Does Home Internet Access Improve Academic Achievement?
One of the questions I’m most often asked by journalists is whether there’s any evidence that having Internet access will raise student test scores. Not surprisingly, this is a question that gets knocked around by policymakers, too, particularly those who expected that connecting all of our schools and libraries to the Internet would somehow cause student excellence to skyrocket through the schoolhouse roof.
Correlating Internet access and student achievement has never been an easy task. For one thing, having the Net in the classroom doesn’t automatically mean that all teachers have been trained effectively to integrate Internet use into the curriculum. If I had a nickel for every time a teacher had told me, “My students know so much more about the Internet than I do,” well, I could probably stake a claim to some nice waterfront property and call it a day. (Alas, most people, including teachers, rarely ever hand out those nickels at education conferences.) Meanwhile, standardized tests often don’t assess the kinds of cognitive skills that students gain from effective Internet use.
While the debate over school Internet access and student achievement continues, there’s a related question that’s now beginning to be answered - what are the academic effects of having Internet access at home?
This month’s issue of Developmental Psychology has a special section dedicated to the impact of Internet use on kids. I could probably spend a month blogging about the treasure trove of research published in this particular journal, but one specific research article caught my attention.
The article (pdf format), written by Professor Linda Jackson and her team at Michigan State University, is the culmination of her HomeNetToo project, which began six years ago. From December 2000 until June 2002, Dr. Jackson and her team collected data from a group of 140 children, the majority of which were from single-parent African American households living at or below the poverty line.
Over the course of 16 months, researchers automatically recorded the Internet activity of the students at home, tabulating the total time they spent online each day, the number of online sessions, the number of URLs visited and the number of emails sent. Meanwhile, for two years they observed the students’ grade point average and collected their scores on the state’s standardized tests for reading and mathematics achievement.
Researchers noted that for the first six months of the study, Internet access appeared to have no effect on GPA. However, “Internet usage did predict GPA obtained after one year of home access.” This pattern continued through the end of the study, the researchers observing a correlation between home Internet access and higher grade points. They also correlated home access with higher standardized test scores in reading: “More time online was associated with higher reading comprehension and total reading scores.” They attributed these results to the text-heavy nature of Internet:
HomeNetToo children logged on primarily to surf the Web. Web pages are heavily text based. Thus, whether searching for information about school-related projects or searching for information about personal interests and hobbies (e.g., rock stars, movies), children who were searching the Web more were reading more, and more time spent reading may account for improved performance on standardized tests of reading and for higher GPAs, which depend heavily on reading skills.
Jackson and her team also postulate that improvement in GPA and test scores may only occur among students who are underperforming in school, as their research focused on underperformers in low-income households. Whether or not this is true will have to be answered through future research. For now, though, it does appear that there is an opportunity to assist students in dire need of academic improvement.
Whatever the results of future research may be, our findings suggest that the implications of the “digital divide” in Internet use may be more serious than was initially believed. One possibility may be that children most likely to benefit from home Internet access—poor children whose academic performance is below average—are the very children least likely to have home Internet access.
Researchers also observed differences in Internet usage based on race, with African American students using the Internet at home less than their white peers:
As with age, these findings have implications for educational policy aimed at leveling the educational playing field. Although home Internet use may account for only a small portion of the variance in academic performance, race differences in home Internet use may serve to exacerbate existing race differences in academic performance.
The persistence of race differences in Internet use when access to the technology is not an issue suggests that cultural factors may be contributing to the racial digital divide. Perhaps the culture of the Internet, created primarily by European-American men, is not a welcoming culture for African-American children. Perhaps the design of Web pages, again primarily by European-American men, lacks esthetic appeal for African-American children.
The results of this study are very likely to stir debate among educators, parents, and hopefully policymakers as well. As the Internet becomes more of a necessity in the modern classroom, it’s necessary to discuss the implications for students that lack Internet access at home.
The researchers conclude, “[O]ur evidence that home Internet use benefits the academic performance of children as young as age 10 suggests that early home access for all children may be critical to leveling the educational playing field.” Should low-income students be forced to rely on the limited shared capacity of libraries and community technology centers for their online educational needs, while their peers are able to access the Net at their convenience? Should they be penalized because their parents cannot afford Internet access or lack the skills to use it effectively? Are these students competing academically with one hand tied behind their back? -andy