Thanks to the eRate and other initiatives to wire the nation’s schools, nearly three-fourths of all classrooms now have internet access. But some tech-savvy students argue the arrival of the internet means little to them when teachers and other stakeholders are ill-equipped or—worse—afraid to unlock its full potential, according to a national study released Aug. 15 on behalf of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The report, entitled “The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap Between Internet-savvy Students and Their Schools,” is the result of a study of 14 focus groups with 136 middle and high school students and another 200 teenagers who responded independently to an online survey by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

The study is one of the first of its kind to evaluate school internet use through the eyes of students, and its findings bring to light a number of legitimate concerns about the integration of technology into America’s schools.

“Internet-savvy students are far ahead of their teachers and principals in taking advantage of online educational resources,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “Educators have a choice: Either they need to adapt, or they will be dragged into a new learning environment.”

According to the study, 78 percent of children ages 12 to 17 use the internet in school or at home. But the most internet-savvy among them say their teachers are less inclined to use the technology during class time, either because teachers lack the proper training to do so or because they are dissuaded by a number of factors, including risk, strict administrative policies, or the quality of online access in their schools.

“Most teens use the internet for school assignments and in other learning situations, but they say their internet use occurs mostly outside of the school day, outside of the school building, and outside of the direction of their teachers,” said Sousan Arafeh, AIR’s deputy project director for the study.

Students told researchers the internet saves them time, helps them complete research, and provides quick answers to tough questions. Outside of school, students said, they frequent web sites pointed out to them by teachers, take advantage of online tutors, participate in virtual study groups, and even enroll in online classes.

Inside of school, however, students claim there is a “digital disconnect” between how they use the internet at home and those methods used by their instructors in the classroom.

What’s more, students told researchers that just because teachers are using the internet doesn’t necessarily mean the exercises are innovative or exciting for kids. According to researchers, students believe the quality of online learning could be vastly improved if educators sought to incorporate more activities that relate daily life to what is learned inside of classroom walls.

Time is another issue, the study said. Students who move from place to place and class to class throughout the course of a six-hour school day have little time to boot up and log on to internet-connected computers at each station.

Though several school districts have made commitments to improving internet access, still others lack the infrastructure and high-speed technology necessary to make internet-based lessons a viable alternative to traditional classroom instruction, the study said.

Also, because not every student has internet access at home, the vast majority of students say their teachers don’t assign homework that requires use of the web. But tech-savvy students say they want better coordination between classroom activities and their out-of-school educational use of the internet. This could be the key to leveraging the internet’s instructional power, they argue.

“Schools are lowering the bar instead of changing the emphasis and bringing everyone to a higher level and saying, ‘Let’s take advantage of this stuff,'” Rainie said.

Among students’ other suggestions: Schools must continue to improve on the quality of the connections available in school, and educators should not shy away from online learning for fear of the risks associated with it.

The study also points out that more professional development is needed to help unlock the internet’s potential in education.

“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,” the study said.


Pew Internet and American Life Project

American Institutes for Research