April 2020

With Schools Closed, the Internet Saves the Day

BY SUKI WESSLING

What a difference a virus makes.

I wrote this article in January, while doing research on the effects of Internet and device use on kids and family relationships. There was a lot of concern out there that our kids were being negatively affected by excessive screen use, by online bullying, by video game addiction. No one was talking about the benefits of this brave new world.

Now I find that I am hearing a new refrain: Thank goodness we have the Internet. I’m so glad my student can communicate with his friends online. Can I please please please enroll my child in your online course?
I wrote this article to focus on something that has become readily apparent in the age of school closures: What an incredible gift the Internet age is to our children.

The Democratization of Knowledge
When I was growing up and I had a question when I was at home, I had an Encyclopedia Britannica, or I had my older siblings and parents. Sure, I could pick up the phone and ask other people, but I don’t remember ever doing that. The high bar to getting answers was also a curb on creative thinking and investigation.
When I was first homeschooling I got the advice to be “the stupidest parent ever.” When my kids asked questions, I’d say, “Well, I don’t know. Let’s look it up!” Modeling how to solve one’s ignorance was an important lesson, and my kids had the tools at their fingertips to find out the answer to any question.
My online students are similarly motivated to seek out knowledge. In some cases I have to preface a question with “and don’t go look this up on Google!” because students often find, copy, and paste an answer before I’m even done with the question.

I acknowledge all the problems that have come with this democracy, including uneven lack of access by different socio-economic groups, the ubiquity of misinformation, and the tendency away from deep learning that teachers are seeing in some kids. But overall, our kids own the entire body of human knowledge. What a gift.

The Widening of Their Lens
I grew up in a small company town in the Midwest. As Midwestern towns go, we had more interaction with the outside world because we had scientists from all over who were living and raising families in our town. But it was still a small town, and we were many miles from nowhere down a straight and monotonous highway.

My children and students have access to…everything. Sure, if they want to really understand a different place they still have to visit there. But they are able to see so much more before they go. My older son studied Arabic online with a teacher in Egypt when he was in high school.

My online students share passions with kids around the globe. They take part in anime appreciation groups or are fans of obscure books they found through online contacts. If they want to set a story in a particular city, they call up a satellite photo to study it.

I remember when I first installed Google Earth on my computer; we looked at it with literal tears in our eyes. I was so amazed that I could visit my childhood home. For kids growing up now, this is the everyday world. They see through the widest angle lens imaginable.

The Greater Access to Support
So many of my students take online classes for less happy reasons than the fact that their families travel or live in out-of-the-way locations. I have students who have debilitating special needs, both physical and psychological. I have students who have experienced horrible bullying in their local schools.

When my students come to class, the most important thing they bring is their brains. No one knows if my kids are overweight, have a different skin color from the others, or were assigned a different gender at birth.
There has been a lot of press about the dark side of the social aspect of the Internet, but I can assure you that I see the bright side each and every day. I teach kids who in my day would have been the outliers, the victims, or the lonely kids. Regardless of what their IRL lives are like, their online lives are a happy spot for them.

It’s a Dangerous Web Out There, But…
The Internet is a tool and tools can be used for good or ill. But I choose to focus on how it has been an incredible gift for our kids, and how we can use it as a tool for good in years to come. Yes, be vigilant. Yes, teach your children how to be aware and be good online citizens.
But also, enjoy the gift that is the Internet.

Suki Wessling is a local writer, musician, and teacher. She homeschooled her children and became a teacher at an online school for gifted learners in 2013. She admits that when her computer scientist husband showed her the Web in 1991, she was not impressed. Later, she changed her mind. Read more at SukiWessling.com.

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