High-Speed School Daze Just Beginning


By 2003, more children will access the Internet from school than from home, thanks in part to the classroom-wiring initiatives that are now under way.

Compare that to today's arrangement: About 14 million kids now go online from school computers, compared with about 18 million who log on from home. Many, of course, access the Internet from both venues.

Overall, 40 percent of children aged two through 17 cruise the Internet. Among teen-agers, the share climbs to 70 percent.

It sounds like a great success for civic and industry-backed groups, including Cable in the Classroom, which have patted themselves on the back for bringing the Internet into schools. More than 95 percent of schools (and 63 percent of individual classrooms) have online access at any speed. As recently as 1996, just 65 percent of schools had any Internet connection.

But the institutional approach to Internet access could change the way the Internet is used by this army of "Generation Y" surfers. Thanks to filters and other child-protection tools installed on school-based access devices, the Web experience could be very different from what kids see when they log on from home.

While this structure provides important security for impressionable youths, the home-versus-school access issue is likely to have widespread repercussions throughout the marketing, entertainment and communications segments of the Internet infrastructure-not to mention the education and information sectors.

As if Web-surfing kids care much about the latter: A recent Forrester Research study found that among older kids, 32 percent go online for communications (chat and instant messaging, for example); 30 percent use it for entertainment; and only 10 percent cited "education" as a preferred online activity.

For cable operators and other network providers that bring the data lines into schools, a new challenge looms. What's their role-or reputation-in providing content that the school-aged clientele will perceive as a watered-down service?

Schools must confront whether they will or should filter out messaging and entertainment applications when they provide student access to the Internet. The commercial and electronic-commerce features that go along with those applications will also be affected by schools' control over the way millions of kids access the Internet.

Network operators will face the same dilemma as marketers that want to crack through filters, fire walls and other barriers in order to reach those kids in school.

Grunwald Associates conducted the study that foresees the shift to school-weighted access. It's no surprise, of course, that Generation Y (basically all kids in kindergarten through high school today) are savvy surfers. The Media Metrix top 50 list of most visited Web sites is laced with teen favorites such as Snowball.com and eUniverse.com.

The underlying research for Grunwald study was commissioned by the National School Boards Foundation, which has a serious stake in the matter-and which is presumably looking (on behalf of its local members) for ways to limit, or at least monitor, the material that reaches kids.

Much of Grunwald's new research quantifies and confirms today's conventional wisdom about kids online. For example, the gender gap has disappeared. Boys and girls are online in equal proportions-in fact, the girls may be a bit ahead.

Multitasking is de rigueur among this age phalanx. According to Grunwald, 86 percent of online teen-age girls listen to the radio while surfing. (Our independent-albeit unscientific-research suggests that typical teens juggle four or five simultaneous tasks, including instant messages or online chat, phone calls, video streaming and maybe reading a magazine.)

Indeed, multitasking-and short-attention-span-audiences may pose an even greater threat to traditional cable programmers and their advertisers.

As we enter this summer of surfing (Web and otherwise), it seems possible that year-round Web usage may become one of the contributing factors leading to year-round schooling-something that is probably on the school boards' official agendas.

When schools have upgraded their computing capabilities, it will be wasteful to let that hardware and network sit idle for three months each year.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen learned to hang 10 (fingers, that is) over a classroom keyboard.