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The Digital Disconnect: The widening gap between Internet-savvy students and their schools

Summary of findings

The Digital Disconnect: The widening gap between internet-savvy students and their schools

Using the Internet is the norm for today’s youth.  A July 2002 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that three in five children under the age of 18—and more than 78% of children between the ages of 12 and 17—go online. Due in large part to high profile and sometime controversial education technology public policy initiatives, it is conventional wisdom that much of this use occurs in schools.  Not surprisingly, one of the most common activities that youth report undertaking online is schoolwork.  Yet, little is known about student use of the Internet for schoolwork or about their attitudes towards the broader learning that can take place online. Nor has there been much exploration of the consequences of those teenage views for educators, policy makers, and parents. 

To address this issue, the American Institutes for Research was commissioned by the Pew Internet & American Life Project to conduct a qualitative study of the attitudes and behaviors of Internet-using public middle and high school students drawn from across the country.  The study is based primarily on information gathered from 14 gender-balanced, racially diverse focus groups of 136 students, drawn from 36 different schools.  The student experiences and attitudes revealed in the study’s focus groups were further supplemented by the stories of nearly 200 students who voluntarily submitted online essays about their use of the Internet for school.

Key findings from the study include the following:

Internet-savvy students rely on the Internet to help them do their schoolwork—and for good reason.  Students told us they complete their schoolwork more quickly; they are less likely to get stymied by material they don’t understand; their papers and projects are more likely to draw upon up-to-date sources and state-of-the-art knowledge; and, they are better at juggling their school assignments and extracurricular activities when they use the Internet.  In essence, they told us that the Internet helps them navigate their way through school and spend more time learning in depth about what is most important to them personally.

Internet-savvy students describe dozens of different education-related uses of the Internet.  Virtually all use the Internet to do research to help them write papers or complete class work or homework assignments.  Most students also correspond with other online classmates about school projects and upcoming tests and quizzes.  Most share tips about favorite Web sites and pass along information about homework shortcuts and sites that are especially rich in content that fit their assignments. They also frequent Web sites pointed out to them by teachers—some of which had even been set up specifically for a particular school or class.  They communicate with online teachers or tutors. They participate in online study groups.  They even take online classes and develop Web sites or online educational experiences for use by others.

The way students think about the Internet in relation to their schooling is closely tied to the daily tasks and activities that make up their young lives.  In that regard, students employ five different metaphors to explain how they use the Internet for school:

  • The Internet as virtual textbook and reference library.  Much like a school-issued textbook or a traditional library, students think of the Internet as the place to find primary and secondary source material for their reports, presentations, and projects.  This is perhaps the most commonly used metaphor of the Internet for school—held by both students and many of their teachers alike.
  • The Internet as virtual tutor and study shortcut.  Students think of the Internet as one way to receive instruction about material that interests them or about which they are confused. Others view the Internet as a way to complete their schoolwork as quickly and painlessly as possible, with minimal effort and minimal engagement. For some, this includes viewing the Internet as a mechanism to plagiarize material or otherwise cheat.
  • The Internet as virtual study group.  Students think of the Internet as an important way to collaborate on project work with classmates, study for tests and quizzes, and trade class notes and observations. 
  • The Internet as virtual guidance counselor. Students look to the Internet for guidance about life decisions as they relate to school, careers, and postsecondary education.
  • The Internet as virtual locker, backpack, and notebook.  Students think of the Internet as a place to store their important school-related materials and as a way to transport their books and papers from place to place.  Online tools allow them to keep track of their class schedule, syllabi, assignments, notes, and papers. 

Many schools and teachers have not yet recognized—much less responded to—the new ways students communicate and access information over the Internet.  Students report that there is a substantial disconnect between how they use the Internet for school and how they use the Internet during the school day and under teacher direction.  For the most part, students’ educational use of the Internet occurs outside of the school day, outside of the school building, outside the direction of their teachers.  While there are a variety of pressures, concerns, and outright challenges in providing Internet access to teachers and students at school, students perceive this disconnect to be the result of several factors:

  • School administrators—and not teachers—set the tone for Internet use at school.  The differences among the schools attended by our students were striking.  Policy choices by those who run school systems and other factors have resulted in different schools having different levels of access to the Internet, different requirements for student technology literacy skills (e.g., some schools require students to take a course about basic computer and Internet skills, many do not have such a requirement), and different restrictions on student Internet access. 
  • Even inside the most well connected schools, there is wide variation in teacher policies about Internet use by students in and for class.  In individual schools, teachers are the ones who choose whether to make assignments that require the use of the Internet by their students, allow the use of the Internet (often as a supplement to other sources and tools), or even forbid its use. There are often wide variances in teacher attitudes about and uses of the Internet from classroom to classroom.
  • While students relate examples of both engaging and poor instructional uses of the Internet assigned by their teachers, students say that the not-so-engaging uses are the more typical of their assignments.  Students repeatedly told us that the quality of their Internet-based assignments was poor and uninspiring.   They want to be assigned more—and more engaging—Internet activities that are relevant to their lives.  Indeed, many students assert that this would significantly improve their attitude toward school and learning.

Students say they face several roadblocks when it comes to using the Internet at schools.  In many cases, these roadblocks discourage them from using the Internet as much, or as creatively, as they would like. They note that:

  • The single greatest barrier to Internet use at school is the quality of access to the Internet.  Many schools confine Internet use to certain times of the day or certain places in the building (especially computer labs). It is also common, these students say, for schools to place further social and technological restrictions on their use of the Internet by, for instance, employing surveillance systems or requiring special teacher or administrator approvals. 
  • While many students recognize the need to shelter teenagers from inappropriate material and adult-oriented commercial ads, they complain that blocking and filtering software often raise barriers to students’ legitimate educational use of the Internet.  Most of our students feel that filtering software blocks important information, and many feel discouraged from using the Internet by the difficulties they face in accessing educational material.
  • Since not every student has access to the Internet outside of school, the vast majority of students report that their teachers do not make homework assignments that require the use of the Internet.  Most students noted that teachers feel it unfair to make assignments involving Internet use because some in the class do not have access to the Internet at home. We heard of more than one occasion when a teacher had made such an assignment only to rescind it because they worried that those without Internet access would have difficulty.

In light of the fact that the Internet is increasingly integrated into the home and school lives of students, and in the context of larger arguments about the use of the Internet for school, students’ concerns can inform several policy debates about technology and education. This is what we heard: 

  • Students want better coordination of their out-of-school educational use of the Internet with classroom activities. They argue that this could be the key to leveraging the power of the Internet for learning.
  • Students urge schools to increase significantly the quality of access to the Internet in schools.   
  • Students believe that professional development and technical assistance for teachers are crucial for effective integration of the Internet into curricula.  
  • Students maintain that schools should place priority on developing programs to teach keyboarding, computer, and Internet literacy skills.
  • Students urge that there should be continued effort to ensure that high-quality online information to complete school assignments be freely available, easily accessible, and age-appropriate–without undue limitation on students’ freedoms. 
  • Students insist that policy makers take the “digital divide” seriously and that they begin to understand the more subtle inequities among teenagers that manifest themselves in differences in the quality of student Internet access and use. 

Of course, student use of the Internet for school does not occur in a vacuum.  Students’ experiences, and those of their states, districts, schools, teachers, and parents, strongly affect how the Internet is adopted in schools. Nonetheless, large numbers of students say they are changing because of their out-of-school use of the Internet—and their reliance on it.  Internet-savvy students are coming to school with different expectations, different skills, and access to different resources.

Students are frustrated and increasingly dissatisfied by the digital disconnect they are experiencing at school. They cannot conceive of doing schoolwork without Internet access and yet they are not being given many opportunities in school to take advantage of the Internet. Many believe they may have to raise their voices to force schools to change to accommodate them better. In the final analysis, schools would do well to heed the Latin writer Seneca’s words, which ring as true today as when they were written nearly 2,000 years ago: “The fates guide those who go willingly; those who do not, they drag.”

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