Equity & Diversity

Teachers Report ‘Major Impact’ of Internet on Learning

By Mike Bock — March 05, 2013 4 min read
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Teachers of low-income students are twice as likely as teachers of upper-income students to say that their schools are “behind the curve” in utilizing digital tools in the classroom, indicating a concern among educators about the “digital divide” and its effects on students’ academic development, according to a survey released last week.

But the vast majority of middle and high school teachers involved in the survey, all of whom teach in higher-level educational programs connected to Advanced Placement curricula or the National Writing Project, said the Internet has had a “major impact” on their ability to access content and resources for their teaching, the survey from the Washington-based Pew Research Center finds.

The report, “How Teachers Are Using Technology at Home and in Their Classrooms,” gauges the opinions of nearly 2,500 middle and high school teachers. It is a part of the Pew Internet & American Life survey, a multiyear project that seeks to assess how Americans use the Internet in their daily lives.

Pew’s results, released Feb. 28, suggest that plenty of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers are already incorporating technology into their personal and professional lives, and that a majority of educators surveyed are ahead of the general population when it comes to technology use in daily life.

For example, 58 percent of teachers reported that they own a smartphone, compared with 45 percent of the general adult population. And 78 percent of teachers reported using social-networking tools, compared with 59 percent of all adults.

“On the whole, we came away feeling that teachers are pretty advanced in terms of tech use,” said Kristen Purcell, the director of research at the Pew Internet project. “These tools are really becoming part of the learning process.”

Many teachers are also using technology to enhance their teaching skills. Eighty percent of teachers said they regularly search online for lesson plans or professional-development resources, and 92 percent said the Internet has had a “major impact” on their ability to access content and other resources.

“It’s not just about the engagement and making kids happy. Technology can also be a very effective tool for teachers,” said Jennie Magiera, the digital learning coordinator for the Chicago-based Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit group that trains teachers and manages struggling schools.

Disruption vs. Innovation

When asked about the major obstacles to incorporating more technology into the classroom, teachers from lower-income areas cited pressure to teach to assessments, lack of access to digital resources, and a lack of technical support at a higher rate than their peers teaching in more affluent districts.

The survey also found that 73 percent of teachers responding make use of smartphones in the learning process, but most said the devices are mainly used by students looking up information or taking pictures for school assignments.

Many teachers said school policy prevents them from using digital tools. Teachers in urban areas are less likely to have students using cellphones in class, and they report cellphone distraction as a “major issue” for classroom management more often than teachers in rural or suburban areas do, according to the report.

“Thirty-three percent of teachers of lower-income students say their school’s rules about classroom cellphone use by students have a major impact on their teaching, compared with 15 percent of those who teach students from the highest income households,” the survey concluded.

Bob Wise, the president of the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education and a former governor of West Virginia, said teachers can develop effective methods of utilizing digital tools in education by combining technological expertise with traditional pedagogy.

“One thing that technology demands is that you’re constantly re-evaluating what your policies were before the technology was implemented. Yesterday’s reform can be today’s impediment,” Mr. Wise said.

Digital Equity

The Pew survey also found that teachers are overwhelmingly concerned with the effect digital resources have on equity. Eighty-four percent of teachers agreed that digital tools contributed to disparities among low-income and high-income students.

While 54 percent of teachers surveyed said their students had sufficient access to digital tools that help them academically in school, only 18 percent said students have sufficient access at home.

But when asked whether today’s digital technologies are narrowing or widening the gap between the most and least academically successful students in an individual classroom, 44 percent of teachers said technology is narrowing the gap and 56 percent said it is widening the gap, suggesting that teachers are divided on the role technology can have on broadening or diminishing the digital divide among students.

Ms. Magiera of the Academy for Urban School Leadership stressed that digital tools need to be used effectively if teachers want to blend technology into the curriculum.

“Technology is not a classroom-management tool, and shouldn’t be used in the place of classroom culture and high expectations for students,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Pew Survey Gauges Teachers’ Attitudes About Tech., Equity

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