Digital Divide? What Digital Divide?


Students in low-income families may have more access to technology than previously thought. What's more, according to preliminary research coming out of the University of Minnesota, these students are using technology consistently to boost their 21st century skills--even if many of them aren't aware that they're of the educational value of their activities online.

Internet Access and Usage
The new study, led by U Minnesota's Christine Greenhow, learning technologies researcher in the College of Education and Human Development, focused on 600 lower-income students, their access to the Internet, the frequency of their Internet usage, and their online social networking activities. What it found was that a full 94 percent of them used the Internet, with 82 percent of them using the Internet from home. Seventy-six percent reported having a desktop computer, and 30 percent reported having a laptop computer at home.


Half of these students reported using the Internet daily, with 25 percent reporting using it multiple times per day. Twenty-seven percent used it three to five times per week, and 14 percent used it one to two days per week.

Social Networking and 21st Century Learning
What's more, these students are in large part using the Internet for social networking. Seventy-seven percent had a profile on a social networking site, with MySpace (65 percent) being the most popular. Facebook came in second.

While most cited social activities as the reasons for using social networking sites (i.e., keeping in touch with friends and meeting new friends), when asked what they've learned from their use of social networking sites, they pointed largely to 21st century skills: technology skills, creativity, being open to diverse views, and communication skills. (See fig. 2, below.)


All of the students in the study belonged to families with income of $25,000 or less and were part of an after school program for improving access to college for low-income youth (Admission Possible). Participants fell into the age range of 16 to 18, and all attended urban high schools in the Midwest. The research was conducted over a roughly six-month period this year.

According to the researchers, while some students did not associate their social networking activities with education, those who used social networking sites at least three to five times per day were more likely to connect their activities with learning.

It should be noted, however, that U Minnesota's Greenhow told us she does not believe the students' school districts grade them on their technology skills. (Minnesota received an overall grade of C in Education Week's State Technology Report Card 2007, including a D in the category of "capacity to use technology.") And the actual impact of social networking and Internet usage on measured learning outcomes was not included in the study.

In future studies, outcomes, in addition to perceptions, will be included in Greenhow's research. "We do plan to examine the impact of social networking on learning outcomes but have not defined yet exactly what the targeted areas will be," Greenhow explained. "Grades may be one aspect. Also correlations between [social networking] use and other retention indicators."

For some interesting (and somewhat disturbing) results measuring outcomes among underprivileged students with access to technology, see our report on a separate study from University of Chicago and Columbia University: Are Underprivileged Students Better Off Without Computers?

We also asked her whether the fact that the students are in a program aimed at improving access to college might have a bearing on the data from the study. She said the data were applicable to the broader low-income community. The students' ACT scores at the beginning of the program were not extraordinary in any way (averaging in the bottom 10th percentile of all ACT test takers). Furthermore, their families' median income was lower by $5,000 than the subjects of a 2005 study by Pew, whose results had shown much lower adoption, access, and usage of technology by students of low-income ($30,000 or less) families. "So I do not believe the technology conditions surrounding our students in Minnesota are particularly privileged ones," she told us.

Implications for Education
According to Greenhow, the information collected shows that teachers have an opportunity to step in and support the 21st century skills that the students are developing on their own--especially since few involved in the study indicated that they were aware of the "academic and professional networking opportunities" social networking sites afford.

"Now that we know what skills students are learning and what experiences they're being exposed to, we can help foster and extend those skills," Greenhow said in a statement released with the preliminary data. "As educators, we always want to know where our students are coming from and what they're interested in so we can build on that in our teaching. By understanding how students may be positively using these networking technologies in their daily lives and where the as yet unrecognized educational opportunities are, we can help make schools even more relevant, connected and meaningful to kids."

She said educators can also take the opportunity to help develop "digital citizenship" in the students. The students in the survey, left largely on their own, demonstrated only a "novice understanding" of the concepts of digital citizenship, according to Greenhow.

A full, formal report based on this study will be released in the fall, according to Greenhow. We will follow up on the research then. Video and transcripts of interviews with the students, along with further explanatory material, can be found here.

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About the author: David Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's online education technology publications, including THE Journal and Campus Technology. He can be reached at [email protected].

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at .