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Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000

Who's Wired and Who's Not: Children's Access to and Use of Computer Technology
Henry Jay Becker

Summary and Interpretations

The images of a new Net generation of children at the start of this article certainly have some truth to them. Just as widespread access to computers and the Internet is rapidly diffusing ideas, information, and skills among adults with common interests, it is also enabling teens and even younger children to learn more about what interests them. Little in the data examined here would lead to the conclusion that most teenagers are broadly sophisticated computer users, however. Most computer use at schools falls short of helping students reach a high level of mastery, and most computer use at home is too entertainment oriented to have a major impact on children's intellectual or technical competencies.

Yet the surveys analyzed here are but a snapshot in a highly dynamic situation. As schools and homes acquire more and newer computers, and as more young people spend more time using computers and the Internet in diverse ways, the Net generation is becoming a reality. The following discussion provides a brief summary of key conclusions and interpretations to guide efforts to invest effectively in future technology and to ensure more equal access and use of computers for all America's children.

Access to Computers and the Internet: Necessary, But Not Sufficient

Access to computers and the Internet is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for children to grow up with the information gathering, analytic, and written and graphical communications skills that will constitute "being educated" in the twenty-first century. Children must have access to an adequate quantity and quality of computers in their classrooms and homes, and knowledgeable adults or older peers must be available to help children learn to use the variety of software applications.

Nearly all children have access to computers at school. Low- and high-SES schools are about equally likely to meet a suggested standard for per capita computer presence. For the most part, however, only those students taking computer, business, or vocational education classes have ready access to computers in a classroom where other learning activities are taking place. Most academic classrooms with computers have too few to permit easy access to large numbers of students at one time.

In contrast, only about half of our nation's children have access to computers at home. The disparities in access between children in low-SES and high-SES families are simply enormous. For example, whereas 91% of children in families with incomes of $75,000 or more have a computer at home, only 22% of children in families with incomes of less than $20,000 have home computers. The large family-level SES differences in children's access to home computers are further exacerbated by residential SES segregation, with children living in poorer neighborhoods also having less access through a neighbor or friend, compared with children living in wealthier communities.

The data show that when parents use computers at work, however, they are much more likely to provide their children with access to computers at home, especially those in low-income families. Employers could reinforce this connection and help even more disadvantaged families gain access to home computers by extending their hardware and software contracts to employees for private purchase, thus making computer access available to families at a much-reduced price. Some companies have gone a step further and actually purchased computers for employees to use at home, including access to the Internet, for a nominal monthly fee.56

Even when computers are present in classrooms and in homes, however, the computers' capabilities, location, or rules governing use may restrict access. High-SES schools and families generally have more modern computing equipment and provide more widespread Internet access. As of 1998, low-SES schools were only about half as likely as high-SES schools to have high-speed Internet access. Similarly, low-SES families were much less likely to have home computers that were broadly functional or connected to the Internet. Thus, although both schools and families have been investing in modernizing their computer technology, continued upgrades are needed as capabilities of computers increase; the least advantaged may find it difficult to keep up with technological change.

In addition, computers are not accessible in practical terms when they are located in inhospitable locations—such as a principal's office or a parent's private study. Even a concentrated location in a computer lab—which appears to give students more opportunities to use computers (and may result in lower total outlays for equipment)—may restrict use when shared by several teachers, requiring prior scheduling and extensive preparation. Nor does physical access guarantee use if heavy-handed regulations restrict how and when computers are to be used; for example, if software at public libraries or schools is restricted to approved titles, or access to the Internet is limited to approved Web sites or allowed only when an adult is present.

Frequent or Repeated Use: Necessary for Most Meaningful Consequences

What children and adolescents are gaining from their access to computers depends, in large part, on the frequency and duration of use. The limited data on patterns of use indicate that about half of all students use computers at school several times per week. Over the course of a school year, a majority of students receive substantial exposure to computers in at least one of their courses. Most intensive experiences occur in classes whose goals are learning about computers or preparing for specific occupations rather than in academic classes where the technology is used as a resource for learning subject matter and competencies. Progress has been made over the past decade in integrating computer-based activities into subject-matter teaching, but a long road remains before such integration becomes a common, everyday occurrence in most academic middle and high school classes.

The typical school currently has nearly one-half of its computers in shared computer labs, whereas the typical academic classroom has only one or two computers. One approach to facilitating more frequent, integrated computer use in core subjects would be to have students use their Web access in computer classes for research related to assignments in academic classes. Given that within-class access is needed for well-integrated use of technology, however, moving computers out of labs and spreading them among academic classrooms would be a more desirable approach to facilitating better-integrated use of computers in core subjects.

In families with home computers, nearly 9 of 10 children used the computer to some extent, with most using the computer at least three days per week. Recent surveys of Internet use found that American teenagers ages 13 to 19 used online services significantly more than any other age group, including adults. Although much of children's use of home computers may be for entertainment rather than educational purposes, such experiences nevertheless may have academic value, providing skills and knowledge that those without access are deprived of comparable opportunities to develop.

The Nature of Computer Experiences: The Most Critical Variable

If children are being changed by their experiences with computers, how they are being changed depends on the types of computer activities in which they are engaged. In school, children's most common computer experiences involved word processing and information acquisition.57 At home, children's experiences with computers on the whole appeared to be more recreational than school related—with children spending as much time playing games or using e-mail as completing school assignments or searching for information on the Web. Aside from games, the most common use of home computers for older children and teens was the same as at school: word processing. In its best use, word processing helps children articulate their thoughts verbally, enhancing their thinking processes and their ability to communicate with others. However, to achieve these outcomes, teachers must direct and encourage students to take advantage of the editing and reformulating capabilities that word processing provides. In addition, although the increased use of information-acquisition applications (such as CD-ROM references and the Web) in core subject classes is promising, other computer applications that might also be linked to academics have made little headway into common practice.

Efforts to design appropriate software tools and educational environments such as those described by Roschelle and colleagues in this journal issue are laudatory, but curriculum development and teacher training and orientation must change before such tools are widely adopted. Integration of innovative educational software tools and virtual educational environments into standard curricula is difficult, requiring many stages of adoption by intermediaries (for example, educational publishers, state educational policymakers, and school district curriculum leadership), and adaptation to conditions that are less favorable than initial pilot sites. Moreover, teachers must value computers for compatible instructional goals before they actively use related software in their classrooms. To influence teachers' instructional use of computers, simply training them in the use of certain types of software will not suffice. Unless teachers believe tools such as simulation and presentation software can enable students to gain important academic competencies, they will be reluctant to incorporate such sophisticated applications into the curricula.

Thus, until the challenges of curriculum development and teacher training and orientation are faced and met, the more complex and intellectually powerful computer applications will be used much less often than the word processors, Web browsers, CD-ROM titles, and game-like skills-practice programs that dominate most school computer use today. To better understand the value of different types of computer experiences—both at school and at home—careful studies are needed of how children and adolescents are affected, academically as well as socially.

Conditional Effectiveness: The Importance of Context

Finally, the survey data discussed in this article demonstrate that children and adolescents' computer access and patterns of computer use vary widely depending on the school's SES level and the child's family circumstances. Children in higher-SES schools are advantaged not so much by greater access to computers, but by access to a teaching approach that emphasizes use of technology for developing higher-order skills.

All schools provide about the same access to computers, but higher-SES schools—and in particular, the higherachieving classes in those schools—generally use computers in more intellectually powerful ways. The main advantage for students in higher-SES schools is their access to a teaching approach that enables them to master computer skills in the context of solving real problems and gaining deeper understanding of an area of study, compared with an approach more common in lower-SES schools that emphasizes skills reinforcement and remediation.

These school-based inequalities simply add to the home-based SES disparities in children's access to computers. Efforts to ensure equal access to computer-related learning opportunities at school must move beyond a concern with the numbers of computers in different schools toward an emphasis on how well those computers are being used to help children develop intellectual competencies and technical skills. Certainly, lower-performing students and students from economically poorer backgrounds can profit from greater competency in arithmetic and literacy. Targeting computer opportunities to those limited domains, however, will exacerbate these students' disadvantage compared to more advantaged students who use their computer access to gain mastery of higher-order skills and competencies. Schools in lower-SES areas can help counteract private disadvantage only if they strive to obtain more advanced technology and adopt better strategies of integrating its use with classroom learning.

Inevitably, young adults will become increasingly "technology sophisticated." Whether most children will gain this sophistication, or whether these competencies will develop only among an advantaged minority, will depend on the private and public policy choices made in local schools and in other public and commercial enterprises. The data analyzed in this article show us only where we are starting from; our challenge is to be sure that the data collected a decade from now will look quite different.