Technology has changed our relationship with information. There are many debates about how much tech should be used in schools, alongside well-founded concerns about device use among adolescents.
But wherever you stand on these issues, it is undeniable that people who want to know things are now able to do so more easily than ever before.
The web has become a repository of all that is good and bad about humanity. Useful, relevant information is always only a few clicks away. Unfortunately, so are the more unsavoury corners of the internet.
And yet sending children to “do research online” is still the default approach towards web content in many schools.
But, as former schools minister Lord Jim Knight warns: "The web was not designed for children. It was conceived for, and by, adults, and written for an elite reader.
"Finding the most pertinent information, presented in an age-appropriate way, has to be the aim of improving literacy and learning for at least a third of online users.”
A cautious approach is impacting learning
Perhaps understandably, some schools and teachers err on the side of caution. They opt to minimise risk to both wellbeing and learning by avoiding the internet altogether in lessons.
But if we do this, we are denying our students valuable opportunities. We are preventing them from using the web for academic purposes in a guided and supportive environment, as well as delaying the acquisition of vital skills in searching for relevant resources and evaluating their reliability.
Rather than taking either a free-for-all or head-in-the-sand approach, schools can instead curate resources that support their classroom activities. We can be aware of the challenges while embracing the opportunities afforded by the web.
We can be proactive in funnelling what would otherwise be an unstructured deluge of content, and putting it into a curated stream of relevant, bite-sized chunks of knowledge and resources.
Providing more structure
In this scenario, the picture changes dramatically and worries about safety, relevance, accuracy and misinformation all but vanish.
Use of the internet in lessons – and at home – becomes more focused, more manageable and an effective resource to support learning.
So what can teachers and schools do to get to this safer, more productive learning position?
They can think about how resources will be used by students. Sharing a Powerpoint created as a source of information is less valuable than providing students with original sources to create learning content themselves.
Teachers should provide online links that contain the information that students need to learn about a topic or complete a task; a specific YouTube video or a trusted website, for example.
Recognising truth from fake
With the National Literacy Trust reporting that only 2 per cent of students have the critical literacy skills to recognise fake information, we need to intervene.
Through being more open about the use of online sources in our own lesson material, we can start a discussion with our students around what is relevant or reliable information. This enables students to become better at identifying trustworthy sources online.
Perhaps counterintuitively, student independence is best fostered by careful teacher guidance. The kind of self-regulation strategies that have been shown to be effective in boosting attainment are not developed spontaneously. They require deliberate planning on the part of educators.
It is down to every teacher to carefully implement whichever context-dependent strategies they feel will best contribute to greater independent learning. The online world should be part of that process; we need to model how to use the web.
We know the challenges we are facing when it comes to managing our students’ engagement with the online world. Now we need to move from acknowledging them and get wiser about how this incredible resource can be put to good use in all schools.
To learn more about getting the best from the internet in your classroom, and to discover resources to support your classroom use of the internet, visit our Wiser Internet for Education campaign hub.
José Picardo is deputy head at Hampshire Collegiate School