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Connecting Kids to the Benefits of Broadband

July 15th, 2010 by John Horrigan - Consumer Research Director, Ombnibus Broadband Initiative.

By John Horrigan and Ellen Satterwhite, Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis.

A recent article by Randall Stross in the New York Times calls attention to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in a paper titled “Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement,” by Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd, which caused quite a few emails and questions in passing here at the FCC.

The study is an analysis of the impact of home computer and broadband access on student achievement, particularly the impact on standardized test scores in math and reading. Following 5th through 8th graders in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005, the authors report a negative correlation between internet access and standardized test scores. Further, this negative effect is more pronounced for low-income students. Simply put: students who gained access to a home computer between 5th and 8th grades tended to see a decline in reading and math test scores, according to the study.

For those of us deep in the weeds on this subject, this finding was not as earth-shattering as some may have assumed. In fact, it is consistent with the findings in the National Broadband Plan: connectivity and hardware matter, but computers and broadband access cannot replace parents, teachers and broader social support as critical inputs into student achievement. Laptops in the home are not a silver bullet--digital literacy training for parents and teachers, appropriate content for online learning systems, and broader community digital literacy efforts are necessary to ensure children benefit from technology.

Like any general purpose technology, the exact economic and social benefits of broadband are difficult to quantify. Yet, a number of research studies (such as those from the Center for Learning Studies in Urban Schools and Information Communication Technology) in the US and abroad demonstrate that instructional gains come about only if schools undertake new instructional approaches tethered to technology and if they adopt new practices to support the technology. The FCC took these findings and made recommendations to support and promote digital literacy for teachers and in the classroom and to support the development of innovative broadband-enabled online learning solutions in Chapter 11 of the National Broadband Plan.

Furthermore, as Vigdor and Ladd point out in their review of the literature, there is evidence that holistic broadband adoption and use programs—those that involve more than simply providing laptops to children—have positive impacts on student classroom performance. Such findings were the support for recommendations in Chapter 9 on Adoption and Utilization. Recommendations like the National Digital Literacy Corps and improved training and support for libraries and other community-based organizations, are ways to build a community’s digital social support structure and help make broadband access beneficial, and not detrimental.

The studies highlighted in the Times’ article are valuable contributions to the discussion of how to make broadband part of educational solutions. The National Broadband Plan recognizes that computers and high-speed connectivity can play an important role in improving outcomes in the classroom – along with the expertise of the educational community, engagement by the technology sector, and involvement of family.

One Response to “Connecting Kids to the Benefits of Broadband”

  1. Elisabeth Stock says:

    I applaud your comment that “connectivity and hardware matter, but computers and broadband access cannot replace parents, teachers and broader social support as critical inputs into student achievement.”

    This is exactly what we’re finding at Computers for Youth (www.cfy.org), where we’re focused on the Home Learning Environment as a lever for improving academic achievement. To date we have served more than 23,000 middle-school students and their families nationwide. A study done in partnership with ETS found that our program had a positive and statistically significant impact on math test scores. We attribute these positive results to our emphasis on educational content, family training, and teacher professional development. The computers we provide to families are valuable merely as “content delivery vehicles.”

    The Texas pilot study, cited in the Randall Stross piece, also included content and training and had a statistically significant impact on student test scores in reading and math (see http://bit.ly/CFYfullresponse for details).

    Most tellingly, the Texas pilot study found that the strongest predictor of students’ test scores was the amount of time students used their computers outside of school for homework or learning games.

    This finding is the most interesting of all. It cries out for a greater focus on the value of a vibrant Home Learning Environment – and evidence of this value is abundant. Research has shown that parental involvement at home has an even greater effect on student achievement than school itself (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003). A large longitudinal study of 3,100 students found that the Home Learning Environment was one of the strongest predictors of achievement in reading and math for 10- and 11-year olds. A related case-study on students who “succeeded against the odds” showed that what they had in common was a stronger Home Learning Environment (Sylva et al, 2008).

    The United States is currently taking a back seat to Europe (particularly the U.K.) in designing programs that improve students’ Home Learning Environment. Both studies cited above were conducted by U.K. researchers and the country has responded to this research by encouraging innovation to improve the Home Learning Environment of its citizens.

    At CFY, we believe the U.S., with its history of education innovation, should be squarely in the lead on improving schoolchildren’s Home Learning Environment and enhancing the home-school connection. It is time to harness the potential of the Home Learning Environment to move the academic needle and technology has a critical, though not singular, role to play.

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