Equitable digital access to the internet beyond school: A literature review
This report is a literature review looking at equitable digital access to the internet beyond school.
Author(s): Louise Starkey, Elizabeth Eppel, Allan Sylvester, Rana Daoud and Tho Vo, Victoria University of Wellington. Report for the Ministry of Education.
Date Published: December 2018
Policy interventions that have provided Internet access to the home of school aged children have been made with the intention of closing digital divides within or between communities. The interventions identified have provided access to the Internet and digital devices in the child’s home with the aim of developing children’s digital capabilities, motivation to learn, academic achievement, parental engagement in their child’s education, and/or to enable student-centred pedagogies. While not all initiatives have evaluations available, the ones that were have mixed results. Digital inclusion has four aspects: access, motivation, capability and trust. The interventions identified in this review focused on developing access and capability, which align with early notions of digital divides. Developing participatory digital citizenship for those on the wrong side of the divide has yet to be identified as a focus in policy interventions.
Through the process of identifying and analysing research literature, a lag in available evidence was identified. Between approximately 2000 and 2015 policy initiatives aimed at bridging digital divides primarily focused on providing access to hardware, or digital devices such as desk-top computers or laptops, with some also including access to the Internet beyond school buildings. More recent initiatives, which focus on Wi-Fi or Mobile access, are not yet widely published. Further constraining factors on the availability of publications associated with Internet initiatives is the lack of publications when particular initiatives are withdrawn or the results are considered not noteworthy because of perceived lack of impact.
Studies that specifically measured the educational value of home Internet access were located and analysed. Through this process three areas of educational value were identified; the learning, psychological and social domains. The studies that measured learning included 68 studies that reported a positive learning outcome, six reported a negative outcome (half of these were in the area of literacy) and four reported neutral outcomes. In the psychological domain, 22 studies reported positive outcomes from home Internet access, three reported negative and three were neutral. In the social domain 13 were positive and one was negative. It can therefore be concluded that home Internet access has a positive impact on student learning, psychological development and social aspects, but not always. The conditions that influence the educational value include aspects in the home context and the home-school alignment.
In the home context, a recurring theme is that children are using the Internet for different purposes. Children’s Internet use at home is influenced by different factors including gender, age, cultural context and socio-economic status of their families. Children of parents with low education levels, few technical skills, and in low socio-economic households tend to have less positive outcomes or Internet use at home compared to their peers with greater cultural capital. This suggests that providing the Internet into the home will not close a digital divide without interventions that counteract the contextual disadvantage such as providing access to technical and academic support for the students (which may be through the parents or younger children). However, it should be noted that children in low socio-economic communities have been found to develop a strong sense of autonomy and agency which may be attributed to the home context where they may be experts in the academic and technical expectations of learning at home through the Internet. Thus teachers have a pivotal role in maximising the educational value of home Internet access in low socio-economic contexts through the setting of cognitively demanding autonomous learning activities.
Internet access offers children a range of activities for entertainment such as playing games, watching movies or listening to music and ways to communicate and collaborate with others through social media and communication technology. How this is used varies according to the age of the child and gender and parental mediation. Children who are gaming during the week have been found to do less well academically and children who spend little time on the Internet are also disadvantaged through a lack of digital literacy, therefore parental mediation of use is important. Parents adopt different styles with varying mediation strategies that influence children’s learning opportunities and online risk. The style adopted is influenced by the cultural context of the family. An authoritative style and co-using strategies has a positive effect on children’s learning through the Internet at home and a laissez-fair style can reduce children’s risky behaviours online.
Children use the Internet for different forms of learning at home. The Internet is most commonly used for accessing, presenting information, communicating, and skill development through gaming activities. Although the educational value of these online activities have not been clearly identified, there is a risk that students in low socio-economic communities are given less cognitively challenging activities than their more wealthy peers, which further widens an educational value gap. A further gap that may exist is one of participation, a digital divide between groups who influence decisions or opinions in society and those who do not. There was little evidence of research exploring students’ participation in social, economic or political digital contexts to empower their position in society and reduce future digital divides. However, it may be that this type of research was not associated with home Internet access and instead is taught within schools, therefore not identified through this review.
Internationally, policy interventions to date have focused on the provision of devices and home Internet access as a means of addressing digital divides for children in low socioeconomic communities. These interventions have also often gone hand-in-hand with a focus on integration of digital tools into teaching practice and/or support for parents to moderate their children’s Internet use appropriately to encourage use and skill development. Evidence of learning gains attributable to particular policy interventions are less frequently encountered. Where there is evidence, it seems to point to skills, attitudinal and motivational gains rather than increases in test scores in academic learning domains.
This literature review identified research that directly explored the educational value of home Internet access. Internet access in the home is related to positive outcomes for children’s learning, psychological development, social skills and parental engagement in their child’s education. However, the potential educational outcomes cannot be separated from the context in which learning occurs. Children’s use of the Internet, parental style, family socio-economic context, and the alignment between home and school are each related to the educational value of home Internet access.
The following recommendations are designed to provide the conditions identified in the research literature which are likely to maximise the educational value of home Internet access for students in low socio-economic communities that were:
- Children in low socio-economic communities have access to the Internet at home and a digital device for learning.
- Teachers are supported to use the affordances of the Internet for educational purposes, including providing appropriate cognitively challenging online learning activities, developing children’s digital competencies for learning and autonomy.
- Children’s formal learning at home is aligned with their learning at school.
- Parents receive advice and guidance on how they can support their children’s online activities to maximise the educational value of the Internet at home. Such advice should be sensitive and appropriate to cultural context and include information about parental mediation research and child safety online.
- Children have access to technical and academic support for learning at home.
- Further research and analysis be undertaken to evaluate online learning activities at home to identify high impact uses that maximise cognitive, social, psychological, and participatory benefits of home Internet use. The findings to be shared with teachers to inform practice.
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