The early part of the 21st century has seen a tremendous surge in internet use among children, regardless of age, income, or ethnicity, according to a study unveiled March 19 by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). But in spite of this technological evolution, the digital divide lingers and—in some cases—is getting worse, experts warned.

The report, called “Connected to the Future,” states that 65 percent of American children ages two through 17 now use the internet from school, home, or some other location. That represents a 59-percent growth rate since 2000, when only 41 percent of children were logging online from similar places.

Despite marked increases in technology access, the study raises a number of red flags that educators and other stakeholders should be aware of, said report author Peter Grunwald, of the independent research firm Grunwald Associates.

“If we are not there already, we are moving at breakneck speed to a time when logging onto the internet is as fundamental to daily functioning as making a telephone call,” the study said. What’s troubling, however, is that many schools still are not equipped to integrate technology seamlessly into the curriculum.

In schools—where internet use by African-American children ages two through 17 exploded from 12 percent in 2000 to 31 percent in 2002, and where access for low-income children ballooned by 60 percent over the same two-year period—69 percent of all students still say the computer lab is the place where online learning occurs most frequently, the study found.

In fact, at a time when policy makers, educators, and labor authorities nationwide have said that technology skills need to become as much a part of students’ educational repertoires as reading, writing, and arithmetic, less than one-third of all students say they use technology in the classroom.

“If the vast majority of children are using the internet primarily in computer labs, then it’s not unreasonable to suppose that internet-based learning may still be on the periphery of the curriculum,” the study said.

Educators agree: The integration of technology into the curriculum presents an ongoing challenge.

“We are working on making access more available in the classroom, but many teachers separate the use of technology to a time of the day or week as opposed to it being one of the learning tools, like a book or piece of paper, in the classroom,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California. “We have a long way to go and a lot of mindsets to change before we will be successful at fully integrating technology and the internet into everyday instruction.”

But if the relationship between technology and the curriculum is still too weak, technology does excel as a research tool, the research showed. According to the report, almost half of the children surveyed said they use the internet in school libraries or media centers for research purposes.

“The fact is that some great teaching and learning can take place in computer labs. In most schools, it is the only place where a teacher can accomplish one-to-one computing for [his or her] students,” said Bob Moore, chairman of the board of directors for the Consortium for School Networking. “One could argue that when you look at student time on the internet for learning purposes, library media centers, computer labs, and classrooms—in that order—can be very appropriate.”

Della Curtis, who coordinates the office of library and information services for schools in Baltimore County, Md., said she thinks the library is an ideal place for students to learn the in and outs of internet technology.

“The library media center is a natural place for students to use technology to access information needed to solve research problems, to learn to use [technology] in an efficient and effective manner, and to learn how to evaluate information,” Curtis said.

Researchers say the discrepancy between technology’s use as a research tool and as a curriculum aide could be attributed to the notion that school infrastructures are not robust enough to support the demands of “simultaneous online users in multiple classrooms.”

Of course, with a majority of state and local governments facing budget shortfalls, it’s anybody’s guess how long it will be before schools can commit the funds to bolster inadequate infrastructures and provide that support, the study said.

In the meantime, “we can make technology and the internet more of an integral part of the instructional program by developing more online curricula, lesson plans, and assessment tools that are easy for teachers to use. Without that, true integration will not happen,” Liebman suggested.

The problem becomes especially critical for children in predominantly low-income, African-American, and Hispanic schools. In spite of recent improvements, students in such schools still have not achieved access equal to what most high-income children enjoyed two years ago, the study said.

“Our challenge in education is to provide learning experiences and classroom environments that allow children to function with technology resources in a natural way and give all children real-life experiences that assist them in outside-of-school learning and working situations,” added Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano, Texas, Independent School District.

The broadband divide

Although access from school is one way to use the internet, home connectivity raises other issues—such as the degree of high-speed broadband access in homes.

Between 2000 and 2002, the number of families with high-speed broadband access nearly quadrupled, from 10 percent to just around 37 percent of homes nationwide, the report said.

That’s a significant increase, especially considering that children with broadband access at home told researchers that faster connections have allowed them to spend more time online, encouraged them to watch less television, and even enabled them to achieve better grades.

In fact, among households with broadband internet access, six times as many parents reported grade increases in their children’s schoolwork as reported decreases, the study said. What’s more, 13 percent of parents attributed those gains to the increased functionality of broadband access.

However, some experts worry whether the emergence of broadband—which can cost up to five times more than standard dial-up services—will create a new kind of digital divide: “not over access, but over [high-] quality content,” the report suggested.

According to the report, the average annual income of families with broadband access is at least $72,000, and the average annual income of families who plan to get broadband in the near future is $65,000.

That leaves the majority of underserved families to make do with slower dial-up connections, and it begs the question of whether second-rate access will result in second-rate online experiences for students in years to come.

“I worry about this a lot,” Liebman said. “But I also believe that education is slowly realizing that technology and [the] internet may provide new opportunities and avenues for all students to be successful, especially those who speak different languages and those for whom a traditional education does not work.”

Instead of shying away from new technology trends because they are not affordable or prove difficult to implement, Liebman suggested, schools should search for funds and grant programs that can help provide high-speed access in schools, especially for those students who lack these amenities at home.

“Schools need to figure out how to give more access at school to compensate for those [students who] don’t have access at home,” he said “I am not sure how to do it, but we need to have longer hours where technology is available before and after school, as well as in [the] evenings, so that these students are not shortchanged on access.”

Connected from home

Still, educators and other stakeholders probably will be encouraged to learn that traditionally underserved children, including those from minority and low-income families, are using the internet—regardless of connection speed—at rates much closer to their more well-to-do peers.

Children are jumping online with greater frequency these days from several locales, and they are doing it at a much younger age, the study said. Only 6 percent of children ages two to five used the internet from any location in 2000, the report said. By 2002, however, that figure had expanded to 35 percent of children from the same age group.

More importantly, many of them are going online for educational reasons. According to the survey, one in five students polled said they logged onto the internet from home every day for school-related purposes.

And once children get online, many stay online. Teenagers, for instance, log on more than any other age group, claiming to spend an average 8.4 hours a week online at home.

According to the report, their activities in cyberspace vary from internet surfing to eMail correspondence and entertainment, including playing video games and downloading music files.

But 64 percent of teenagers said education activities constitute at least part of their weekly online experience, putting learning a close second behind general web surfing and exploration, the report said.

All of this, of course, is hard evidence for educators that technology is changing the way Americans—young and old—live their lives.

“Five years ago, you didn’t ask someone for their eMail address,” said Frank Cruz, a CPB board member.

Even television, the revolutionary device that for years has connected homes to the outside world, is losing ground in the face of more interactive digital media. According to the report, teenagers on average spend 3.5 hours per day online, compared with 3.1 hours in front of the TV, which translates to 24 minutes more daily time online than with television.

Part of that increase can be attributed directly to a spike in overall home computer ownership.

By 2002, 83 percent of all family households reportedly owned computers. Computer ownership in African-American families, for instance, has soared in recent years, from 39 percent in 2000 to 71 percent in 2002, the study said. The same can be said for low-income households: from 45 percent in 2000 to 65 percent in 2002.

While these numbers still lag behind the rates for Caucasian and high-income households—87 percent and 97 percent, respectively—the increases have opened the door for the internet to play a far greater role in students’ everyday lives, from communication to schoolwork.

The pervasiveness of that influence is partially represented in the number of households that now not only have computers but also claim to provide internet access—via dial-up or broadband—for children from home.

According to the study, 78 percent of children live in a home where they or their parents have access to the internet. That represents a 70-percent growth rate from 2000.

Again, the biggest gains came from children in African-American and low-income families. Internet access in African-American households rose by the near-astonishing rate of 205 percent from 2000 to 2002, but access in low-income homes also rose by a respectable 96 percent during the same period, the study said. Meanwhile, 50 percent of Hispanics said their children now go online from some location, whether in schools, at libraries, or from home.

Researchers say the increases are indicative of a number of trends in internet access for students nationwide. The problem, however, is that with the latest gains emerge new wrinkles in the digital divide. The questions for American households no longer revolve around if and when such access will occur, but rather who plans to go online and how they intend to get there.

“Even with the growing numbers and diversity of children going online from home, striking disparities remain,” the report states.

Growing up online

In terms of ethnicity, the greatest disparity in the digital divide exists between Caucasian and African-American children ages 13 to 17, the report said. Although 69 percent of Caucasian children in that age group use the internet at home, the study revealed that just 37 percent of African-Americans from 13 to 17 have that advantage.

The disparity disappears at younger age levels, the report said. In fact, among students ages two to five, the divide is almost nonexistent—23 percent for Caucasian and Hispanic children and 21 percent for African-Americans, respectively.

Researchers theorize that higher levels of inequality among older age groups could be attributed, in part, to the notion that younger children have younger parents, many of whom have “grown[n] up on the internet.”

Grunwald said he believes tech-savvy parents are the key to helping today’s children better acclimate themselves with the internet. Their familiarity with the technology, he said, lets younger parents play the role of competent guide for their children as they begin journeying into cyberspace.

“If this is true, five years from now we may observe the fading of the ethnic gap for older children as well,” the report said.

Existing gaps and lingering challenges aside, organizers overall were encouraged by the findings.

“This study shows that the internet is fast becoming a ubiquitous tool for a growing number of American families,” said Robert Coonrod, president of CPB. “Kids are using it in unprecedented numbers, and parents believe it is valuable to their children’s learning.”

“This is an affirmation by students and parents about the role technology plays in learning,” said Mary Boehm, president of the BellSouth Foundation, a report sponsor. “But there still is much work left to be done.”

See these related links:

“Connected to the Future” report
http://www.cpb.org/ed/resources/connected

Grunwald Associates
http://www.grunwald.com

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

BellSouth Foundation
http://www.bellsouthfoundation.org