The Digital Disconnect

  • “Overall, I really think that the Internet has a great impact on how much I learn at school and without it I don’t think that I would have the opportunities to learn as much as I do.” – High School Girl
  • “We learn so much from just one click of the mouse.” – High School Girl

The public policy debate surrounding the use of the Internet for education is full of hyperbolic claims for its future impact.  Some promote the Internet as a silver bullet for education, asserting that its use in schools will transform teaching and learning, raise scores on standardized achievement tests, and improve teacher quality to the degree that ill-prepared middle and high school students will turn—as if by magic—into Ivy League-caliber honors students.  Others argue that the introduction of the Internet into schooling is a symptom of a society that values technology and efficiency over moral values and personal connections, and that it represents the further encroachment of big business into private spaces and personal lives.  Our conversations with students lead us to see each of these claims as being partly true and also partly false.  What strikes us most about those who predict the future, however, is that they only very faintly take account of the voices and experiences of students themselves.

We found that Internet-savvy students are articulate and pragmatic consumers of their educations.  By the time they enter high school, if not before, many understand what is required of them to succeed in school, the importance of good teachers and access to adequate resources, and the need to supplement what they learn in school with outside interests and experiences.  On a daily basis—consciously or not—they make choices about the tradeoff between getting good grades and having the in- and out-of-school learning experiences they want to have. 

  • “I think that school does a good job of providing you with a general education, but I think that most of what it does is pretty basic.  I think that if you really want to get a good education, then most of the responsibility is placed on the students – at least this is what I’ve gotten from my school – and it is up to you to go above and beyond what the teacher presents.  You know, you can easily not do the reading in history and get away with it, but you won’t be learning very much….You just have to have the motivation to actually study and want to not just get the A or whatever, but to actually understand the material and be able to apply it.” – High School Girl

These students told us that the Internet helps them.  It saves them time and allows them to manage their busy lives better, seek out new ideas and experiences, and keep connected with friends and family.  They are not afraid of it or in awe of it. They realize that relying on it is not without serious drawbacks at times.  Yet, having grown up with it, they use it, they like it, and they rely on it.

  • “Life without the Internet would be odd.  I’ve grown used to using it in school since we got it four years ago.  I almost take it for granted sometimes.  It can make schoolwork easier, but every now and then it will set you back.  Like everything in life, it has its advantages and disadvantages.” – High School Girl

Students usually have strong views about how their school experiences could be made better. Their analysis of how the Internet can be exploited in educational settings illustrates this point perfectly. Here is what they say they would like to see happen:

  • 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. We found that the overwhelming majority of student use of the Internet for education happens outside of schools and outside of teacher direction.  While policy makers, researchers, and many journalists focus on teacher-directed in-school use of the Internet as the test of the Internet’s effectiveness for education, students told us they use the Internet for school much more frequently and in a greater variety of ways outside of school at their own initiative. These students would like schools to recognize that the online world is full of resources that would make classroom lessons more compelling and make complex topics easier to understand. Not all subjects are taught equally effectively with Internet resources, but many subjects would be easier to comprehend and more enjoyable to learn if online tools were employed, according to these students.
  • Students urge schools to increase significantly the quality of access to the Internet in schools.  Student use of the Internet at school is fraught with constraints and limitations that cripple the potential it has for educational good, these students contend.  Certainly, not every student with whom we spoke attends a school with large numbers of Internet-connected computers.  In fact, nearly all thought it a good idea to have more Internet-connected computers at school.  Even those students who attend highly wired schools describe a school environment that often discouraged their use of the Internet.  They are frustrated by their inability to go online at school. Many believe that these frustrations arose because teachers do not see educational value in providing abundant Internet access, or because of fears about inappropriate material on the Internet.
  • Students believe that professional development and technical assistance for teachers are crucial for effective integration of the Internet into curricula.   Students report that many of the Internet-based educational assignments they receive consist of little more than completing digitized worksheets.  While some students offered examples of compelling online assignments that tapped their higher order thinking skills and took advantage of the rich, interactive elements of the Internet, they were far and away the exception.  Most students freely offered up numerous examples of teacher-directed uses of the Internet for school that seemed to have dubious educational value.  In this regard, it is interesting to note that students are uniformly more interested in—and saw more value in—doing schoolwork that challenged and excited them than in simply using the Internet for its own sake.
  • Students maintain that schools should place priority on developing programs to teach keyboarding, computer, and Internet literacy skills. Not all students have the skills and knowledge to navigate the Internet effectively.  No matter what conventional wisdom may say, it was abundantly clear from conversations with focus group participants that even students who are frequently online could benefit from instruction and advice about how to use the Internet better.  The students held many misconceptions about such basic things as how to use search engines, how computer viruses are contracted and spread, and how their privacy might be compromised online—just to cite a few examples.  Students with better Internet skills and with greater knowledge of educational Web sites had a significant edge over other students.  These students—and those students in our low-adopter groups—also reported that those who do not use the Internet much are often reluctant to go online because they do not even have basic keyboarding or computer skills (or—in more extreme cases—because they lack the basic reading and writing skills required of the online world).
  • Students urge that there 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.  Even students with strong skills say that finding the right information on the Internet can be frustrating and time-consuming.  Most students who spoke with us expressed frustration about finding quality information to help them complete their school assignments.  Here are some of their complaints: Search engines regularly retrieve too many references for common Internet searches.  Authorship of Web sites and timeliness of posted information is often not disclosed; the information on many Web sites can be biased or incomplete; and, the reading level of the best information may exceed the capabilities and comprehension of students.  In addition, visitors to many sites that offer useful information for free are inundated with commercial advertisements, and trusted sources may charge fees for their information. 
  • 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.  The gap between students who do and don’t have access to the Internet at home is a serious matter to these students. In the classroom, it is apparent to Internet-savvy students when a classmate does not have access to the Internet.  Indeed, students with easy Internet access assert that they have a clear and persistent advantage over their peers with little or no access.  Moreover, out of concern for those who do not have easy access to the Internet outside of school, students report that most of their teachers do not assign homework that encourages or requires student use of the Internet.  While these students did not offer novel remedies, they did insist that policy makers and educators recognize the gap and take steps to address it.

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 the way the Internet is used for educational purposes.  Indeed, while good schools of today are expected to have significant computer and Internet facilities, they face significant barriers to integrating it into their operations.  Even when cost, technical, training and use, and equity matters have not been at issue, schools have faced legal, policy, and ethical tensions around whether and what type of access minors should have to the Internet.  In such a chilled, or potentially chilled, environment, school leaders, teachers, and resource personnel have had good reason to be cautious about the kind of access they provide to students and about the extent to which they integrate the Internet into their curricula and instructional practices.  The resultant Internet-use policies, filtering technologies, and human misgivings have all made adoption of the Internet challenging for educational institutions, teachers and students. 

Nonetheless, students themselves are changing because of their use of and reliance on the Internet.  They are coming to school with different expectations, different skills, and different resources.  In fact, our most Internet-savvy students told us that their schools, teachers and peers are at times frustratingly illiterate, naïve, and even afraid of the online world.  Indeed, students who rely on the Internet for school—who cannot conceive of not using it for their schoolwork—may ultimately force schools to change to better accommodate them.  According to the students with whom we spoke, many schools have yet to react or even to recognize the changes in the ways that Internet-savvy students communicate and access information.

In the midst of other priorities, schools can choose to view this emerging pressure for change from their student body in either a positive or negative light.  On the positive side, through the growing use of the Internet outside of school, educators have the opportunity to expand their reach and to engage students in new and thoughtful was.  On the negative side, the sanctity and tradition of the four walls of the classroom quite literally is melting away.  Students are likely to be increasingly dissatisfied with conventional approaches to teaching and learning and to the limited resources available to them in all but the best-equipped schools.  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.”