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Electronic Recess: Observations of E-Mail and Internet Surfing by K-12 Students

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Recess has traditionallymeant free time for students to go outside, run around, kick a ball,talk with friends and enjoy a brief release from the classroom.Today, a new form of recess is gaining popularity with schoolstudents of all ages. Electronic recess &emdash; in the form ofsending e-mail or surfing the Internet &emdash; is therecess-of-choice for an increasing number of students.

Instead of running for theexit door during a break, students are going to computer labs to sende-mail messages to each other. It d'es not matter if the recipient ofthe e-mail is only a few feet away. This d'es not diminish the fun.Rather, it makes this new form of recess all the moreenjoyable.

Surfing the Internet isthe other popular form of electronic recess. Like Ulysses of old,these wayfarers are lured to the Internet by modern Sirens with theirunending song of finding the perfect Web site. Oblivious to bells,these modern-day her'es and heroines roam the vast ocean ofcyberspace searching for a Web site far, far away. Their travels andadventures would probably provide Homer sufficient material foranother epic.

I imagine if I were astudent today, I would probably rush to a computer to see whatwonders were in store for me on the vast Internet. I would probablytake great delight in sending, and most assuredly, receiving e-mail.In fact, a benchmark students use to determine their popularity isthe amount of e-mail received. (It is good to know one aspect ofadolescence life has not changed.)

E-mail and the Internetwere expected to be very popular applications for the entire schoolcommunity. However, a review of student e-mail usage indicates a veryhigh percentage of messages can be described as electronic recess.This means the content of messages d'es not pertain to school work oracademic pursuits. This high percentage was a bit of asurprise.

As a Director ofTechnology, I deal with computer technology every minute of theschool day. I see the excitement generated in students by their useof the Internet and e-mail. I see the magnetic attraction ofkeyboards, mice and monitors. Parents seem to approve, for I have yetto hear a parent ask the school to limit their child's access to acomputer. Rather, parents are asking for additional computertechnology so their children will have increased access.

At Norfolk Academy almost1,200 students have unlimited e-mail and Internet access via acampus-wide network of 300+ workstations. After nearly three years ofoperation, the network is changing the fabric of the school. Theschool's network supports an impressive array of technology toolsincluding a state-of-the-art media distribution system, a largemultimedia lecture hall, distance learning capabilities, onlinelibrary card catalogs, interactive CD-ROMs, and various electronicpublications and software applications.

The school's five computerlabs are filled every minute of the day and for many hours afterschool. Faculty can send assignments to their students via e-mail.Students send completed assignments back to their teachers. Coachescan communicate schedule changes with team members via e-mail.Students send papers from home to school and send work from school totheir home computers.

Norfolk Academy employs acomprehensive Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) as part of its Honor Code.This AUP governs proper use of the network and the Internet by theentire school community. The school has the capability of blockinginappropriate Internet sites, but it is rarely used. Rather, theschool developed a method for recording every Web site accessed. Adaily audit report lists each site visited, the number of times andthe identity of the visitor.

This Internet audit reportprovides a precise picture of Internet usage by our students. Thereport shows two distinct categories, with the largest percentage ofInternet usage by students clearly being electronic recess. Thesecond category comprises distinct blocks of time when a single siteor a group of related sites are visited. These blocks of time in theaudit report indicate an entire class is using the Internet tocomplete an assignment. Further, these structured blocks of Internettime are rapidly increasing as more teachers assign tasks requiringInternet research.

It is interesting andencouraging to note that the ratio of boys and girls who use e-mail,the Internet and computers is equal. Middle school students are themost prolific users of e-mail: a modest 10% of all students usee-mail or the Internet infrequently.

Use of e-mail and theInternet as electronic recess by our students has had many positive(and a few negative) results. On the positive side, students quicklysupported the notion put forth by administrators and faculty that allof the computers at Norfolk Academy are tools, not toys.

An atmosphere ofstewardship towards the school's new state-of-the-art network rapidlydeveloped throughout the student body. Walk into any campus computerlab and you will hear students helping other students to complete acomputer-based project or resolve a computer problem. An air ofcooperation and trust travels across the entire campus when it comesto using the school's technology tools.

Negative results have beenfew. E-mail chain letters once appeared on the network and, if notremoved, would have overloaded the e-mail server. Students alsoroutinely respond or forward a message to 20 or 30 classmates. Thiscan also overwhelm an e-mail server.

Inappropriate language wasa concern in the first days of student e-mail. When confronted aboutsending such messages, first offenders quickly learn that the writtenword and the spoken word are judged by the same standards at NorfolkAcademy. It also helps for these students to understand that e-mailis considered a legal document that can be used in a court oflaw.

Electronic recess may seemwasteful to some, but I choose to focus on the long-term, positivebenefits of trust and stewardship among students towards a school'stechnology tools. E-mail and the Internet open a new dimension ofcomputing for students. Contrary to the popular notion that allstudents like computers, some students are indeed timid withtechnology. For other groups of students, the computer is used onlyfor word processing. Because e-mail and the Internet are very easy tolearn and use, these software applications are excellent vehicles forbolstering a student's confidence with computer technologiesoverall.

For these students, thedynamic, interactive nature of e-mail and the Internet help themrealize that a computer can be a powerful academic tool. Thisexperience has often motivated a student to experiment withelectronic book reports and computer-based class presentations. Fromall initial observations, it appears electronic recess is producingpositive results for the entire school community.

Stephen Quinn, theDirector of Technology at Norfolk Academy, has held similar positionsat several other independent schools' He is also the AdvancedPlacement Computer Science teacher. Working in the field of educationfor the past nine years, Quinn was a former Software DevelopmentManager at a large firm that created software products for thehealthcare industry. He has also been a business technologyconsultant to Fortune 500 firms. During the past few years, Quinn hasdelivered papers at IT conferences on topics such as "Developing anEffective Acceptable Use Policy," "Integrating Technology into aClassroom" and "Networking: The Internet and Hindsight."

E-mail: squinn@norfacad.pvt.k12.va.us

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.

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