic information searches”.

For example, at Sriwittayapaknam School students are given worksheets with a list of questions rather than the task of looking for one specific topic. They then have to use search engines to search for the answers. By doing this type of assignment, the students learn to strategically apply the use of keywords to narrow down their search and think about whether what they’ve found is really relevant to the questions asked.

Of course, once on the Internet, students are often tempted to click through to irrelevant topics, particularly when that topic is more interesting to a young mind than homework. According to Richard Barrow, the key to keeping kids “on topic” is balance and subtle manipulation.

“As the number of [online] game players at the school was far greater than people wanting to do homework, we had to compromise,” he says. “Now we have one day a week during lunch break when games are not allowed.”

However, once Barrow started suggesting stimulating and educational websites, he found the students started taking an interest and would divert their attention to exploring these sites.

This is all well and good, but giving young people free rein on the Internet has its downsides. The anonymous nature of chatrooms and programs, for example, means that they are addictive and seductive to most teens.

Using this type of software, students can interact with more than one person at the same time, and the ability to get instant feedback from the other end makes online chatting a rewarding experience. But the negative aspect is that students can get hooked up with a total stranger and risk being lured into giving out personal information or engaging in activities that turn out to be harmful.

For this reason, many schools have banned students from using chatrooms and software. But according to Richard Barrow, this attitude is naïve — after all, kids can access the Internet from many sources. Banning these activities at schools may encourage them to take them up somewhere else — somewhere where there is no one to supervise or provide guidance.
“What we did was set up a chatroom that is heavily moderated by a dozen people in different time zones,” he says. “We told the students all about the dangers of chatrooms and how they shouldn’t believe anything that people claim or should never give out phone numbers or addresses.”

Putting IT into practise
With proper guidance, students at Sritwittayapaknam School are now responsible users of the Internet. Besides using the Web to complete homework assignments, they have also learned how to use the technology to reach out to the world.

Through developing sites like www.english-room.com and www.dekgeng.com, the students have learned to communicate with foreigners and exchange cultural information in English — as well as develop skills that they can use when they leave school. Sritwittayapaknam School’s presence on the Web has also become prominent.

For example, if you type “Thai culture” as a keyword in Google, thailandlife.com — developed by Sritwittayapaknam School’s students and teachers — is the top result. Similarly, the keywords “Thai language” also bring up Sritwittayapaknam School’s affiliated website, www.learningthai.com.

The story of Sriwittayapaknam School reveals that with proper guidance from teachers, all students can learn how to use the Internet intelligently. In addition, activities like chatting with friends or playing online games can actually be productive to student’s learning. “Many role playing games involve problem solving and developing skills that could be useful in the future,” says Richard Barrow.

The key is to stay open-minded, experiment with the technology and “be prepared to make mistakes and learn by them”. After all, kids will always be curious, and helping them to make informed choices and understand the consequences of these choices is a key part of an educator’s responsibility.

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