A survey of teachers shows that digital tools are widely used in their classrooms and professional lives  

Yet, teachers are hampered by disparities in student access to digital technologies. Those who work with the lowest income students face the most challenges in their efforts to bring these tools into their teaching

February 28, 2013 (Washington D.C.) – A survey of teachers who instruct American middle and secondary school students finds that digital technologies have become central to their teaching and professionalization. At the same time, the internet, mobile phones, and social media have brought new challenges to teachers, and they report striking differences in access to the latest digital technologies between lower and higher income students and school districts.

Some 92% of advanced placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers say the internet has a “major impact” on their ability to access content, resources and materials for their teaching, and 69% report the internet having a “major impact” on their ability to share ideas with colleagues. Yet 84% also agree that “Today’s digital technologies are leading to greater disparities between affluent and disadvantaged schools and school districts.”  And while 54% of these teachers say that all or almost all of their students have access at school to the digital tools they need to be academically successful, just 18% say the same is true for their students at home

These findings emerge from an online survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in collaboration with the College Board and the National Writing Project. It is a non-probability sample of 2,462 middle and high school teachers currently teaching in the U.S. and its territories, conducted between March 7 and April 23, 2012.  Some 1,750 of the teachers are drawn from a sample of advanced placement (AP) high school teachers, while the remaining 712 are from a sample of National Writing Project teachers. 

The survey finds that digital tools are widely used in classrooms and assignments, and a majority of these teachers are satisfied with the support and resources they receive from their school in this area. However, the findings also indicate that teachers of the lowest income students face more challenges in bringing these tools to their classrooms: 

  • Mobile technology has become central to the learning process, with 73% of AP and NWP teachers saying that they and/or their students use their cell phones in the classroom or to complete assignments
  • More than four in ten teachers report the use of e-readers (45%) and tablet computers (43%) in their classrooms or to complete assignments
  • 62% say their school does a “good job” supporting teachers’ efforts to bring digital tools into the learning process, and 68% say their school provides formal training in this area
  • Teachers of low income students, however, are much less likely than teachers of the highest income students to use tablet computers (37% v. 56%) or e-readers (41% v. 55%) in their classrooms and assignments
  • Similarly, just over half (52%) of teachers of upper and upper-middle income students say their students use cell phones to look up information in class, compared with 35% of teachers of the lowest income students
  • Just 15% of AP and NWP teachers whose students are from upper income households say their school is “behind the curve” in effectively using digital tools in the learning process; 39% who teach students from low income households describe their school as “behind the curve”
  • 70% of teachers of the highest income students say their school does a “good job” providing the resources needed to bring digital tools into the classroom; the same is true of 50% of teachers working in low income areas
  • Teachers of the lowest income students are more than twice as likely as teachers of the highest income students (56% v. 21%) to say that students’ lack of access to digital technologies is a “major challenge” to incorporating more digital tools into their teaching

“Digital technologies have become essential instructional tools for the vast majority of teachers in this study,” notes Kristen Purcell, Associate Director for Research at the Pew Internet Project. “Yet, not all teachers feel that they and their students have the access they need to these tools or the resources necessary to use them effectively. Teachers whose students are from the lowest income households feel they are at a disadvantage when it comes to using the internet and other digital tools such as cell phones, tablet computers and e-readers to enhance the learning process.” 

As a whole, AP and NWP teachers are advanced tech users, outpacing the full U.S. adult population in all measures of personal tech use:

  • 58% of these teachers (68% of those under age 35) have a smartphone, compared with 45% of all adults in the U.S.
  • They are also well ahead of national benchmarks in ownership of all gadgets asked about, including laptops (93% vs. 61% of all adults), tablet computers (39% vs. 24% of all adults), and e-book readers (47% vs. 19% of all adults)
  • These teachers are more likely than typical online adults to use social networking sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn (78% compared with 69% of all adult internet users) and to use Twitter (26% v. 16% of all online adults)
  • Still, 42% say their students usually know more than they do when it comes to using new digital technologies, and just 18% say they know more than their students

“As a group, these teachers are well ahead of other adults in their tech use, and they feel they are working hard to bring these tools into their classrooms in creative and valuable ways,” said Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet Project.  “Teachers are trying to capitalize on the fact that their students are immersed in these technologies and are comfortable using them. Yet they feel structural barriers make it more difficult for teachers in low income areas to be part of this trend, and all teachers worry about a widening gap between wealthy and poor schools and districts.”

The survey also reveals generational differences in teachers’ comfort with new technologies and the extent to which they use these tools in their classrooms, as well as mixed feelings about the impact of the internet and other digital technologies on their professional lives.  Specifically:

  • 64% of teachers under age 35 describe themselves as “very confident” when it comes to using new digital technologies, compared with 44% of teachers age 55 and older
  • Conversely, the oldest teachers are more than twice as likely as those under age 35 (59% vs. 23%) to say their students know more than they do about using the newest digital tools
  • Overall, the vast majority of AP and NWP teachers utilize the internet and other digital tools at least once a week to keep up with developments in their field (80%), find content that will engage their students (84%), and gather material to help them create lesson plans (80%)
  • At the same time, 75% say the internet and other digital tools have added new demands to their lives by increasing the range of content and skills about which they must be knowledgeable
  • Another 41% report the internet having a “major impact” on the amount of work required of teachers today 

“The internet is changing the very nature of how teachers engage in their profession and collaborate with one another. Because of the internet, today’s educators have access to a wealth of resources and material, as well as broad professional networks to support them in their teaching,” added Judy Buchanan, Deputy Director of the National Writing Project and a co-author of the report.  “The key moving forward is to ensure that all educators have equal access to the vast resources available online, and the encouragement and training to use them in groundbreaking ways.”

About the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping America and the world. The Pew Internet Project explores the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life.  The Project is nonpartisan and takes no position on policy issues. Support for the Project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. More information is available at www.pewresearch.org/internet.

About the College Board

The College Board is a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity. Founded in 1900, the College Board was created to expand access to higher education. Today, the membership association is made up of over 6,000 of the world’s leading educational institutions and is dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education. Each year, the College Board helps more than seven million students prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success — including the SAT® and the Advanced Placement Program®. The organization also serves the education community through research and advocacy on behalf of students, educators and schools. For further information, visit www.collegeboard.org.

About the National Writing Project

The National Writing Project (NWP) is a nationwide network of educators working together to improve the teaching of writing in the nation’s schools and in other settings. NWP provides high-quality professional development programs to teachers in a variety of disciplines and at all levels, from early childhood through university. Through its nearly 200 university-based sites serving all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, NWP develops the leadership, programs and research needed for teachers to help students become successful writers and learners. For more information, visit www.nwp.org.

Media contacts:

Pew Internet

Kristen Purcell: kpurcell@pewresearch.org/internet, 202-419-4512 (o), 267-566-9241 (c)

Lee Rainie: lrainie@pewresearch.org/internet, 202-419-4510

The College Board

Carly Lindauer: clindauer@collegeboard.org, 212-520-8599 (o), 646-357-2993 (c)

The National Writing Project

Judy Buchanan: media@nwp.org, 510-255-0963