Taking a break from the Internet may be good for learning

By Alfonso Echazarra
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

A Danish study on Internet use at school revealed that students themselves are perfectly aware of the risks of using the Internet for learning. Tellingly, one student explained the problems of using the Internet in the classroom: “You can have a brief conversation on Facebook during a math class and, when you look up again, the blackboard is covered with symbols and numbers”.

While this study also described promising ways in which computers and the Internet were being used in Danish high schools — for instance, students joined study groups on social media — studies like this one remind us how important it is to analyse the challenges associated with the digitalisation of education. After all, governments around the globe are making huge efforts to bring computers and high-speed Internet to every school; but too many questions remain unanswered.

Looking into the Internet use of 15-year-olds, this month’s PISA in Focus tries to answer some of these questions: Are 15-year-olds more connected to the Internet than their counterparts of three years ago? Is the digital divide growing or closing? And do digitally connected students show better education outcomes?

 Greater connectivity may not necessarily be good news for disadvantaged students.

The results show that students around the globe are spending more and more time on line. In the three years from 2012 to 2015, the time that 15-year-olds reported spending on the Internet increased from 21 to 29 hours per week, on average across OECD countries – an increase of more than one hour per day – with most of this increase concentrated on school days. The growth in Internet use was observed in every country and economy that distributed the ICT questionnaire in both the 2012 and 2015 cycles of PISA. Internet use grew the fastest in Chile, Costa Rica, Ireland and Italy, and slowest in Greece, Hong Kong (China), Macao (China) and Slovenia. In Costa Rica, students reported spending, on average, 36 hours per week on the Internet in 2015, compared to 19 hours just three years earlier.

There is no such thing as a digital divide in Internet use in most OECD countries. Even in 2012, socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students reported spending a similar amount of time connected to the Internet, on average across OECD countries, presumably because Internet access became virtually universal across most OECD countries in the preceding years. Interestingly, the gap may be reversing in favour of disadvantaged students, on average across OECD countries: in 2015 they reported spending about two hours more per week on line than advantaged students. But in Chile, Costa Rica, Latvia, Mexico, Russia and Uruguay, the traditional digital divide remains: advantaged students reported spending more time connected to the Internet than disadvantaged students – in Mexico, almost 20 hours more per week. And the digital divide persists when it comes to certain online enriching activities, such as reading news on the Internet.

However, this greater connectivity may not necessarily be good news for disadvantaged students. In every school system, students who reported using the Internet more frequently, particularly on school days, scored lower in science than students who reported using the Internet less frequently. These results are not necessarily a call for digital abstinence, but rather a call for moderation, as students who reported using the Internet moderately – up to 30 minutes on a typical weekday at school, between 1 and 4 hours on a typical weekday outside of school or between 2 and 4 hours on a typical weekend day – scored above students who never used the Internet or used it more intensively. Using the Internet intensively is also associated with less satisfaction with life, arriving late for school and lower education expectations, according to the OECD report PISA 2015 Results: Students’ Well-Being.

Students everywhere are spending more and more time connected to the Internet, both in and outside of school, and Internet use among disadvantaged students is increasing exponentially. While this may have been good news a few decades ago, today it may be a mixed blessing: evidence suggests that digitally connected students perform worse academically, particularly when they use the Internet intensively on school days; and extreme Internet users report lower levels of well-being. There are innovative, efficient and promising ways in which digital technologies are being used in education, but until they become the norm, logging off the Internet may not be a bad idea after all.

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