Friday, March 05, 2010

Internet Soothes The Savage Beasts

How do you get a bunch of unruly teenagers on a school bus to behave themselves on the trip to and from school? Have the driver scream threats? Hire a pro wrestler to intimidate them? Put in a spy camera and give the troublemakers detentions? Nope. The answer is much easier. Just give those kids access to WiFi Internet and you won’t hear a peep out of them.

Its amazing how a little WiFi access can tame those animals on the school bus.That’s what Vail, Arizona has done to one of its busses. Reports are that once the WiFi router was installed, rowdy behavior simply disappeared. What’s more, there is more homework is getting done that ever before. Can you find a better return on your school district dollar than this?

Of course, not all of those students are likely writing term papers. Some are tweeting about their teachers, some are sending amorous emails to classmates, some are reading computer and science news sites, and I’ll bet a bunch are playing online games. It really doesn’t matter. The problem was discipline. The Internet was made available. Afterwards, no discipline problem.

I suspect there is a wider lesson to be learned here. We’re constantly hearing about those computer or gaming addicted kids who just won’t go outdoors and play. Yeah? Well, those are also the kids who aren’t tagging buildings with spray paint, stealing other kids’ lunch money, or terrorizing the neighborhood. Perhaps the solution to both childhood and adult behavioral problems is more Internet, not less.

There’s and old saying: “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” That’s as true today as it ever was. For some kids, the under-supervision problem is severe, with parents absorbed by careers and social lives. A lot of adults fare no better. They’ve been trained through childhood and schooling to do what their teachers and then their bosses order. But with unemployment rampant, there is no boss anymore and they find themselves both directionless and squeezed financially.

What’s that got to do with the Internet? I think there’s a case to be made that universal Internet access is at least as important as universal telephone service or public libraries. The information world has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. Everything is moving online, including communications, reference and research materials of all sorts, newspapers, job postings, magazines, games, and a lot of socializing and support. If you aren’t connected, you are more than disconnected. You are disadvantaged.

There’s something online for everyone. Whether you want to solve a puzzle, read up on what’s going on in the world, do your homework, look for a job, or even make your own job using your computer. Every profession, every trade, every hobby, every political action, and every interest is represented online. It’s even possible to go to college and get a degree online.

So, here’s something to roll around. How much could we reduce our juvenile delinquency and adult crime problems by making the Internet not only available, but mandatory? We need to insist on broadband everywhere as being as important as electricity and indoor plumbing everywhere. The “one laptop per child” project isn’t just important in Africa. It a crying need in the United States. Instead of turning kids into hunchbacks with backpacks loaded down with heavy and non-interactive textbooks, why not get those lessons online and accessible through the tablet or laptop computer every child gets from school day #1?

Yes, the vast majority of kids are going to use those computers for a lot more than grinding out rote homework assignments. They’ll be exploring all sorts of web sites, playing games, sending each other messages and whatever else they find interesting. We should be thankful that happens naturally. It’s curiosity, exploration and self-teaching that is going to be as important to their success as any assignments they’ll ever receive.

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