August 14, 2002

Online teens say their schools don’t use the Internet well

78% of middle and high school students use the Internet

But the most Internet-savvy among them complain that their teachers don’t use the Internet in class or create assignments that exploit great Web material

Washington (August 14, 2002) – Millions of teenagers increasingly use the Internet for their schoolwork, but they say that educators often don’t know how, don’t want, or aren’t able to use online tools to help them learn or enrich their studies.

The students argue that the nation’s multi-billion dollar effort to wire schools is at risk of being squandered unless there was a similar commitment to improve connectivity in classrooms, help all students master computer skills, teach more sophisticated Internet literacy, make sure that high-quality information is available to them, and – most important of all – create assignments that take advantage of the wonderful Web resources they have found on their own.

These findings are highlighted in a new study for the Pew Internet & American Life Project by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), a widely respected research organization based in Washington, D.C. The report is entitled, “THE DIGITAL DISCONNECT: The widening gap between Internet-savvy students and their schools,” and is based on the results of 14 focus groups with 136 middle and high school students around the nation and in reports from close to 200 teenagers who responded to an online survey.

“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. “Many believe they may have to raise their voices to force schools to change to accommodate them better. And their voices should be added to policy discussions. Educators have a choice: Either they need to adapt or they will be dragged into a new learning environment.”

Students use the Internet dozens of ways to help them in school. They see the Internet as a virtual textbook and reference library, a virtual tutor and study shortcut, a place to conduct virtual study groups, a virtual locker, backpack and notebook, and as a virtual guidance counselor when they are deciding about careers and colleges.

However, the students repeatedly said that the quality of their Internet-based assignments was often poor and uninspiring – if online assignments were even made at all.

“They want to be assigned more—and more engaging—Internet activities that are relevant to their lives,” noted Douglas Levin, the director of the research study for the American Institutes for Research. “Many students maintain that this would significantly improve their attitude toward school and learning.”

The students said the single greatest barrier to Internet use at school is the quality of access to the Internet at most of their schools. And while many recognize the need to shelter teenagers from inappropriate material and adult-oriented commercial ads, they complain that blocking and filtering software often raise barriers to students’ legitimate educational use of the Internet.

Online students are also worried about the “digital divide” and say they are painfully aware of the advantages they enjoy compared to those who do not have easy Internet access outside of school. They also urged that policy makers address the more subtle inequities among teenagers that manifest themselves in differences in the quality of student Internet access and use.

“These kids think it’s a pity their schools don’t ‘get it’ the way they do about how to use the Internet,” argued Sousan Arafeh, the deputy project director for AIR for this study. “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. Clearly, that has to change.”

The American Institutes for Research (AIR) is one of the largest applied behavioral and social science research organizations in the world. Since its founding in 1946 as an independent, not-for-profit corporation, AIR has been conducting research and providing analysis and technical assistance in support of programs to improve the condition of individuals, groups, and organizations.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project creates and funds original, academic-quality research that explores the impact of the Internet on children, families, communities, the workplace, schools, health care, and civic and political life. The project is an independent, nonpartisan organization fully funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.