Computers and the Internet in School: Closing the Knowledge Gap
Daniel Suess

Introduction Between 1995 and 2000 Daniel Suess, senior lecturer and researcher at the University of Applied Sciences in Zurich, investigated the state of new media literacy in schools throughout Europe. He uncovered wide variants in frequency and nature of use. In this feature he argu0es that with the exception of extremely wired societies such as Finland, only a small part of all the possible uses of computers are being exploited. This does have serious implications: children who have little access to computers at home or in school are likely to believe that computers and new media are not of any importance. Suess argues that such beliefs are only more likely to widen the knowledge gap, both within countries and between countries in Europe.

The integration of new electronic media in schools has the potential to compensate for uneven access in the home. It is known that children from families with low socio-economic status, and girls in general, access computers and the Internet less than children from middle class families, and boys. Being familiar and competent in the use of new media is extremely important in an information society. To what extent do schools around Europe already fulfill their task of providing media literacy? We asked around 11,000 children and young people in 11 European countries and Israel about their computer and Internet use in school. In addition, we conducted in-depth interviews with pupils and teachers.

Different concepts of integration

We found that there are three different models of how to integrate computers in school. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, computers are introduced in the first grade of primary school. In other countries, for example Belgium and Switzerland, computers are introduced in secondary school classes only, but achieve a high percentage of use. In the third group, computers are introduced late and just for a small variety of uses, such as writing texts or using databases. This is the case in Italy and Spain. These three models mirror different views of the abilities of children and the didactical uses of new electronic media.

On average, about 60 percent of young people report using computers in school. The range stretches from less than 40 percent in countries like Germany and Spain to more than 80 percent in countries such as Denmark and Sweden. The overall use of computers in Europe is not frequent, averaging at only "once a week." This is true for every age group. Furthermore, the use of the Internet is low in all of the countries (13 percent of pupils used the Internet), with the exception of the Nordic countries, such as Finland, where 42 percent of pupils use the Internet. In those countries with a high percentage of Internet use, it is striking that computers with Internet connections are not only accessible in classrooms but also frequently available in public places, such as libraries, that are open to pupils outside of school hours.

What kind of computer lessons?

It quickly became obvious to us that only a small part of the possible uses of computers in schools are already common. In most countries, computers are simply used as typewriters and as games machines. Writing text on the computer is integrated into many school subjects, whereas playing computer games is mostly used as a pastime or reward. Playing computer games in school is actually quite common in some countries such as Israel where 62 percent of pupils do so. However, it is seldom accepted in other countries. For example, only 16 percent of pupils play computer games in school in Switzerland. This indicates a significant difference in the attitude towards computers. Are they perceived just as a working tool or as a tool for having fun and relaxing as well?

How do the pupils respond?

Unsurprisingly, children who have computer access at home and at school have the most positive attitudes toward computers and feel most comfortable using them. Children who use computers in school are more likely to want even more computer lessons. On the other hand, children who have no access to computers at home or at school are less enthusiastic and tend to feel that it isn't important to be able to use computers. Thus the underprivileged are under the illusion that computer literacy is not of importance for them. This is one indicator of an increasing knowledge gap.

Some students are very critical of computer courses in school. They complain that teachers are not sufficiently skilled and are thus unable to teach them new things, or that the technological equipment in schools is out-of-date. This is most often true for middle-class children who tend to own the latest technology at home. Working-class children are more likely to be satisfied with the standard of technology and teaching.

Conclusion

Our study shows that European countries integrate new electronic media in schools in quite different ways. Provision in school can compensate for gaps in knowledge and competencies, but this is not in general adequately addressed. Some countries, like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, are ahead of the game. However other countries have made less progress. It is not sufficient to buy computers and to connect schools to the Internet, if one wants to introduce new electronic media into schools. Further education of teachers is needed, as is a better knowledge of children's media use at home. The integration of new media in schools is a challenge for the educational system in Europe, and our findings indicate that schools in some countries still need more support to face this problem successfully.


This feature has been adapted from chapter 10 in the book Children and their changing media environment, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.