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The Internet at school: A tool or a crutch?

In some schools across the country, students can use the Internet to look up test answers. Is it a high-tech form of cheating or a new model of teaching? NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

At Mill Creek Middle School in Kent, Wash., when students hear those dreaded words, "pop quiz," there’s a twist. There is no paper, no pencils — and no panic. Seventh-graders here are allowed to use the Internet to research their responses. They're encouraged to look up answers online.

Is that cheating?

"No, absolutely not," says Mill Creek teacher Becky Keene. "What I'm hoping is that they can find information to help them become better thinkers."

At many schools the definition of cheating is changing. With the facts now at their fingertips, teachers say it's less important that their students can store information in their heads and more important that they know where to find it and what to do with it.

At High Tech High in San Diego, students are building their own online study guides. They even record messages explaining the chemistry lessons to themselves. And, yes, they can use it during a test.

"I don’t think it’s cheating," says student Chris Barna. "It’s just an added resource."

"We can't ignore technology and pretend it's not there," explains High Tech High School teacher Ross Roemer.

So, are they cheating, or are they learning?

"It's interesting to me that when we have children do it in their workplace we worry that it might be cheating," says Dr. Barbara Grohe, superintendent of the Kent school district. "When we have adults do it, we say those are truly competent adults."

But, many parents contend it's the kids who are being cheated.

"Why administer a test," asks parent Heather McDonald, "if you're going to give them the Internet to answer it? Why even bother in the first place?"

Some educators, like Dr. Shane Martin, the dean of education at Loyola Marymount University, warn it's too soon to tell if the Internet is really helping students at all. 

"We don't have enough research and evidence to tell us how good uses of technology are closing the achievement gap and helping students learn," he says.

That research will go on, as will the debate, whether technology — used during tests — serves as a tool or a crutch.