After-School Programs and the Network Society

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Scott Webber
University of Colorado at Boulder

Elementary schools, especially those serving a low SES population and teaching computer skills, are suggested as one possible arena through which students can prepare for future success (Milone and Salpater, 1998). Others suggest that these skills will be essential to future success, regardless of where students acquire them (Stjern, 2001). Beyond curriculum changes and purchasing decisions, many schools are offering after-school sessions where students are encouraged to spend time in a computer lab, taking advantage of relatively unstructured access to either the Internet or educational software. Is this an effective use of time for these schools (and students) and what can we learn from examining computer and Internet use at these sites?


Schools are important sites where it is suggested that the negative attributes of finding oneself on the "wrong" side of the digital divide, meaning not only access to computer and Internet technology, but also access to skill training related to this technology, can be lessened. Access to computers and the Internet is increasing at these locations (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2001), but beyond purchasing more computer hardware of software as a presumptive necessity to close this divide, my work focuses on what happens in schools when this technology is made available. The question is, therefore, not what is available to elementary students, but equally importantly, how do they use this technology once it is made available?


I spent 120 contact hours at Lincoln Elementary School, a 450 student K-5 school within the Mountain School District, 30 miles outside of Denver, Colorado. According to the Colorado Department of Education, a little over 50% of the students at Lincoln Elementary were eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch in 1999 as compared to 27% of students both statewide and within the entire Mountain School District. I additionally volunteered at Lincoln's Family Library and Computer Night ("Family Night") from February through June, 2001, where I worked with other teachers and the director of Lincoln’s Federal Title 7 grant to make sure the students who arrived each Tuesday were able to use the computers and access the Internet without incident. The goal of the Family Night was to offer students and families another point of contact to Lincoln Elementary and Eve Simpson, the teacher in charge of the family night, had a specific vision for the students' time: They were free to access on the Internet any site that passed through the firewall set up by the district after working on an educational site for 15 minutes.

Importantly, this time on Tuesday nights was seen as an opportunity to bring students and parents into the school--giving them another opportunity to connect. This is not to say that the computer training was unimportant, but there were no structured classes or lessons offered. I would typically arrive before family night began at 7pm and search the Internet for an interesting educational site the students could access. Most nights, students worked on the educational site only until they were released and given permission to scour the web for their favorite games on or print out the latest pictures from the site of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). In a future paper my discussion will focus not on question of educational content, but on the ways in which this family night brought students into the network society--of game playing and entertainment sites. This suggestion--that today the Internet exists for entertainment and game playing--will be considered using stories from families I have interviewed as part of a research team at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Where once the Internet was touted as a place for democracy and education (it still is, to some extent), today it is increasingly seen by many using it as a place for entertainment and shopping.

For many students, family night was their once-weekly shot to surf the web and Eve and others recognized, correctly I would argue, that a connection to their school, even through the auspices of the WWF website, was a benefit for the students. When I pointed out that one regularly attending bilingual was telling his friends about the WWF site she said to me, "well, at least he's reading." Not all the teachers agreed with Eve, however, and I will relay these stories also in my discussion.


The solution rests in recognizing that today many in schools, especially those schools serving children from underprivileged communities, believe that computer and Internet skills—one necessary element to participation in the network society--offer a way "out" and the opportunity for a better life. While this may or may not be the case (and evidence exists on both sides of that discussion) I would like to suggest that there is nothing wrong with offering relatively open Internet access to children who may spend an hour each week at an after-school program playing games on commercial Internet sites. These students need not interact with educational software and specifically designed games every time they log in to a computer. Instead, they must be allowed to develop their own interests related to computers and the Internet. Many of those working with IT today came to their love of computers through tinkering and experimentation with computers when younger. Educational software may be useful in certain situations, but certainly not in all. After-school programs can provide a useful opportunity for students to connect with their school and teachers (Walter, Caplan, & McElvain, 2000) and if the Internet is the carrot offered, students benefit from playing the games and surfing the web at these locations. Becoming a member of the network society means acquiring many more skills than just those related to computer technology and schools are and will continue to be a site where those skills are learned, whether during the school day in the classroom or after school in a computer lab.

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