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

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A July 2002 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that three in five children under the age of 18—and more than 78% of children between the ages of 12 and 17—go online.

The study is based primarily on information gathered from 14 gender-balanced, racially diverse focus groups of 136 students, drawn from 36 different schools. The student experiences and attitudes revealed in the study’s focus groups were further supplemented by the stories of nearly 200 students who voluntarily submitted online essays about their use of the Internet for school.

new ways students communicate and access information over the Internet.

Key findings from the study include the following:

  • Internet-savvy students rely on the Internet to help them do their schoolwork—and for good reason.
  • Internet-savvy students describe dozens of different education-related uses of the Internet. Virtually all use the Internet to do research to help them write papers or complete class work or homework assignments. Most students also correspond with other online classmates about school projects and upcoming tests and quizzes. Most share tips about favorite Web sites and pass along information about homework shortcuts and sites that are especially rich in content that fit their assignments. They also frequent Web sites pointed out to them by teachers—some of which had even been set up specifically for a particular school or class. They communicate with online teachers or tutors. They participate in online study groups. They even take online classes and develop Web sites or online educational experiences for use by others.

  • The way students think about the Internet in relation to their schooling is closely tied to the daily tasks and activities that make up their young lives. In that regard, students employ five different metaphors to explain how they use the Internet for school:

- The Internet as virtual textbook and reference library. Much like a school-issued textbook or a traditional library, students think of the Internet as the place to find primary and secondary source material for their reports, presentations, and projects. This is perhaps the most commonly used metaphor of the Internet for school—held by both students and many of their teachers alike.

- The Internet as virtual tutor and study shortcut. Students think of the Internet as one way to receive instruction about material that interests them or about which they are confused. Others view the Internet as a way to complete their schoolwork as quickly and painlessly as possible, with minimal effort and minimal engagement. For some, this includes viewing the Internet as a mechanism to plagiarize material or otherwise cheat.

- The Internet as virtual study group. Students think of the Internet as an important way to collaborate on project work with classmates, study for tests and quizzes, and trade class notes and observations. The Internet as virtual guidance counselor. Students look to the Internet for guidance about life decisions as they relate to school, careers, and postsecondary education.

- The Internet as virtual locker, backpack, and notebook. Students think of the Internet as a place to store their important school-related materials and as a way to transport their books and papers from place to place. Online tools allow them to keep track of their class schedule, syllabi, assignments, notes, and papers.