Online Learning Has its Limits

March 5, 2012

For release March 7 and thereafter (655 words)

The average teen spends 16.7 hours a week on the Internet, not counting time spent with email, according to a survey by Yahoo!and ad agency Carat Interactive. Kaiser Family Foundation says children ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device. That doesn’t count the two hours spent texting or talking on cell phones.

Yikes. It’s a good thing the Legislature dropped a plan from State School Superintendent Tony Bennett to mandate virtual instruction for all high school students. As a teacher myself, I can testify that lack of technological aptitude is not a problem.

The thornier challenge for schools in the digital age is this one: How do we get students who spent 16.7 hours a week on the Internet to perform tasks that require concentrated attention and deep, thoughtful problem solving?

If we really want to help them succeed in school and careers, we might require them to read a book now and then. Or to spend time writing and thinking critically in classrooms where laptops and iPhones are off limits.

Those are the skills that students are no longer mastering. And time spent online is one reason why.

In his 2010 book, “The Shallows — What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,”  Nicholas Carr explains how digital immersion has rewired our children’s neural circuits and changed the way they reason, form memories and understand the written word.

He writes, “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster, the better.”

The Internet has revolutionized the way people collect and process text to the point that they no longer read for meaning but instead surf for relevant information. As one English professor at Duke University noted, “I can’t get my students to read whole books anymore.”

Carr is no alarmist. The horse is out of the barn and there’s no going back. But his book should be read by anyone trying to understand how cognitive habits have been affected by the Internet and by constant exposure to hypertext.

There are good reasons not to force online instruction, including Internet addiction. According to Accredited Online, students today demonstrate symptoms not unlike those of alcoholism and drug abuse. In one study, 1,000 college students were asked to go without electronic media for 24 hours. A majority couldn’t.

Bennett was pushing a bill to require high school students to take one virtual course in order to get a Core 40 diploma. He said the purpose was to “graduate tech savvy students who are ready to be innovators and leaders.”

There is plenty of technology in our schools now. Teachers use it daily to enrich content and engage student interest, and sometimes just to entertain. Seventy percent of Indiana schools already have some form of online instruction. For children who don’t thrive in a traditional K-12 setting, online schools are a state-approved option.

On that point, unfortunately, the early data doesn’t look so good. Colorado, which has considerably more experience in this than Indiana, reported in June that “results indicate achievement of online students consistently lags behind those of non-online students, even after controlling for grade levels and various student characteristics.”

Ironically the objections against Bennett’s idea involved cost rather than policy. Schools and teachers questioned how they could create new online course options without new funding. The bill had passed the Senate. That’s what sunk it in the House.

Cost is not the issue. Online instruction costs less. The issue is what the Internet is doing to our brains. I’d prefer my children be in a classroom with a highly experienced teacher, engaged peers and face-to-face interaction – and a pat on the shoulder now and then. They’re online 16.7 hours a week already.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


Leave a Reply