The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap Between Internet-Savvy Students and Their Schools

Using the Internet is the norm for today’s youth. Due in large part to high profile and sometime controversial education technology public policy initiatives, it is conventional wisdom that much of this use occurs in schools. AIR was commissioned by the Pew Internet & American Life Project to conduct a qualitative study of the attitudes and behaviors of Internet-using public middle and high school students drawn from across the country. The study is based primarily on information gathered from 14 gender-balanced, racially diverse focus groups of 136 students, drawn from 36 different schools.

Internet-savvy students rely on the Internet to help them do their schoolwork. They 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.

The students employ five different metaphors to explain how they use the Internet for school:

  • as virtual textbook and reference library;
  • as virtual tutor and study shortcut;
  • as virtual study group;
  • as virtual guidance counselor; and
  • as virtual locker, backpack, and notebook.

Many schools and teachers have not yet recognized—much less responded to—the new ways students communicate and access information over the Internet. Students report that there is a substantial disconnect between how they use the Internet for school and how they use the Internet during the school day and under teacher direction. For the most part, students’ educational use of the Internet occurs outside of the school day, outside of the school building, outside the direction of their teachers.

While there are a variety of pressures, concerns, and outright challenges in providing Internet access to teachers and students at school, students perceive this disconnect to be the result of school administrators setting the tone for use at school, the wide variation in teacher policies regarding Internet use in and for class and poor and uninspiring quality of Internet-based assignments. Students say they face several roadblocks when it comes to using the Internet at schools. In many cases, these roadblocks discourage them from using the Internet as much, or as creatively, as they would like. They note that quality of access, heavy-handed filtering and the inequalities in home access among students constitute major barriers to Internet use in and for school.

Of course, student use of the Internet for school does not occur in a vacuum. Students’ experiences, and those of their states, districts, schools, teachers, and parents, strongly affect how the Internet is adopted in schools. Nonetheless, large numbers of students say they are changing because of their out-of-school use of the Internet—and their reliance on it. Internet-savvy students are coming to school with different expectations, different skills, and access to different resources.