Balancing the haves with the have-nots

Two long-term national studies funded by the Department for Education and Skills (DFES) and managed by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), Impact2 and Pathfinders, as well as the DFES's own report, Young People and ICT, have gathered data on ownership of computers and access to online services outside school (see reports at www.becta.orgresearch). They paint a similar picture; home ownership of computers is high and rising - over 60 per cent for key stage 2 pupils, nearly 90 per cent for key stage 4 pupils. About two-thirds of both groups have internet access.

However, not all schools monitor home ownership or take much account of it in curriculum planning. So why are all the researchers so keen on it? The ScreenPlay project, led by Rosamund Sutherland at Bristol, was one of the first to show that children of all ages also take their computer use seriously. Children and parents believe computer use is important for success at school and home use is not all gaming and word processing. They use the internet as a resource to help with homework; BBC and Channel 4 revision sites are popular. Nearly 7 out of 10 key stage 4 pupils have created web pages. Perhaps most importantly, pupils spend three to five times as long using computers out of school as they do in it.

For schools this can be a blessing and a curse. The Home-School Links report (again, see www.becta.org.uk) shows how some schools are already making use of email and websites to communicate more effectively with parents and pupils at home. The full-blown model, with a web-based "learning environment" on which students continue working at home as they would in school, is far from mainstream. But even without that sophistication children can be encouraged to use home technology for learning. Indeed, the relatively short time an individual gets to use a computer in school makes this essential for things like ICT projects. But this raises the question of equity, where some pupils do not have home access.

Even three years ago levels of home access were lower and schools could not hope to make up the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Now the situation has changed and in many schools, especially by key stage 4, the small numbers with no home access can be helped with extra time on computers at school outside class time. In some cases, it may even be possible to arrange the loan of a laptop for short periods.

The high levels of home access to ICT can have other, less positive consequences. Pupils who are used to using a computer as and when appropriate, with reliable online services, may be scathing of the school's facilities. Even more worrying than the possible de-motivation, are the consequences for school performance. Convincing research from the US indicates ICT-literate students tend to under-perform in tests. The reasons for this are unclear; the tests involve writing and it could be the difference between writing electronically and on paper with a pen that causes the problem. Regardless, it should sound an alarm for the school system. An awareness of the tensions that arise for pupils because of access to ICT at home and school might help pupils and teachers alike.

Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol

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