Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Internet, circa 2008

Can we please, finally, once and for all, get rid of this ridiculous notion that it is still somehow unreasonable, in the year 2008, for teachers to require students to use the internet to complete assignments? Can we please stop allowing parents and kids to use the excuse that "I don't have a computer" to absolve them of their academic responsibilities?

I first put up my website at in 2000, maybe even 1999, I can't remember. I don't update it now as often as I used to, but that's mostly because just about everything I need to have up there is already there. The website has always been intended as a supplementary resource for students; I've never required students to use it, but students who are having trouble doing the work or knowing what the class procedures and requirements are, or who join the class in mid-semester, have a place to go which explains, in detail, everything they could possibly need to know. This was one of the main reasons I set up the website in the first place. Between the class handbooks, material presented in class on the board or out loud, and the copious material on the website, there is no reason whatsoever for any student in my class to not know what she is supposed to do, not know what the standards or requirements are, not know what is expected of her. Any student who "doesn't know," doesn't know because he did not take steps to find out.

I've written at length in the past about this issue of "not knowing," so I won't go back over that ground again, except to reiterate that students actively try to "not know" because no one expects or requires them to know anything or find out anything on their own. But as I mentioned in my previous post, this issue came up in parent/teacher conferences when an irate parent, clinging to her daughter's assertion that she "did not know" she had to keep a notebook in class and write in it every day, and thus it was OK for her to do no work for two weeks, when I mentioned my website threw back at me the assertion that "not everyone has a computer." The implications, of course, were that (a.) neither the student nor her family has a PC at home; (b.) the student thus has no means of accessing the internet; and (c.) it is unreasonable for me to expect or require students to have internet access.

I don't want to seem insensitive or anything, but I have a hard time believing that any family in the year 2008 does not have access to the internet, or an internet-connected PC in the home. I can accept that the poorest of the poor and others in dire straits may not have them, but let's face it: The PC has become as ubiquitous as the telephone. Basic desktop PC's are very inexpensive; a five-year-old PC can be had second-hand even cheaper and would be more than adequate for just about anything a student might need to do, online or otherwise. (My desktop PC is six years old and does everything from web browsing to video editing.) Even if a person does not have his own PC, he can access the internet at any public library, and also in many commercial locations such as Kinko's. Eight years ago I might have accepted that an appreciable number of students didn't have internet access at home, but not now.

The point is that, as a general principle, it is not unreasonable anymore for teachers to expect students to use the internet to find important information, whether for academic assignments or class requirements. Even if the student truly does not have a PC at home and his family cannot afford one, he needs to pursue another option, be it a public library, school computer lab, parent's workplace, friend's or relative's home, Kinko's outlet, internet cafe, etc. The claim that a student does not have a PC at home cannot by itself be accepted as an excuse for not doing schoolwork.

It must also be pointed out that anyone living in the United States in the year 2008 who CANNOT access the internet is at a substantial and very serious disadvantage. Given the internet's ubiquity in terms of both access and range of use, anyone who can't get on the internet is going to be a great many steps behind those who can in terms not only of access to information, but in communication, time management, opportunities for advancement, social interaction, and more, not to mention college applications, research and coursework. Certainly all these things existed before the internet age, and there are many people who choose not to use the internet for whatever reason and get along just fine in their own lives. However, the point is that practically everyone can use the internet, most people do, and those who can't or don't are severely handicapped in a 21st-century world.

Never mind the fact that this particular parent threatened to "address" me further via e-mail (which she still has not done), which tends to belie her claim that the child could not have accessed the internet to visit my website and get herself up to speed. Often, the same students who claim they have no computers and can't access the internet when they are assigned to, are the same ones who cheat and plagiarize off Wikipedia or and spend more time on their MySpace pages and instant messaging than on their studies. In this individual case, it was obviously an empty and dishonest excuse. The parent phrased it as a generalization, "Not everyone has a computer," rather than make a specific claim that she or her daughter did not have one, but in a way that is even worse. It's not a lie, but it's still dishonest. It implies that it is unreasonable for me to expect students to use the internet to catch up on what they missed if they join the class in progress. In the year 2008, that is just simply wrong.

I wonder, for how long were students and parents able to legitimately avoid schoolwork or school responsibilities by claiming that they did not have a telephone? Or a television? Or a radio? Or mail? At what point does it become reasonable for educators to assume and expect that students have access to ubiquitous modern technologies?

Once again, I don't deny that people who are desperately poor or otherwise substantially burdened may not have PCs or internet access at home. But in the year 2008, the internet is no longer a novelty; the PC is no longer a luxury item. You have to be able to use the internet if you intend to compete and succeed in the 21st Century. Students who walk around the school halls with cell phones and BlackBerrys cannot reasonably claim to have no internet access because they are too poor. I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. If they can't access the internet at home, they need to go to a library.

This is not so much about the internet as it is about the student's responsibility to do what she needs to do, get what she needs to get, find out what she needs to find out. In short, students need to recognize the difference between what is impossible and what is merely inconvenient, and not claim the former to avoid the latter. And, as with every other example of irrational teenage behavior, parents need to stop enabling them.


Barbara said...


I am making this required reading for my graduate students tonight at Cal State Bakersfield. We will also be studying your regular webpage. Hope all is going well with finishing law school. State Bar straight ahead.

Barbara Bartholomew

Anonymous said...

Required reading at Cal State?! I concur. Indeed, this should be required reading for all new teachers, and many that are not so new. You should be gratified Jay.

Anonymous said...

I mean the enire blog!