A new digital divide?

According to European Union data, around 20% of jobs in Europe are either in the information and communication technology sector or require skills in that field. How prepared are today’s students for living and working in a digital world? The OECD’s New Millennium Learners project explores what drives students to use computers, and how computer use affects education performance. Its study, Are the New Millennium Learners Making the Grade? Technology Use and Educational Performance in PISA, shows that there is not a simple correlation between using computers and doing well in school. Rather, there is evidence of a second “digital divide” emerging–not between students who do and don’t have computers, but between those students who have the skills to benefit from computer use and those who don’t.

The study finds that students’ performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) surveys improves with the length of time students have used a computer. Although the data do not prove a causal connection between familiarity with computers and performance, they show that better-performing students are more familiar with computers. Interestingly, however, frequency of computer use at home makes more of a difference in performance on the PISA tests than frequency of computer use at school. Internet chatting, searching the web for information, even playing online games builds confidence in using computers, but more skills are needed to take full advantage of a technology-rich world.

Are the New Millennium Learners Making the Grade? makes the point that computer use amplifies a student’s academic skills and competencies, all of which are closely related to the student’s economic, social and cultural background. And therein lie the origins of the second digital divide. Policymakers must emphasise the role of schools in bridging this divide. The in-school student-to-computer ratio in the OECD area, now an average of 5 to 1, must be improved, and teachers must be trained to provide guidance in how to use information and communication technologies critically and responsibly. No student should leave compulsory education before mastering at least some of these skills.

ISBN 978-92-64-01773-3

©OECD Observer No 279 May 2010

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