This paper (PDF) written by three researchers at Duke University puts a new spin on what educators should do about the “digital divide.” After analyzing data from 2000 to 2005 of North Carolina public school students, the researchers found that there was a persistent gap between students who had access to computers with Internet access in their homes, which was most strongly tied with their parents’ level of education (as in, those students whose parents were highly educated were more likely to have a computer in the home than students whose parents had lower levels of education). That’s not really new information, but the researchers also found that having a computer was associated with “modest but statistically significant and persistent negative impacts on student math and reading test scores.”
To break it down a little more, the researchers found that students who received a computer between 5th and 8th grade had a decline in their reading and math scores, overall. Students who did not have access to a home computer during this time generally did best on math and reading tests, and of those students who had a computer at home, those who only used the computer twice a month or less had the best scores.
The study also found that students with high-speed Internet access were less likely to report using it for school work and academic purposes and were more likely to use it for entertainment. However, Internet access had a more positive effect on students’ academic achievement when there was effective parental supervision of the student’s Internet activities.
Basically, having a computer with Internet access in the house makes it more likely that a student will spend more time goofing around on the computer than studying, unless he or she is being effectively monitored by parents. The Internet can be a positive tool for those who use it for schoolwork, but it can also be used as a time waster, and in that case, it will have a negative impact on student achievement.
This information could influence the way educators and administrators go about closing the digital divide and throw a wrench in the gears of 1 to 1 laptop initiatives and other programs that aim to boost achievement by providing greater access to the Internet. What this suggests is it’s not really about giving every kid a computer, but more about what the kid does with the computer once he or she has it.
The paper does throw these programs a bone, though, by saying that there are skills that may not be directly related to math and reading achievement that students will learn through having access to a computer—like basic knowledge about software and 21st century skills that could be helpful when they’re looking for a job.
What do you think? Will this data influence the way that educators make decisions about the digital divide and student achievement? Are 1 to 1 initiatives worth the effort and money in light of this study? How might educators and administrators address some of the concerns raised by these conclusions?
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.