Educators, policymakers, and parents alike are focused on ensuring the academic success of our nation's students. These efforts interact with the expanding use of technology, which affects the lives of students both inside and outside of the classroom. Thus, the role that technology plays in education is an evolving area of research that continues to grow in importance. While access to technology can provide valuable learning opportunities to students, it does not guarantee successful outcomes. Designing successful practices for student use of technology is but one piece of the puzzle in the continued effort to elevate the educational experiences of all students. Schools, teachers, communities, and families play a critical role in successfully integrating technology into teaching, learning, and assessment.
Recent legislation acknowledges the growing role that technology plays in students' daily lives. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides guidance to state governments on how to receive supplemental federal funding for public education. As part of the ESSA legislation, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) is required to produce a report on the educational impact of access to digital learning resources (DLR) outside of the classroom. Specifically, ESSA requests that IES conduct the following research:
This report, produced by the IES' National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), responds to the ESSA mandate for an analysis of the educational impact of access to DLR outside of the classroom.
As defined in ESSA (2015), the term "digital learning" refers to "any instructional practice that effectively uses technology to strengthen a student's learning experience and encompasses a wide spectrum of tools and practices" (p. 1969). This includes:
(a) interactive learning resources, digital learning content (which may include openly licensed content), software, or simulations, that engage students in academic content; (b) access to online databases and other primary source documents; (c) the use of data and information to personalize learning and provide targeted supplementary instruction; (d) online and computer-based assessments; (e) learning environments that allow for rich collaboration and communication, which may include student collaboration with content experts and peers; (f) hybrid or blended learning, which occurs under direct instructor supervision at a school or other location away from home and, at least in part, through online delivery of instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace; and (g) access to online course opportunities for students in rural or remote areas. (p. 1969)
As described above, a variety of technological tools and practices can fall under the category of "digital learning resources." For the purpose of this report, DLR refers to computers (i.e., laptops, desktops, and notebooks), mobile devices (i.e., smart phones and tablets), and broadband internet.1 This report assumes that students primarily engage in digital learning through these resources.
This report draws upon the most recently available nationally representative data sources, existing research, and relevant state and local intervention efforts to examine the five research areas identified in ESSA, and to provide an overview of student access to DLR outside of the classroom. To address research areas 1 and 2, nationally and internationally representative survey data collected by NCES, the Census Bureau, and other organizations are analyzed in the form of brief indicators describing student access to DLR outside of the classroom. The statistical sources for the report generally consist of surveys with the most recent data (i.e., from 2015), due to the rapidly changing nature of DLR.
Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom focuses primarily on children between the ages of 3 and 18. Most indicators in the report summarize data from sample surveys conducted by NCES or household surveys conducted by the Census Bureau such as the American Community Survey (ACS) and Current Population Survey (CPS). Due to differences in the survey populations and the indicator topics of interest, the report indicators reference either children in a specific age range or students in a specific age range or grade level. Each indicator specifies which population is being discussed in its text and figures.
The summary of existing research and relevant state and local intervention efforts described in this report address topics for which limited or no recent nationally representative statistical data sources are available (i.e., research areas 3, 4 and 5). For research area 3, a summary of existing research, combined with a set of indicators drawing data from national and international surveys, describes the challenges faced by students who lack home access to the Internet and DLR. The summary of existing research is limited to empirical studies published in peer-reviewed journals and government reports from 2005 to 2016, so as to best describe the current state of DLR access outside of the classroom. The state and local intervention efforts cited in this report focus on those conducted in 2015 and 2016 (2015 being the most recent data year reported in the indicators and 2016 being the year before the report was in production).
The sections of this report are aligned to the research areas identified in the ESSA legislation. Below is a summary of findings from each of the report sections based on analyses of national data sources and reviews of current literature.
Student Use of Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom
Section 1 of this report presents nine indicators based on the most recently available analyses of nationally and internationally representative survey data that provide an overview of students' use of DLR outside of the classroom. Results revealed that 94 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had a computer at home and 61 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had internet access at home in 2015 (Indicators 1 and 2). The percentages of children with computer and internet access at home in 2015 were higher for children who were older, those whose parents had higher levels of educational attainment, and those whose families had higher incomes. Also, higher percentages of children who were White (66 percent), Asian (63 percent), and of Two or more races (64 percent) had home internet access in 2015 than did Black (53 percent), Hispanic (52 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native children (49 percent).
Location and Means of Internet Access
For those children who had access to the Internet in 2015, the two locations with the highest reported levels of internet access were at home (86 percent) and at school (65 percent), and the two most common means of internet access at home were a high-speed internet service and a mobile internet service or data plan (Indicators 3 and 4). In 2015, about 78 percent of children ages 3 to 18 who used the Internet at home accessed it through a high-speed internet service installed at home; this percentage was lower than the corresponding percentage in 2010 (89 percent). In contrast, a higher percentage of children who used the Internet at home accessed it through a mobile internet service or data plan in 2015 (67 percent) than in 2010 (9 percent).
Computer Use at Home and for Schoolwork
In 2015, about 88 percent of 8th-graders and 83 percent of 4th-graders reported that they used a computer at home, and 80 percent of 8th-graders reported using a computer for schoolwork on a weekday (Indicators 5 and 6). Also, about 20 percent of 8th-grade public school students reported not using a computer for schoolwork on a weekday, 29 percent reported using a computer for less than 1 hour, 29 percent reported using a computer for 1 to 2 hours, 11 percent reported using a computer for 2 to 3 hours, and 11 percent reported using a computer for more than 3 hours.
Home Computer and Internet Access Across States and Countries
In 2015, about 87 percent of U.S. households owned or used a computer at home, and 77 percent of U.S. households had access to the Internet. The percentages of households with computer and internet access varied by state. For example, in 2015 the percentage of households with computer access ranged from 79 percent in Mississippi to 93 percent in Utah, and the percentage of households with internet access ranged from 62 percent in Mississippi to 85 percent each in New Hampshire and Washington (Indicator 7). When comparing the United States with other countries, the United States had higher percentages of students with computer and internet access at home in 2015 than the average of countries participating in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Indicator 8). Also, in 2012 the United States had a higher percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds using spreadsheet or word processing software every day than the average of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (Indicator 9).
Barriers in Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom
Section 2 presents five indicators that provide an overview of potential barriers to students' access to the Internet and computers at home. In 2015, the two main reasons children ages 3 to 18 lacked access to the Internet at home were that access was too expensive and that their family did not need it or was not interested in having it (38 percent each; Indicator 10). Internet access being too expensive was more commonly the main barrier for children from low-income families and for children whose parents had low levels of educational attainment than for other children.
Student Internet Access by Locale, Race/Ethnicity, and Poverty
In addition, 5- to 17-year-old students' access to fixed broadband service2 at home differed by geographic locale (Indicators 11 and 12). A higher percentage of students in suburban areas had fixed broadband access at home than students in rural areas, with the largest difference noted for students in remote rural areas. For example, the percentage of students in remote rural (65 percent) and distant rural areas (66 percent) with fixed broadband access was lower than in other locales, with percentages ranging from 70 percent in distant towns to 85 percent in large suburbs. In contrast, the percentage of students with either no internet access or only dial-up access at home was higher for those living in remote rural areas (18 percent) than for those living in all other detailed locale types, with the percentages ranging from 7 percent in large suburbs to 16 percent in distant rural areas.
Within locale types, there were additional gaps among students of different poverty levels and racial/ethnic groups. For example, in remote rural areas the percentages of students who had either no internet access or only dial-up access at home were higher for Black (41 percent) and Hispanic students (26 percent) than for White (13 percent) and Asian students (11 percent).
This section also shows that a lower percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch reported that they had a digital device in their home, or that they first used a computer prior to first grade, than their peers who were not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (Indicators 13 and 14).
Challenges Faced by Students Who Lack Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom
Section 3 presents both a summary of prior research and eight indicators that explore the challenges faced by students who lack access to DLR outside of the classroom. There is less research on relationships between students' access to DLR at home and their participation and engagement in the classroom than on other topics more narrowly focused on classroom activities. However, some studies explored relationships between student computer access at home and academic outcomes, with mixed findings. While some studies of home computer access revealed positive correlations with academic performance (Jackson et al. 2006; Beltran, Das, and Fairlie 2010; Espinosa et al. 2006; Fish et al. 2008), others found no relationship or negative relationships between home computer access and student achievement (Fairlie and Robinson 2013; Hunley et al. 2005; Vigdor, Ladd, and Martinez 2014). In addition, research on the impact of instructional computer use in schools on academic performance, including some randomized control trials and several quasi-experimental studies, found mixed results (Campuzano et al. 2009; Dynarski et al. 2007; Goolsbee and Guryan 2006; Shannon et al. 2015; Suhr et al. 2010; Chambers et al. 2011).
The indicators in Section 3 show higher average achievement scores for students who used computers at home and/or had internet access at home than for those who did not (Indicators 15–21). However, these analyses do not systematically take into account multiple socioeconomic background characteristics that are known to affect student achievement. The design of these surveys combined with the lack of comprehensive socioeconomic metrics limits their use on this topic to primarily descriptive indicators.
Comparisons of Academic Scores by Computer Use and Internet Access at Home
These descriptive indicators showed a consistent pattern of higher performance scores for students with home internet access in reading, mathematics, and science (Indicators 15, 16, 17, 19, 20, and 21), and for students' knowledge of information and communication technology (Indicator 18), than for their peers without home internet access. Achievement gaps between those who reported using a computer at home/having access to the Internet at home and those who did not could be influenced by other factors, including socioeconomic background characteristics such as parents' educational attainment and family income. Associations between socioeconomic characteristics and DLR access are presented in Section 1 of this report. For example, in 2015 the average National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scale score was higher for 8th-grade students who used a computer at home (268) than for those who did not use a computer at home (247). Similarly, the average reading scale score was higher for 8th-grade students who had access to the Internet at home (267) than for those who did not have access to the Internet at home (242). The size of the achievement gaps between those who reported using a computer at home/having access to the Internet at home and those who did not varied by student and family characteristics. For an international reference point, Indicator 22 shows that a higher percentage of U.S. 16- to 19-year-olds performed at the lowest proficiency level in problem solving in technology-rich environments than the OECD average.
Impact of Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom on Instructional Practices of Educators
Section 4 presents a summary of prior research. Student access to DLR outside of the classroom may impact the instructional practices of educators. However, based on the results of the literature search of empirical studies published in peer-reviewed journals and government reports from 2005 to 2016, existing research on potential impacts is lacking. Thus, the included studies and their results may not be representative. The handful of relevant studies present limited evidence regarding the relationship between teachers' knowledge of student access to and experience with DLR outside the classroom and instructional practices. For example, a study conducted with 36 elementary and secondary school teachers who created course websites found that contextual barriers, including teacher perceptions that students could not access the Internet from home, resulted in the majority of teachers not using such websites on a regular basis (Friedman 2006).
Other research found that teachers tended to underestimate student access to DLR outside of the classroom because the teachers tended to focus primarily on access to computers and did not take into account student experience with other digital technologies, such as video game consoles (Henderson 2011; Honan 2008). Based on these perceptions, the author concluded that teachers tended to focus their lessons on familiarizing students with operating computers (Honan 2008).
As student access to DLR outside of the classroom increases over time, educators may need to adapt instructional practices in an effort to incorporate home-based technology into teaching and learning. A larger body of research is available on the challenges and barriers teachers and schools face in adapting instructional practices to further develop students' digital literacy skills for use of DLR both inside and outside of the classroom. Reviews of prior research suggest that individual, school, and technical factors are associated with teachers' use of information and communication technology in the classroom (Buabeng-Andoh 2012; Fu 2013). Conclusions from the literature review suggest that at the individual level, teachers are less likely to use technology in the classroom if they lack the confidence, skills, and pedagogical training to do so; if they do not perceive a benefit of using a new technology over current instructional approaches; or if they anticipate the new approach will be difficult or time-intensive to adopt. At the school level, technology experiences may be limited by organizational structures, such as an emphasis on traditional assessment and instructional methods or on restrictive curricula. Technical-level barriers include the absence of current and well-maintained hardware or appropriate instructional software, and limited access to technology resources in the school.
Interventions at State and Local Levels
State and local interventions to increase access to DLR and the Internet both inside and outside of the classroom are underway across the United States. Section 5 describes a few examples of such interventions being conducted in 2015 and 2016 (2015 being the most recent data collection year reported and 2016 being the year before the report was in production). Organizations such as EducationSuperHighway, the State Educational Technology Directors Association, and other local-level initiatives help bring DLR access to students and their families both inside and outside of the classroom at lower costs. Lowering the family cost for internet access could mitigate some of the cost barriers identified in Section 2. For example, some districts are installing wireless routers on buses or providing mobile Wi-Fi hotspots so that students can access the Internet outside of the classroom. Other local-level strategies to increase student internet access to DLR outside the classroom include providing funding for internet access programs and providing devices directly to students to help bridge the digital divide.
The findings from this report highlight the generally wide home-based access to the Internet for the nation's children. However, gaps in internet access do remain between different groups of children. In particular, 5- to 17-year-old students living below the poverty threshold have lower rates of home internet access than students living between 100 and 185 percent of the poverty threshold and students living at greater than 185 percent of the poverty threshold. Also, American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, and Hispanic students have lower rates of home internet access than their peers who are White, Asian, and of Two or more races.
The geographic locale in which a student's home is situated also plays an important role in home-based internet access. Students living in households in remote rural and distant rural areas generally had more limited access to the Internet than students in suburbs, cities, or towns, with the exception of remote towns. For 5- to 17-year-old students living in households in remote rural areas, the percentage without internet access at home was particularly high. For instance, in remote rural areas 41 percent of Black students and 35 percent of students living in poverty had either no internet access or only had dial-up access at home. Students without home internet access had lower assessment scores in reading, mathematics, and science across a range of national and international assessments. International comparisons against advanced countries showed that the United States had a higher-than-average percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds with the lowest level of computer literacy skills.
The purpose of this report is to present findings regarding student habits with DLR, the challenges and barriers faced by students who lack access to DLR outside of the classroom, how these challenges and barriers impact both students and teachers and their instructional practices, and what steps have been taken by state and local entities to address these challenges and barriers. The research for this report highlighted some areas that could benefit from additional attention or enhanced data collections:
Valuable studies of these relationships could be conducted at the local, state, or national level. The education research community could play an important role in improving our understanding of the interactions of home and school use of the Internet, and assisting in the development of effective instructional practices. Education researchers could also take steps to improve the potential for more detailed research on the use of technology. For example, longitudinal studies could be designed to collect nationally representative data about students, parents, teachers, and schools. Future longitudinal studies could collect information from parents about home internet use that could then be examined in terms of their potential relation to academic outcomes. National and state longitudinal studies frequently include socioeconomic variables that also would be key components of effective analyses of potential relationships between the use of DLR and educational outcomes, with respect to equity. The availability of assessment points at multiple intervals could enable researchers to examine both change over time in access to DLR, as well as the interaction that these changes may have with educational outcomes. Further research will also need to be sensitive to the ongoing concerns about internet safety and security, as well as the appropriate scope of digital activities for children.
This report addresses questions related to the scope of technology use at home and provides some information on the relationship between technology and student outcomes. However, answering questions related to how technology is used for education purposes outside of school and for what purposes remains challenging, and is thus an important area for continued research.
1 In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defined "broadband" as internet access with speeds of 4 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads (FCC 2015). Over time, the number of users per household increased, and subsequently in 2015 the FCC changed the definition of broadband to speeds of at least 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. The terms "broadband" and "high-speed" are used interchangeably in this report.
2 Fixed broadband (of any sort) excludes mobile broadband, but includes all other non-dial-up internet service, such as DSL, cable modem, fiber-optic cable, and satellite internet service.