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The local name for the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington is “the Badlands,” and with good reason. Pockmarked with empty lots and burned-out row houses, the area has an unemployment rate of 29 percent and a poverty rate of 90 percent. Just a few miles to the northwest, the genteel neighborhood of Chestnut Hill seems to belong to a different universe. Here, educated professionals shop the boutiques along Germantown Avenue and return home to gracious stone and brick houses, the average price of which hovers above $400,000.

Within these very different communities, however, are two places remarkably similar in the resources they provide: the local public libraries. Each has been retooled with banks of new computers, the latest software and speedy Internet access. Susan B. Neuman, a professor of early childhood and literacy education at New York University, and Donna C. Celano, an assistant professor of communication at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, spent hundreds of hours in the Chestnut Hill and Badlands libraries, watching how patrons used the books and computers on offer.

The two were especially interested in how the introduction of computers might “level the playing field” for the neighborhoods’ young people, children of “concentrated affluence” and “concentrated poverty.” They undertook their observations in a hopeful frame of mind: “Given the wizardry of these machines and their ability to support children’s self-teaching,” they wondered, “might we begin to see a closing of the opportunity gap?”

Many hours of observation and analysis later, Neuman and Celanano were forced to acknowledge a radically different outcome: “The very tool designed to level the playing field is, in fact, un-leveling it,” they wrote in a 2012 book based on their Philadelphia library study. With the spread of educational technology, they predicted, “the not-so-small disparities in skills for children of affluence and children of poverty are about to get even larger.”

Educational technology
Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Neuman and Celano are not the only researchers to reach this surprising and distressing conclusion. While technology has often been hailed as the great equalizer of educational opportunity, a growing body of evidence indicates that in many cases, tech is actually having the opposite effect: it is increasing the gap between rich and poor, between whites and minorities, and between the school-ready and the less-prepared.

This is not a story of the familiar “digital divide” — a lack of access to technology for poor and minority children. This has to do, rather, with a phenomenon Neuman and Celano observed again and again in the two libraries: granted access to technology, affluent kids and poor kids use tech differently. They select different programs and features, engage in different types of mental activity, and come away with different kinds of knowledge and experience.

The un-leveling impact of technology also has to do with a phenomenon known as the “Matthew Effect”: the tendency for early advantages to multiply over time. Sociologist Robert Merton coined the term in 1968, making reference to a line in the gospel of Matthew (“for whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath”).

“The very tool designed to level the playing field is, in fact, un-leveling it.” Susan B. Neuman and Donna C. Celano, researchers in children’s use of technology.

In a paper published in 1986, psychologists Keith E. Stanovich and Anne E. Cunningham applied the Matthew Effect to reading. They showed that children who get off to a strong early start with reading acquire more vocabulary words and more background knowledge, which in turn makes reading easier and more enjoyable, leading them to read still more: a virtuous cycle of achievement. Children who struggle early on with reading fail to acquire vocabulary and knowledge, find reading even more difficult as a result, and consequently do it less: a dispiriting downward spiral.

Now researchers are beginning to document a digital Matthew Effect, in which the already advantaged gain more from technology than do the less fortunate. As with books and reading, the most knowledgeable, most experienced, and most supported students are those best positioned to use computers to leap further ahead. For example: In Texas’s Technology Immersion Pilot, a $20 million project carried out there beginning in 2003, laptops were randomly assigned to public middle school students. The benefit of owning one of these computers, researchers later determined, was significantly greater for those students whose test scores were high to begin with.

This may stem in part from the influence of adults on children’s computer activities, as Susan Neuman and Donna Celano observed in the libraries they monitored. At the Chestnut Hill library, they found, young visitors to the computer area were almost always accompanied by a parent or grandparent. Adults positioned themselves close to the children and close to the screen, offering a stream of questions and suggestions. Kids were steered away from games and toward educational programs emphasizing letters, numbers and shapes. When the children became confused or frustrated, the grownups guided them to a solution.

The Badlands library boasted computers and software identical to Chestnut Hill’s, but here, children manipulated the computers on their own, while accompanying adults watched silently or remained in other areas of the library altogether. Lacking the “scaffolding” provided by the Chestnut Hill parents, the Badlands kids clicked around frenetically, rarely staying with one program for long. Older children figured out how to use the programs as games; younger children became discouraged and banged on the keyboard or wandered away.

These different patterns of use had quantifiable effects on the children’s learning, Neuman and Celano showed. Chestnut Hill preschoolers encountered twice as many written words on computer screens as did Badlands children; the more affluent toddlers received 17 times as much adult attention while using the library’s computers as did their less privileged counterparts. The researchers documented differences among older kids as well: Chestnut Hill “tweens,” or 10- to 13-year-olds, spent five times as long reading informational text on computers as did Badlands tweens, who tended to gravitate toward online games and entertainment. When Badlands tweens did seek out information on the web, it was related to their homework only 9 percent of the time, while 39 percent of the Chestnut Hill tweens’ information searches were homework-related.

Research is finding other differences in how economically disadvantaged children use technology. Some evidence suggests, for example, that schools in low-income neighborhoods are more apt to employ computers for drill and practice sessions than for creative or innovative projects. Poor children also bring less knowledge to their encounters with computers. Crucially, the comparatively rich background knowledge possessed by high-income students is not only about technology itself, but about everything in the wide world beyond one’s neighborhood. Not only are affluent kids more likely to know how to Google; they’re more likely to know what to Google for.

Slogans like “one laptop per child” and “one-to-one computing” evoke an appealingly egalitarian vision: If every child has a computer, every child is starting off on equal footing. But though the sameness of the hardware may feel satisfyingly fair, it is superficial. A computer in the hands of a disadvantaged child is in an important sense not the same thing as a computer in the hands of a child of privilege.

The focus of educators, politicians, and philanthropists on differences in access to technology has obscured another problem: what some call “the second digital divide,” or differences in the use of technology. Access to adequate equipment and reliable high-speed connections remains a concern, of course. But improving the way that technology is employed in learning is an even bigger and more important issue. Addressing it would require a focus on people: training teachers, librarians, parents and children themselves to use computers effectively. It would require a focus on practices: what one researcher has called the dynamic “social envelope” that surrounds the hunks of plastic and silicon on our desks. And it would require a focus on knowledge: background knowledge that is both broad and deep. (The Common Core Standards, which do not so much as mention technology, may be education’s most significant contribution to true computer literacy.)

It would take all this to begin to “level the playing field” for America’s students—far more than a bank of computers in a library, or even one laptop per child.

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6 Letters

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  1. “Computer equipment” doesn’t constitute “technology” and the reliable accomplishment of specified instructional intent isn’t realized by focusing on “people.” “Parents and grandparents” fill in the “how to” gap that the “poor kids” don’t have. These gaps could be filled by sequenced and structured instruction which could be presented by the “computer equipment.” But such instruction would require systematic R&D, which the libraries, schools, computer industry, publishing industry, or anyone else is doing.

    It’s an R&D gap, not a wealth-poverty gap. Given the gap, we see the Matthew Effect–over and over and over, and are surprised that “the playing field isn’t leveled. It’s not in the kids or the parents, or in the computer equipment. It’s in the instruction.

  2. Annie, I had high hopes for this report, all the way to your penultimate, carelessly sidelined sentence. Where did this bitterly ironic untruth come from, I truly wonder?

    ” (The Common Core Standards, which do not so much as mention technology, may be education’s most significant contribution to true computer literacy.)” The Common Core initiative imposes its version of technology for actual “accountability” applications. This is technology that can destroy poor children’s educational opportunities, and can deprive their community of democratic governance of its own schools by force of law! Pretending otherwise is transparent nonsense.

    I teach chemistry in a Title I public high school, where iPads were issued to all students for the past two years, probably with the purpose of transitioning to the online PARCC tests, which we piloted this spring. The iPads dispense demanding idiocy, in the form of wearisome aps like Schoology and Note Anytime. The kids have indeed learned to play games and tweet adolescent dramas on them, instead of practicing their Common Core skills of answering disembodied essay prompts for computer scoring.

    Their content courses have been hijacked into CCSS training activities, which are stunningly devoid of actual content. teaching them to answer writing

    The effect on my students was devastating, and heartbreaking.

  3. The level playing field we are all looking for comes not from being give the toolkit but from being able to see how the toolkit can be used to change our learning environment. Recognition of this simple fact will bring about the recognition of the value of these tools.

    I have written a great deal about an ability I call “Learning Intelligence” (LQ) and although it is a construct it is real. Putting it simply LQ is the ability of the learner to manage their learning environment to meet their learning needs. Let me give you a rather practical example in old technology terms – the hammer and the saw.

    Two almost deserted islands set apart by a few miles but without contact, a sort of Darwin situation. On one island there are those who know and recognise the technology of the day when they see it and on the others they may recognise it but do not understand it. On both island the few inhabitants go about their daily life trying to survive.

    One day an identical box washes up on each island and in it are the tools that represent the technology of the day, a hammer, nails, and a hand saw.

    On the first island the elders open the box and recognise the technology and quickly go about showing the young what they are used for and how they are used. Within a very short time the tools have enabled the island to build fences for animals and shelter for their people. The tools are highly valued and cared for. They have learnt to use what is available to manage their environment.

    On the second island the elders open the box but disregard the tools. They do not see how they can help them in herding the animals or provide the houses they need. It is not what they are looking for. The young discover the tools but are not shown what they are for or how they are used. However being inquisitive they explore the new technology. The first hits his thumb with the hammer and throws it away. No one else picks it up. The second picks up the saw and cuts herself before also throwing it away. Both tools are left to rust and become of little use to the inhabitants of the island. They do not have fences to keep the animals together and safe and their houses are still little more than lean-to shelters. They have not learnt to use what is available to manage their environment.

    I hope through this simple story we can see same truths with today’s technology. It is not providing the tools that makes the difference it is developing, through guidance and encouragement, the skills, attributes, attitudes and behaviours (in short LQ) that make the difference and levels the playing field

  4. These are important and salient issues. I do think personalized learning will create a wider spread of rates of learning; edtech is probably tending to multiply the already potent effects of affluence, including parental support and greater access to educational devices and apps at home.

    Hopefully the edtech community will focus on these disparities and make ongoing efforts to ameliorate them. There are certainly accounts of kids who were really struggling with academics who have seen marked improvement in both learning and motivation when given access to high quality educational apps in school.

    Perhaps edtech experiences emerging in the classroom (as contrasted to the computers at the Kensington library mentioned in the article) are being more carefully stewarded to better engage kids of all backgrounds.

  5. I support volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs because of some of the information in this article. Without adult mentors to guild youth into internet use, and models this with their own enthusiasm and the ways they use technology to learn, work, build networks, etc. it is unlikely that youth will find this path on their own. Volunteer based tutoring and/or mentoring programs operating in community centers, business sites, community based organizations, etc. and in the non school hours, have the potential to attract volunteers who use technology every day in their jobs, and who can model uses more than educators who have limited experiences in using this technology for anything other than teaching. Such programs already operate in many places, but in not enough places. Few are supported consistently, which is essential for mentoring to have an impact on young people. Even libraries could form programs where community volunteers mentor youth in uses of the technology. I suspect this is already happening, and a project for youth using computers might be to build a list of links to sites in a city where mentors, technology and youth are connecting.

  6. Hello Annie,

    I could not agree with you more on the importance of access, both social and technological, from an early age. I understand the emerging new digital divide based on socioeconomic status and its affordances to knowledge as opposed to hardware. Would it be possible to provide your references or sources for this article?



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