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Education in the Digital Age

IPR panelists discuss the digital revolution in the classroom


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Eszter Hargittai presents her research on digital inequality at a Capitol Hill briefing with Ellen Wartella and David Figlio.

The pros and cons of online classes, the worrying gap in young people’s Internet skills, and a dramatic increase in preschool iPad use were just a few of the topics broached during IPR’s May 19 policy research briefing on Capitol Hill. Communication studies researchers and IPR associates, Ellen Wartella and Eszter Hargittai, joined IPR Director and education economist David Figlio to discuss technology’s impact in education, point out a few misconceptions, and offer suggestions about its effectiveness and use in classrooms.

“Education is the building block for everything we want to do as a nation,” Illinois Representative Bob Dold (R–10th) said in opening remarks to the 65 congressional staffers, researchers, academics, and journalists in attendance. In addition to Dold, Illinois representative Mike Quigley (D–5th) also cosponsored the event.

Technology, Parents, and Early Childhood Educators

Drawing on two recent studies, Wartella discussed technology’s impact on preschool- and elementary-age children, both at home and in the classroom.

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Ellen Wartella discusses how parents incorporate technology into family life.

She and her team surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 2,300 parents with children up to eight years old about incorporating technology in their family lives and parenting practices. While parents reported using technology as a tool to manage daily life, they still rely on printed books and toys more than technology. Less than a third of parents reported conflicts over home media use, such as fights over too much screen time, and they were optimistic about the educational benefits of media. Interestingly, the researchers discovered that how much time parents spent using technology mirrored the amount of time their children did.

“It’s not that the young children are dragging their parents into the technology age,” Wartella said. “It’s that the parents of these young children are, indeed, establishing what kind of media use is going on in the home.”

In the second study, Wartella and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,000 preschool teachers from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) before and after the organization changed its classroom technology policy. Until 2012, NAEYC did not recommend using technology in the classroom, but by 2014, it had changed it to advise using “developmentally appropriate” classroom technologies.

The survey revealed a clear shift to using more technology following the policy change. Most obvious was an “enormous jump” in classroom iPad use, from 29 percent of classrooms in 2013 to 55 percent in 2015.

While the researchers uncovered few differences in access to technology based on children’s income levels, they did encounter “secondary barriers” that would prevent successful technology implementation in classrooms.

“Barriers to using technology in preschools are not access issues, but teachers’ comfort, training, and parental expectations,” Wartella said.

Beyond the Digital Divide

Much has been made over the concept of the “digital divide,” which separates technology users into those who have technology and those who do not. Yet, this is a misleading concept: Just because a person has access to technology, it does not make him or her an “effective and efficient user,” Hargittai explained. 

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Eszter Hargittai shakes hands with Rep. Bob Dold.

For instance, is a person using new or outdated technology? Does a user have low- or high-quality Internet service, limited or unlimited data usage, and support for resolving technological problems, or none at all? These factors can result in differentiated Internet-use skills and lead to real-world implications, from understanding search functions to assessing online credibility and maintaining one’s online privacy and security.

Hargittai then went on to bust the common myth that all “young people are automatically savvy with technology just because they are born with it.” As an example, she pointed to a survey question from the Web Use Project that she leads, where only 12 percent of young adults were able to correctly identify a bank’s legitimate website.

“Why is this important? It’s important for assessing the credibility of content. It’s important for avoiding phishing or identity theft,” Hargittai said. “These numbers are truly shocking.”

In her extensive research into young people’s Internet skills, Hargittai also underscored that those from less-privileged backgrounds are less skilled at using the Internet than their more-privileged peers.

While an Internet user’s socioeconomic status “is not something that is easy to fix quickly,” she noted that a classroom skills intervention could help to bridge these digital-skill deficits. 

“We’re not doing any favors to young adults or children by not offering technological education and support,” Hargittai concluded. “We’re doing a disservice to them—and, frankly, society as a whole—if we don’t educate them to be more informed citizens.”

The Upsides and Downsides to Online Instruction

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David Figlio investigates how students perform in online versus face-to-face classes.

The number of online course offerings has skyrocketed in the past decade, and Figlio, who was among the first to empirically evaluate the impact of online coursework on student achievement, has been keeping tabs on its growth and the nascent research.

He began by outlining some of the pros and cons of online instruction: Online courses allow for more flexibility and can be much cheaper, especially when offered to many students at once. On the other hand, they face a host of potential pitfalls, from reduced student accountability to a loss of community feel. 

Figlio and his colleagues conducted the first randomized experiment to examine how students performed in an introductory economics course at a large Florida university. Students were assigned to either a large lecture or an online course, both with the same professor, same coursework, and same exams. Across the board, students performed better in the face-to-face setting. Most importantly, it was the “relatively low achievers” who performed the most poorly in online classes—students whose SAT scores and high school GPAs were below average for the university, as well as males, and Latino students. He pointed out that other experiments evaluating online instruction, face-to-face instruction, and “hybrid” instruction (part face-to-face and part online) have produced similar results.

“We’re starting to see a common thread through all of the experimental literature I know of on this subject, which is that the more online you get, the worse the low achievers do,” Figlio said.

He touched on a study from University of California, Davis in which researchers, led by Cassandra Hart, a former IPR graduate research assistant, evaluated 1 million students in 110 community colleges in California--students who tend to be relatively low achieving. The study’s result: “In almost every case, in almost every community college in the state of California, students who were doing the online classes were underperforming,” Figlio said.

“Just to put these numbers in perspective, here—in some of these cases, you’re 10 to 15 percent less likely to complete the class,” he added. “That’s a pretty big number when you’re thinking about cases of college affordability and what you’re getting with your tuition dollars.”

Figlio noted that there are many very successful online education models, but the issue, he said, is taking those models to scale.

“Investing in online education could be worth it,” Figlio closed. “We need to keep pushing, keep figuring out ways to use the technology.”

Ellen Wartella is Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication and an IPR associate. Eszter Hargittai is April McClain-Delaney and John Delaney Research Professor in the School of Communication and an IPR associate. David Figlio is IPR Director and Fellow and Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics.

To see video and slides from the event, visit this page.