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|This commentary represents the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the National Center for Education Statistics.|
While public schools have made huge improvements in providing computer and Internet access, a disparity continues in minority and poor students' access to computers and the Internet at home.
The good news is the significant progress that has been made in connecting nearly every school in the nation to the Internet. However, significant differences remain in home computer use by students of disparate socioeconomic backgrounds.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) supports enhancing education through technology and helps to support those students most in need. Approximately $2.1 billion has been appropriated for educational technology programs in the last 3 years under NCLB, a 50 percent increase from prior programs. Federal investments are being used to help schools access computers and the Internet. NCLB sets before the nation a challenge to ensure that all children will receive a quality education that prepares them for a 21st century America. The bottom line is unprecedented accountability to measure student progress. At the heart of this effort is a commitment to focus on students, equip teachers, empower parents, and inform decisionmakers to ensure every child receives the best possible education.
Two recent reports from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shed light on the progress that our nation has made in the last decade in technology access and highlight the role schools play in achieving parity in computer and Internet access for children and adolescents. Computer and Internet Use by Children and Adolescents in 2001 examines how children and adolescents from ages 5 through 17 access computers and the Internet, both at home and at school, using data from the 2001 Current Population Survey. Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994–2002 explores a series of trends in school use of technology over the past 9 years, using data from the NCES Fast Response Survey System.
Technology by its nature is a "transforming" tool, enabling organizations and individuals to gain significant advantages in work and life. By 2001, computers and the Internet were used by a majority of the American population. Two-thirds of Americans used computers and over half used the Internet. In conjunction with this trend is the concerted national effort to ensure that all schools have access to computers and the Internet.
The generation of children known as the Millennials (children born between 1982 and 2000) are pioneering users of the Internet and adopt new technologies quickly. Findings in Computer and Internet Use by Children and Adolescents in 2001 reflect this adaptability. In 2001, about 90 percent of 5- to 17-year-olds used computers and 59 percent used the Internet. And the rate of adoption increased with age. At age 5, about three-quarters of children used computers; at age 9, a majority used the Internet. By the time children reached high school, fully 90 percent used computers and at least 75 percent used the Internet.
Increased Access to Computers and the Internet at School
Both Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Computer and Internet Use document increased access to computers and the Internet at school for most students, regardless of ethnicity or economic background. Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools documents that 99 percent of American schools had access to the Internet in fall 2002. Computer and Internet Use indicates that more children and adolescents used computers at school (81 percent) than at home (65 percent) in 2001.
Schools are working to increase access to technology by providing access to computers and the Internet outside of school hours. Fifty-three percent of schools provided access to an average of 49 computers outside school hours in 2002, and of the schools that provided such access, 74 percent did so before school, 96 percent after school, and 6 percent on weekends. In addition, 8 percent of schools, regardless of economic or racial make-up, lent laptops to students, and 7 percent provided handheld computers to students or teachers.
High-minority schools are also making strides toward achieving parity in connecting instructional rooms to the Internet. For example, in schools with the highest minority enrollment (50 percent or more), 89 percent of instructional rooms were connected to the Internet in 2002, while in schools with lower minority enrollments, 91 to 93 percent of instructional rooms had Internet access. Similarly, in schools with the highest poverty concentration (75 percent or more students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch), 89 percent of instructional rooms had Internet access in 2002, while in schools with lower poverty concentrations (less than 35 percent eligible students and 35 to 49 percent eligible students), 93 percent and 90 percent, respectively, of instructional rooms had access. It is important to note the significant strides that have been made over the past decade. In schools with the highest poverty concentration, only 2 percent of instructional rooms were connected to the Internet in 1994 and only 60 percent were connected in 2000.
Gender differences are being mitigated. There is no longer a difference in the overall rates of use of computers or the Internet between boys and girls. Computer and Internet Use indicates that the traditional gender divide in technology use has all but disappeared.
Continuing Disparities in Technology Access and Use
Despite schools across the country achieving near parity in the availability and quality of access, there continue to be significant disparities across different groups of children and adolescents in terms of computer and Internet use. For example, White children and adolescents were more likely to use computers in 2001 than their Black and Hispanic counterparts (93 percent vs. 85 and 79 percent, respectively). Differences in Internet use were wider, with 67 percent of White 5- to 17-year-olds using the Internet compared to 45 percent of Black and 37 percent of Hispanic 5- to 17-year-olds.
Poverty status and disability are related to differences in computer and Internet use. Children and adolescents living in poor families were less likely to use computers (81 percent) and the Internet (37 percent) in 2001 than children and adolescents living in nonpoor families (93 percent and 65 percent, respectively). Children and adolescents with disabilities were less likely than those without disabilities to use computers (80 percent vs. 90 percent) and the Internet (49 percent vs. 59 percent).
Disparities in computer use across groups of children and adolescents vary between home and school settings. For example, there was a relatively large gap in 2001 between the percentage of White 5- to 17-year-olds who used computers at home (77 percent) and Black and Hispanic 5- to 17-year-olds who used computers at home (41 percent for each group). The difference was smaller for the use of computers at school, where 84 percent of White 5- to 17-year-olds used computers compared to 80 percent of Black and 72 percent of Hispanic 5- to 17-year-olds.
Internet use varies similarly between home and school settings. Eighty-three percent of White 5- to 17-year-olds who used the Internet in 2001 did so at home compared to 60 percent of Black and 62 percent of Hispanic 5- to 17-year-olds. When considering who uses the Internet at school, these differences largely disappeared, with 69 percent of White 5- to 17-year-old Internet users accessing the Internet at school compared to 66 percent of their Black and 67 percent of their Hispanic counterparts.
Disparities in home versus school use are important because, while there is increased availability of computers at school and, in many cases, higher bandwidth, the preferred Internet access point for students may be home, rather than school.
The nation's continued investment in school-based technology has resulted in significant progress toward achieving parity with regard to children's and adolescents' computer and Internet access. Nevertheless, significant disparities remain by racial and economic characteristics and by disability status in technology use patterns among children across the country.
It is important not to underestimate the role that continued investments in educational technology play, especially when the investments are aligned with educational goals. The challenge now is for an education system based on an agricultural calendar and organized after an Industrial Age model to transform itself to provide a 21st century education that prepares students for the Information Age. New circumstances demand not a reinforcing of Industrial Age structures and systems but rather a building anew with new initiatives, tools, and institutions for our time. Our nation needs a revolution in the way we educate students in order to meet the expectations of excellence set forth by NCLB. This is the strategic role of technology. As Secretary of Education Rod Paige states, "We need to address the limited access to technology that many students have outside of school. There is much more we can do. Closing the digital divide will also help close the achievement gap that exists within our schools."*