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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:

  1. An analysis of student habits related to DLR outside of the classroom, including the location and types of devices and technologies that students use for educational purposes;
  2. An identification of the barriers students face in accessing DLR outside of the classroom;
  3. A description of the challenges that students who lack home internet access face, including challenges related to student participation and engagement in the classroom, and homework completion;
  4. An analysis of how the barriers and challenges such students face impact the instructional practices of educators; and
  5. A description of the ways in which state education agencies, local education agencies, schools, and other entities, including partnerships of such entities, have developed effective means to address the barriers and challenges students face in accessing DLR outside of the classroom.

This report, produced by IES's 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.

Report Overview and Methods

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 were 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 addresses 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 focuses on empirical studies published in peer-reviewed journals since 2005 in order to describe recent patterns of DLR access outside of the classroom. The state and local intervention efforts by organizations working to improve technology access for students that are cited in this report focus on efforts conducted in 2015 and 2016 (2015 being the most recent data year reported in the indicators and 2016 being the year immediately after, when the report was in production).


Digital Learning Resources

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. This report assumes that students primarily engage in digital learning through these resources and that they are most imperative to student learning experiences.

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.


Federal Policy Context

A number of federal policies worked to increase the availability of DLR to students. For example, the FCC implemented the Schools and Libraries program (E-rate) in 1997 in an effort to make internet access and telecommunications more affordable, and thus more accessible, to eligible schools and libraries (FCC 2016b). While schools and libraries must still cover some of the costs of these DLR, E-rate provided substantial discounts that were commensurate with the needs of the community, with high-poverty areas receiving priority funding. In addition to E-rate, in 2012 the FCC introduced the Connect America Fund, which increased home internet access by providing broadband network upgrades (FCC 2015).

In addition, the Enhancing Education Through Technology program, which was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, invested in technology and education reform (State Educational Technology Directors Association 2010). In 2013, the White House's ConnectED Initiative raised public and private contributions, with the goal of providing 99 percent of students with broadband internet access in their classrooms and libraries by 2018 (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary 2015). Other federal department- and agency-level programs included Community Connect by the Department of Agriculture (U.S. Department of Agriculture 2016), the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and ConnectHome by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These programs aimed to bring broadband access to rural communities, encourage the adoption of broadband internet at home, and help low-income households obtain access at an affordable price (U.S. Department of Commerce n.d.; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2015).

Whereas ESSA outlined the steps that states should take to qualify for supplemental education funding, it did not make specific recommendations regarding how to most efficiently use these funds to promote technology-based learning. In 2014, the Office of Educational Technology provided examples of ways in which federal grant funding could be used to support teaching and learning with technology, including supporting professional development for educators, investing in DLR (e.g., software, devices) for students, and using technology to increase communication and collaboration between educators and stakeholders (e.g., parents, STEM professionals) (Culatta 2014). The Partners in Education research by the Department of Education also emphasized the importance of supporting teachers by highlighting the role of collaboration between parents and educators (Fox and Jones 2016).