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Many English teachers openly deride the Internet in general as a detriment to developing minds. The Web and its billions of pages have no universal standards for writing or communication, they say, and children can easily develop bad habits at a time when they don't know the definition of a homonym or when a sentence needs a capital, comma or semicolon.
"It's a bastardization of the language," said one teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area who asked to remain anonymous for the sake of parents and students at her school. "And it normalizes for them that they can ignore conventions."
Others argue that such criticism is futile because technology is here to stay. Instead, these scholars worry that schools should be taking more initiative with the Internet's potential to help students learn.
Andrew Davis, who teaches social studies to seventh and eighth graders, said he's working informally to integrate technology into many classroom environments. In one case, Davis wants to incorporate "study wikis" into social studies to let students collaborate on a subject more easily.A wiki could be created as a glossary to study Islam, for example, and the children could be given 60 terms to define and discuss. Because wikis maintain histories of posts and edits, teachers can verify which students worked on particular parts of projects and grade them accordingly.
One technology that's becoming fairly popular in PC-equipped classrooms is an e-mail system called First Class. With it, teachers can send an e-mail with a study question to a group of children, and when one student replies, it starts an e-mail thread that is consolidated into a file accessible to all, rather than a series of messages in an in-box. This teaches children to read information in threads.
"Independently they're learning new ways of expressing themselves that will cause the definition of writing to change. There is a new form of literacy developing that is informal," Davis said. "You have this immense sea of possibilities with the Internet, and good teachers don't have the time to navigate that sea. I fear that, mishandled, the Internet will become like the TV 20 years later."
Some cultural observers don't think that would be the worst thing that could happen. Steven Johnson, author of "Everything Bad Is Good for You," posits in his book that video games, reality TV and other presumed villains of popular culture are actually making us smarter. One reason is that digital interactivity forces constant decision-making.
"For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path toward lowest common-denominator standards, presumably because the 'masses' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies want to give the masses what they want. But in fact, the opposite is happening: The culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less," Johnson writes. "I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down."
The millennials would seem to agree. When a group of Maryland schoolchildren were asked last week if they understood technology more than their parents did, they answered in unison with a resounding "Yes!"
"I can fix the computer but my mom can't," said 8-year-old Jamie, who said his favorite technology is videoconferencing "because it's fun to talk to somebody hundreds of states away."
His friend Zeik added: "My parents can't even play my video games."
But what about the quality of thinking that results from these hyperactive brain synapses? After studying how teenage girls interact with technology for the last year, researcher Wendy March said her subjects were so adept at typing on the computer that they didn't have to think anymore. As a result, she said, they were often on automatic pilot.
"A few girls talked about moving away from computers to force themselves to think about their college essays in a different way so they would be concentrated on thinking instead of the process," said March who has been doing her research as an interaction designer at Intel's People and Practices research unit. "They've realized that technological fluency was not all it was about. And they have to slow themselves down."
That sentiment was illustrated on a wall at the computer lab of San Francisco's Hamlin school for girls, where a sign advises against this tendency, as least in jest: "Caution: This machine has no brain, use your own."
Teenage girls have been especially receptive to the influences of technology, researchers say, because they tend to be highly communicative and use mobile phones constantly. For privacy, they prefer text messaging or IM.
Sixth-grade girls at Hamlin write a biweekly online journal for and about the school during their e-journalism course. The girls, who are all about 11 or 12 years old, said their library cards get little or no use because much of their time is spent on MySpace or AOL Instant Messenger.
"It is a different way of growing up, if you always had it," MySpace's Brinkman said. "It's like the telephone for us. You can't imagine functioning without it. The fusion of mobile, IM and Web, and it keeps getting more so. Each successive generation is going to be more like this."
If technology has generally fostered independence, it can also have the opposite effect in some forms. Phones companies have planned to insert location-detecting sensors into mobile phones, for instance, and software that can monitor text messages and Web browsing has already been developed.
That conjures a worst-case scenario for many teenagers, the possibility of parents finding out exactly where they are and what they're doing practically at all times--showing that some social dynamics never change from generation to generation.
As March noted: "Technology doesn't change what we do. It allows us to do it in slightly different ways."