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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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May042006

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

Filed under : Digital Divide, Research

Responses

As your entry alludes to: Internet use by students in classrooms is more effective when the Teacher has been properly trained to help students use it effectively. The same thing can go for parents. Students who have broadband access in my district often have more affluent, better educated parents - those who are better able to help their children with homework, assignments, etc… we can’t separate social status and parental involvement from the equation.

If we were to give students in poor communities LOTS of books to take home, we might find that the reading capabilities of those students would only go up in the households where the parents were involved.

Simply having technology has NO bearing on its effectiveness.

That’s why I’m a fan of projects like Computers for Youth. They make refurbished PCs available to middle school students, but require that their parents get trained on them with the students, as part of a broader program to get the parents more engaged in their children’s learning. I’m planning to profile CFY later, so I’ll talk more about them in another post. -andy

Asking this question is interesting, but I think the answer will be become obvious the more web technology integrates with education. Having access to the amount of information that the internet provides helps students complete homework and projects. Socializing tools help students study with their peers. Students already use these technologies, and if teachers start to teach their students to use these tools to enhance their education, then there will be a strong correlation between internet access and GPA.

Andy, I don’t think putting home Internet access and scoring together is the way to go. The real issue is our kids could be learning way more if we were utilizing the Internet for communication, research and publishing. Instead, we are focused on tests that are high-stakes, are biased against many different groups, are based primarily on low-level skill or fact recollection, etc.

I’d much rather the question be, “How can Internet access at home connect kids to more learning opportunities?” Now we are talking.

I think we fall into the mode of subscribing to the testing because we have to. Let’s work to change the paridigm instead. Really excited to see you on the PBS blogosphere, welcome.

Nothing profound to add to this, but how would I subscribe to the comments to each article. I’m thinking it would be nice to have an RSS feed-like thing for the comments as well as your original postings.

Hi Aaron,

I agree, it’ll be more obvious over time, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence out there. The problem is we also need a way to quantify the effects - and like I said in the blog, most standardized tests today don’t capture the cognitive skills one gains from effective IT use. While we educators may know in our hearts exactly how the technology helps kids and how it doesn’t, we also have to have data we can show politicians who have certain expectations, justified or not. For example, I’ve heard some politicians criticize the federal E-Rate program, which subsidizes Internet access in schools, because they haven’t seen test scores go up. We need to have a better ongoing conversation with policymakers so they understand why Internet use and test scores will never be a straightforward one-to-one correlation, and demostrate exactly where, when and how the benefits occur.

Gordon wrote:

Nothing profound to add to this, but how would I subscribe to the comments to each article. Iím thinking it would be nice to have an RSS feed-like thing for the comments as well as your original postings.

Hi Gordon,

We’ve just set this up, and it’s listed on our RSS info page. Here it is for your convenience:

http://www.pbs.org/teachersource/learning.now/rss2/comments.xml

We probably should display it more prominently on the rss page, because it’s rather buried at the moment. -andy

Please don’t forget what content is accessed by kids at home. Take, for example, games. Accessing purely entertainment-oriented games will undoubtedly have less of a positive impact on kids’ learning than would games with educational content incorporated into the games (i.e. edutainment).

For example, analyze the games at pbskids.org, comparing the games in the Cyberchase subweb to those in the Maya & Miguel subweb. The Cyberchase games, while being entertaining, also contain content that excercises problem solving, math, geometry, science, etc. Most of the Maya & Miguel games are pure entertainment, although, some do have educational content.

It should be noted that there are many different types of games, too; some have educational content while others don’t. Further note that some games may not have obvious educational content such as math or geometry; they may have less obvious educational content such as reading, writing, problem-solving, etc.

My point is that merely measuring the amount of home Internet access is just scratching the surface of this whole issue. For a better picture, the content should be considered.

Andy

Great topic. I teach 8th grade American History and use the Internet mostly as a supplement to my in class activity. I currently have around 140 students and 93% of them have Internet assess at home so I do send them e-mail with items such as study guides, links to topics that we discussed in class, etc. This year I have also added something that I call “studycasts”. Before each unit test I sit down an record an audio file of me discussing all the major topics they need to know for the test. It typically lasts about 15 minutes. I then upload it to the Internet as an MP3 file with a link on my classroom web site: www.liberty.k12.mo.us/~elanghorst I also have it uploaded to i-Tunes so that my students can easily have it downloaded to their own MP3 player just as they would a song. It has worked very well and my students love it. Since there are a couple of my students who don’t have Internet access at home, I burn the studycast to a CD for them that they can take home. Parents have also found it helpful - some even listen to the studycast with their student. Several students have also told me that they listen to it several times when preparing for the test. I think this is one of the many ways that the Internet can help move education out of the classroom and create support anywhere, anytime for students.

I also maintain a blog and podcast in which I discuss education, technology and history: www.speakingofhistory.blogspot.com Check it out and leave a comment. We’ll love to hear from you.

Eric Langhorst
South Valley Jr High School
Liberty, Missouri

I teach at a high school with laptops for every student 4th - 12th grade. We also have begun to make a real commtitment to project based learning. I firmly believe that our students are graduating with 21st century skills. They are fluent in technology. They are comfortable researching information and with the fluency of information.

However, we’ve not seen these laptops translate into higher test scores. One might argue that we simply aren’t using the technology correctly. I believe a case can certainly be made for that, however, I also think that standardized tests don’t measure the skills that our students are focusing on.

I’m beginning to think you have to choose - 21st century, employable skills or high scores on standardized tests.

IMHO, technology does not make mediocre teachers better, but it may make good teachers great! Eric Langhorst is the embodiment of the latter. I may move to his district just so my children can be in his class. It’s all about dedication and the desire to try new ideas that enhance learning. Taking the TIME to do all of this is the key. I have much more to add, but later…

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