New York Internet Newsletter

     "Silicon Alley's Hometown Newsletter, Since 1995"

                Issue 2.45 - July 11, 1997

                      --The Publishers
   Jason Chervokas                           Tom Watson
  jmc6@ix.netcom.com                       tom@news-ny.com

@ V I E W P O I N T

Making the Net Work for Kids:
It Ain't the Hardware, It's What You Do With It

Note to Readers: Please print this editorial on your handy laser printer
and take it to the beach for the day. The topics contained herein are too
important to consider hastily as you crawl toward yet another midnight
deadline on yet another project that just may make your bottom line look a
little better and attract some much needed investment money. Make sure to
pack some home-brewed iced tea, a big fluffy beach towel, and the sunscreen
(number 15 or above). Nope, no Pilots, palmtops, laptops, cell phones,
pagers or anything more powerful than a Walkman allowed. Unplug, undress,
unwind. We want the most powerful processor you've got, and we want it free
of all peripherals except the sea and sand and a warm July breeze. (Yes,
your mind, not that new 64-meg monster you've got on the desktop). New
media moguls, especially those who've recently sold a chunk of their
companies, can head for the Hamptons. The rest of us can hang at Jones or
down in Jersey. The point is this: take a break and think long-term. No,
not Q4 97. Much farther out than that, to a point when that 5-year-old
working on a sand castle down the way (you ARE at the beach, aren't you) is
tomorrow's media consumer.

Issue One: Teaching, Not Buying

New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew this week officially put a $2
billion pricetag on the equipment needed to give every kid in the city's
1,000-school public education system easy access to the wonders of the
Internet [see @News]. More than 130,000 new computers are needed to bring
the ratio of Net-connected machines down to one-per-eight-students from its
current 1-per-50 ratio. The Giuliani Administration has offered some
support for such a plan, but worries aloud about the fiscal challenges of
such a commitment. Meanwhile, once or twice a year volunteers get together
for a little splicing and dicing session to bring new cable into old school

It's great that New York is giving serious attention to trying to
accomplish something that Bill Gates could do with a single signature on a
check. But all the money and machines in the world won't mean a damned
thing to the city's school children without teachers who know how to turn a
mish-mash of bytes into effective teaching tools.

We have followed New York City's slow movement toward incorporating the
Internet into the public school system more closely than another other
publication over the past two years, and we believe that too much attention
is paid to wires and machines, while too little attention is paid to what
can be done with them. Without much fanfare, the Board of Ed's Office of
Instructional Technology is in the process of drafting curriculum
guidelines and training programs for teachers using the Net. This summer
more than 2,000 middle school teachers are taking a graduate level course
in Net-based studies. It's this citywide effort that needs attention. And
local school boards, those dinosaurs of the failed decentralization
experiment that mired the nation's largest school system in two decades of
corruption, should do far more than put up bulletin board Web pages listing
their "elected" members.

The mini-movement in public education toward small schools with empowered
administrators and teachers and involved parents offers a natural ally to
an Internet program that makes sense. These schools take a single
theme--small business, architecture, urban culture--and bring the
educational world into sharp focus for interested students. We don't
believe in an "Internet School" per se, but in many small schools that know
how to use the Internet to find information and create dialogues between
students and the real world around them. Showing teachers--and parents and
administrators--how to do precisely that is New York's greatest challenge.

Issue Two: Mom and Dad

The creators of massive children's Web sites know one thing. Grab the
parents, and you'll get the children. If parents feel comfortable with a
well-known brand, they will let their kids experience that brand in huge
numbers. The ultimate example, of course, is Disney. Parents trust the
family media giant to entertain children in a wholesome way. That opens the
door not just to selling movie tickets, but to brand recognition that
brings whole families to McDonald's every week to get the latest Disney
prize in a kids' Happy Meal; gets them to spend millions of dollars of
licensed merchandise featuring Disney characters; and convinces them to buy
video copies of movies so that their kids can watch them over and over again.

Educators know the same thing--engage the parents if you want to teach the
kids. If you want kids to learn how to read and appreciate the value of the
written word, parents must read to children. The Net is no different. For
many parents there is a generation gap when it comes to comfort with the
Net. But to make the Internet a valuable teaching tool, parent involvement
is key. That's why when organizations like the National Urban Technology
Center (http://www.urbantech.org) put on Net classes in community centers
they target not only kids but their parents. 

Schools, Net publishers, and other people who feel, as we do, that Net
access can be a phenomenal teaching tool, need to make sure that, as we
rush to provide access to kids, we don't leave their parents in the dust. 

The giants who market to kids get this. Almost every week, i-traffic mails
an "advisory" to thousands of Web parents (including this one) touting the
latest frothy entertainment available on the Disney.Com site and its
for-pay Daily Blast component. The same principals need to be put to work
for the purposes of education.

Issue Three: Learning, Not Surfing

Over the next decade, as cities like New York rush to bring Net access to
children and as content ventures aimed at youngsters increase, there will
be a meaningful examination of what kids have access to online. And we're
not talking about protecting children from pornography, clearly the
bailiwick of parents and educators. We mean the balance between the
commercial and the educational. Television is heavily regulated, and yet
the quality of children's programming causes national handwringing.

There are those who believe that in the end, a few broadband networks will
control Internet content and that the big brands will forever hold sway in
the new medium as in the old. Maybe. But there will still be much more
information--programming if you insist--available online from myriad
sources, far exceeding the amount of information available on television or
in the local bookstore. And kids, like everyone else, will engage one
another on the Internet; they won't simply consume.

In that Internet conversation, they will also learn. And they will learn
about more than the latest Disney movie or Nike sneaker. Sites like the
Discovery Channel and PBS do a terrific job of melding their television
shows with added online information. Combine that kind of programming with
real dialogue, whether it's between space shuttle astronauts and a
classroom in Brooklyn, or between two students in separate counties working
over the same math problem together, the network itself will be the
strength of children's experience online.

The Web is perfectly suited to meshing the needs of major companies with
stuff to market with educators, textbook companies with content
aggregators, old scientists and writers with young scientists and writers.
But it will take a new vision on the part of all involved to make the Net a
true place of learning and experience for kids.

Or at least a day away from it all at the beach. Think it over.

--Tom Watson

           AGREE . . . DISAGREE?
      We wanna know! - tom@news-ny.com