Internet education can't wait

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel                                      April 19, 2008

Neverland has gone digital, and it is seducing our children. There are those who see it as Captain Hook's lair, others as Peter Pan's and yet others who don't see it at all - though they try.

Once the only way to log on to the Internet was with a computer and a hard-wired connection. Now, our kids can do it with a cell phone or an Xbox 360 video game. With 500-foot wireless soon to evolve into citywide WiMax, our kids will be able to log on from the love seat, the back seat, the bus seat or the Marcus seat. And you thought you could lock the house and leave your child snuggly safe.

I entered the computer industry in 1980, operating one of Canada's first computer stores. Even with my experience, I'm overloaded trying to keep my son safe online. Despite all the pirates that can snare him, cyberspace is as integral to our world as traveling by air and speaking English.

I wondered what my school was doing to help my Gen-N middle-schooler cope because I can't do it alone anymore. Yes, this does make me feel inadequate.

In both Milwaukee Public Schools and the Mequon-Thiensville School District, the primary goal is keeping kids safe at school. Most people probably would agree that the purpose of schools is to prepare kids for the job market, make them responsible citizens and broaden their horizons. Sadly, that focus has narrowed into reading, writing, math and test-taking. Cyber education is noticeably AWOL.

We are facing this like stumbling newcomers who can't speak English, while our kids have picked up the language of the new homeland and are running around the neighborhood with newfound freedom. Like Peter Pan, we must think happy thoughts and pick up the sword.

"We have to figure out how to teach our kids to use this in a positive manner," MPS Director of Technology James Davis told me, "because we realize that the world they're going to live in is totally different than the world you and I are living in today." Is MPS' gearhead-in-chief apologizing or leading the charge?

We're half past the future, and the schools are still winding up the timer. Maybe, the problem is that, as schools always do, they give too much weight to the fears and frustrations of parents. And many parents are frozen in fear. Schools are limiting their responsibility to protecting children from the Internet. Talk about a lost teachable moment. No, not moment: entire youth.

"If we don't teach this to them," Joan Fecteau, an MPS instructional technology leader, told me, "then we are doing as much of a disservice as not teaching them to read or write."

But you can't teach driving by sitting at a desk. You have to get behind the wheel. Let's give kids hands-on experience under teacher supervision.

Fecteau not only teaches students but teachers as well. "Some teachers don't know enough about the Internet to understand how to avoid viruses and tracking devices. For example, clicking on a pop-up window can lead to malicious spyware or unintended Web pages being displayed."

It is apparent to parents that most kids are far beyond their teachers' and parents' understanding. The one institution that has the mission to teach is not keeping up. We need to give schools the nod and the resources to do it - which is code for funding. Oh, no, did I say that?

We can't leave our children to be educated by Hook's pirates. Think happy thoughts and reboot our schools.








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