Smartphones, laptops and Internet access are becoming so ubiquitous that places without them, such as some U.S. grade schools, seem backward by comparison.

Much fanfare has been made about the digital divide — the gap between those who have access to IT and those who have very little access or none at all.

Researchers study this divide, often at the grade-school level, to see how technology — or a lack thereof — affects student performance. The focus often is on how broadband access and computers impact students’ work on campus, although recent research incorporates the digital divide’s impacts in students’ after-school and home lives.

Surprisingly some researchers are finding that the digital divide’s impact at home may not be as great as is commonly assumed.

“The problem that kids are facing is that when high-speed Internet service comes into their home, it’s leading them to do things like play games online, and chat or Facebook with their friends — and it’s actually leading them to spend less time on their homework,” said Jacob Vigdor, professor of public policy and economics at Duke University.

“We see that when broadband Internet service comes into a student’s ZIP code, the amount of time they report spending using their computers for school work actually declined,” he said.

Vigdor and his colleague, professor Helen Ladd, wrote a paper on the subject, Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement, that was published in June on behalf of the National Bureau of Economic Research. They studied the results of surveys conducted by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, analyzing what happens to children when they go from no computer at home to an environment where technology is accessible.

Vigdor and Ladd discovered that technology can be a distraction when there’s studying and homework to do. “The basic thing that we want to figure out is, when you gain computer access as a child, what does it do? What are the impacts of that?” Vigdor said.

Digital Distractions

The professors examined the test scores of surveyed students in fifth through eighth grades before and after they reported obtaining home computers.

They wrote that there was very little evidence in existing research to support a positive relationship between computer access at home and academic outcomes. In addition, Vigdor and Ladd analyzed North Carolina public school students’ access to broadband between 2000 and 2005. At the beginning of the surveyed period, 58,000 households had a broadband subscription; by the end, 1.1 million had broadband subscriptions. The researchers didn’t find a positive relationship between the expansion and the time students spent studying at home.

In fact, the opposite might be true: School performance seems to decrease. The introduction of high-speed Internet service was associated with lower math and reading test scores in middle grades, and also less frequent self-reported computer use for homework. The researchers wrote in the report that broadband Internet access “appears to crowd out studying effort, presumably by introducing new options for recreational use by students and other family members.”

And there are arguments going either way, Vigdor said. “In theory, you could use the Internet to help do homework or to help do your term papers, or something like that,” he said. “On the other hand, the Internet enables you to do a lot of things that more or less waste time and distract from your schoolwork. We weren’t sure which horse was going to win that race.”

The goal of many digital divide research projects is to analyze those who have computers and broadband access and those who don’t. Since wealthier families usually have the most technology, it often boils down to an analysis of rich versus poor. By zeroing in on kids before and after their families acquired the technology, Vigdor and Ladd planned to find a unique sampling of subjects.

After researching the topic, Vigdor believes that the correlation between income and the digital divide isn’t the whole story, although it may be an indicator of other crucial factors that affect the relationship between students and technology. For example, the children who have computers at home tend to be wealthier. “They’re more likely to have books at home,” he said. “They’re more likely to have parents who can help them with their homework.”

A Holistic Approach

Another factor is parental supervision, or other forms of guidance and support, in students’ lives. That can make a huge difference in how digital tools are applied, as researchers in the United Kingdom discovered a few years ago. The Information Communication Technology (ICT) Test Bed project ran from 2002 to 2006, and was funded by the British government to explore how ICT could support education reform. The government invested 34 million pounds (US $53 million) to supply computer equipment to 28 schools in relatively poor communities. But the project leaders didn’t just blindly fork over hardware and software — the funding supported technical support and training for school staff.

In some cases, the support also extended to households. “Our schools in the northeast of England had a laptop loan policy. This was to aid more financially disadvantaged households. However, several schools went beyond loans and had parent and child technology classes,” said professor Jean Underwood, an educator in Nottingham Trent University’s Division of Psychology. Underwood was one of the lead researchers on the project, which was published in a June 2007 report.

“This proved an effective model in many ways,” she said. “It increased parental engagement with the schools; it reduced technology damage.”

Not everything has gone smoothly since the project’s inception. Rolling out loaned computers was time consuming and cost prohibitive, and the planning was tough. They spent more money than they wanted to on software licenses and provisioning loaned equipment for Internet access, especially in homes that lacked land line phones. As time has passed, however, the emergent ubiquity of Internet connectivity and computer use in industrialized society has made many efforts to bridge the digital divide redundant. More than 90 percent of the test bed students now have ICT access at home, and students at all grade levels reported some use of home computing for homework. The percentage of students’ parents in the test bed project who had a computer at home has increased steadily over three years — from 79 percent in 2003, to 85 percent in 2004, to 92 percent in 2005.

Underwood said those students made time for both school work and play time on the computers.

“There may have been some overreporting, but two to three hours of homework is the norm in English secondary schools,” she said. “And teachers were placing homework on the Net using the schools’ virtual learning environment.”

In some setups, students could send work to the school electronically instead of having to carry it with them, so convenience was a motivating factor. “Of course the kids goofed around as well,” Underwood said. “But if you have to do the work, having it professionally presented and being able to find stuff fast encourages technology use.”

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.