August 14, 2002

The Digital Disconnect: The widening gap between Internet-savvy students and their schools

Part I: Background and Introduction

Prior Research on Student Use of the Internet for School

Since the mid-1990s, many education policy makers have promoted widespread access to the Internet in schools. From the launching of the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund in 1996 to the roll out of the E-rate discounts for telecommunications services in 1998 to the passage of the Enhancing Education Through Technology Act of 2001, national initiatives have rapidly expanded that access. By 1995, the majority of public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. had access to the Internet.  By 1998, the majority of instructional rooms in public schools (i.e., primarily classrooms and libraries/media centers) were connected to the Internet.  With the notable exception of students attending schools in very poor districts, it is now the case that the Internet is as common a school fixture as lockers and library books.1

Over the same period, access to the Internet has been expanding in locations outside of school, especially to homes with school-aged children.  By July 2002, Pew Internet & American Life Project surveys showed that 60% of America’s children, more than 43 million children under 18, use the Internet. About 78% of those between the ages of 12 and 17 use the Internet (about 18 million pre-teens and teens).2 In addition, more than one in five households with children (23%) have broadband connectivity through digital subscriber line (DSL) technology or cable modems.3

One of the most common activities that youth perform online is schoolwork.4 According to a September 2001 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project:

  • Nearly every online teen (94% of 12 to 17 year olds who report using the Internet) has used the Internet for school research;
  • 71% used the Internet as the major source for their most recent school project;
  • 58% have used a Web site set up by school or a class;
  • 34% have downloaded a study aid; and
  • 17% have created a Web page for a school project.5

In addition to these school-related uses of the Internet, teenagers go online for a variety of other activities, including: communicating with friends and family (via email, instant messaging, and chat rooms); entertaining themselves (doing things such as surfing the Web for fun, visiting entertainment sites, playing or downloading games, and listening to music online or downloading it); learning things largely unrelated to school (such as looking for information on hobbies, getting the news, researching a product or service before buying it, looking for health-related information, and looking for information that is embarrassing or hard to talk about); and exploring other online interactive or transaction features (such as going to a Web site where they can express opinions about something, visiting sites for trading and selling things, buying something online, creating a Web page, etc.).6 Indeed, as Don Tapscott foresaw in his 1998 book, Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation,7 there is evidence that many students are more frequent users of the Internet and are more Internet savvy than their parents and teachers. 

Most other large-scale research on school-related uses of the Internet—as distinguished from research on the use of computers and other technologies—has focused on access.  This often consisted of measuring the extent of connectedness to the Internet and assessing the level of support for Internet use in schools (i.e., the amount and adequacy of teacher professional development and technical support).  A few survey-based studies, most now several years old, provide some modest insight into the extent and types of Internet use in schools, though typically from teachers’ or school or district administrators’ perspectives.8 Missing from this early research are studies that directly ask youth about their school-related activities, attitudes, and experiences with the Internet–in both in- and out-of-school settings.

More recently, researchers have begun to conduct studies about technology and Internet use based on the input of teenagers.  Many of these studies focus on how young people generally use the Internet or they focus on the experience of one gender. These studies tend to describe students’ use of the Internet for educational purposes in single settings (classrooms) or only in cursory fashion, or are conducted primarily to help companies better target product development and marketing activities.9 Consequently, there is still a need for information about how teens use the Internet in school and for school. This is a topic rife with public policy implications. 

This Study

The American Institutes for Research was commissioned by the Pew Internet & American Life Project to conduct the Internet’s Impact on School Project (IISP).  IISP was designed to describe the rich and varied ways that public middle and high school students use the Internet for school and learning, including their attitudes toward school-related uses of the Internet. Data for this study were collected between the months of November 2001 and March 2002 through two mechanisms:

  • Focus groups.  Drawn from three major metropolitan areas across the country, 12 gender-balanced, racially diverse focus groups were conducted of public middle and high school students who characterized themselves as heavy Internet users.  Two additional focus groups of light Internet users, comprised of one middle and one high school group, were also conducted.  Questionnaires were administered to each focus group participant in order to help characterize their school-related Internet use both in- and out-of-school.  A total of 136 students, drawn from 36 different schools, participated in our focus groups.
  • Online solicitation of student stories.  To gain some further insight into student experiences and attitudes, IISP employed an innovative strategy to hear from students not able to participate in the study’s focus groups—the online solicitation of student-written stories detailing how they use the Internet for school.  Nearly 200 middle and high school students from across the country wrote and submitted their stories to IISP through the study’s Web site.

Further details about the study’s sample and methods can be found in the Appendix to this report.

  1. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2000a). Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-2000, NCES 2001-071, by Anne Cattagni and Elizabeth Farris. Project Officer: Bernie Greene. Washington, DC. Available at:
  2. Unpublished Pew Internet Project survey of 2,501 Americans conducted between June 26 and July 26, 2002. The sample includes 1,527 Internet users. The margin of error for the entire sample is plus or minus two percentage points. For the Internet sample, the margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.
  3. Pew Internet Project data from June 26-July 26 survey. Also, U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (February 2002). A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet. Washington, DC. Available at:
  4. U.S. Department of Commerce (February 2002), Ibid.
  5. The Pew Internet & American Life Project (September 2001). The Internet & Education: Findings of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, by Amanda Lenhart, Maya Simon, and Mike Graziano. Washington, DC. Available at:
  6. The Pew Internet & American Life Project (June 2001). Teenage Life Online: The Rise of the Instant-Message Generation and the Internet’s Impact on Friendships and Family Relationships, by Amanda Lenhart, Lee Rainie, and Oliver Lewis. Washington, DC. Available at:; U.S. Department of Commerce (February 2002), Ibid.
  7. Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  8. See, for example, reports of the Teaching, Learning, and Computing Study: 1998. Available at:; U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2000a), Ibid.; U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2000b). Teacher’s Tools for the 21st Century: A Report of Teachers’ Use of Technology, NCES 2000-102, by Becky Smerdon, Stephanie Cronen, Lawrence Lanahan, Jennifer Anderson, Nicholas Iannotti, and January Angeles. Project Officer: Bernie Greene. Washington, DC. Available at:; Rockman ET AL and Grunwald Associates (2002). Are We There Yet? Research and Guidelines on Schools’ Use of the Internet. Alexandria, VA: National School Boards Foundation. Available at:
  9. See, for example: Grunwald Associates (2001). Children, Families, and the Internet: 2000. Burlingame, CA: Author.; Just Kids, Inc. (2002). An Environmental Scan of Children’s Interactive Media from 2000 to 2002. New York: Markle Foundation; Knowledge Networks/Statistical Research (2002). How Children Use Media Technology. Westfield, NJ: Author.; Roban, W., Groppe, L., and Schilt, K. (2002). The Net Effect: Girls and New Media. New York: Girl Scout Research Institute.