In a suburb outside New York City, a 12-year-old boy sits down to do his homework. The computer he works on is his own, one of several in the home, and it sits on a desk in his bedroom. Before beginning his math assignment—a business simulation in which he uses the Web to track the performance of a stock over the course of a year—he logs on to AOL’s Instant Messenger (IM) to see which friends are online. After perusing some financial Web pages to check up on his stock’s performance, he records the information in a Microsoft Excel chart. Then he goes back online to check out some Web sites promoting his favorite bands and discovers a song clip he likes from a newly released CD. He IMs friends to learn if anyone has bought the CD yet, and enjoys a lengthy exchange on the merits of the band’s new sound. He also learns that a friend has already downloaded some songs from the Web and asks him to burn a CD for him too. Before heading downstairs for dinner, the boy spends some time playing a new computer game, and jots an e-mail note to his uncle, a software developer, with a question about where to find a good price on a CD burner.
In a working-class neighborhood in New York City, another 12-year-old boy sits down to the computer to finish his homework. His computer, granted to his family as part of their participation in an innovative school technology program, is the only one in his household, and it sits on a corner of the kitchen table. After spending the afternoon at an after-school program, the boy begins putting the final touches on a research report that is due the next day, while his mother prepares dinner. He tries to download some images from an online encyclopedia to enliven his report, but encounters some trouble. He e-mails his computer science teacher with a question about downloading images from the Web, but doesn’t expect to hear from him until the next day, too late to include the pictures in his report. His mother asks him to get offline for a few minutes so she can make a phone call. Then his younger brother uses the computer to type a homework assignment. After dinner, both boys help their mother design a flyer for an upcoming church event. Then they all write a note to their uncle in Mexico City, who recently got an e-mail account. The boys stay up for another hour playing computer games together before their mother insists they turn off the computer and get ready for bed.
These composite sketches, drawn from lives of real middle school students, suggest some of the ways in which the home environments of young people can profoundly influence how they come to use and understand technology. The family’s finances and expenses, where a computer is placed in the home, how many family members are competing for time on it, how much leisure young people have to explore the computer, and what sort of technical expertise they can rely on from parents and others close to home are just some of the factors that shape the experiences young people have with computers.
Working from the assumption that digital literacy, like print literacy, reflects the cultural norms of the homes and communities where it takes hold, researchers at EDC’s Center for Children and Technology (CCT) designed a study to take a close look at the home-computing practices of 9 low-income and 10 middle-income middle school children. They hoped to learn more about what types of technology practices were emerging in these communities, and what significance these distinctions might have for technology programs in schools, after-school programs, and community technology centers.
Their report, Children’s Emerging Digital Literacies: Investigating Home Computing in Low- and Middle-Income Families, results from this one-year comparative study. The researchers decided to use a small sample size because they felt it would give them an opportunity to explore the young people’s relationships to their computers in some depth. As a result, “the report is less definitive than generative,” says study co-author Bill Tally. “It doesn’t answer all the questions, but it does generate deeper thinking and better categories for understanding how kids are relating to their computers.”
The children selected to participate in the study represented a range of educational achievement and ethnic diversity. All were in the seventh or eighth grade and had at least one Internet-connected computer in their home. The low-income children each attended one of Computer for Youth’s (CFY) partner schools, in which all students and teachers had received a CFY home computer, training, ongoing technical support, e-mail accounts, and tailored Web content. The middle-income children each attended one of two schools and had acquired their home computers on their own.
Researchers visited each family two or three times during the course of their investigation and drew data from interviews with the young people and their parents and observations of the students at work. For instance, on one visit, researchers sat with the young people and asked them to draw pie charts indicating how much time they spent doing different activities on their computers at home in order to learn the relative importance of each activity. On another visit, researchers asked the young people to take them on a tour of their computer. “We said, ‘Imagine we are visiting your neighborhood and you are asked to show us around—where do you hang out, what are the important places … ? Now imagine the computer is your neighborhood; what would you show us?’” explains Tally. “We wanted to get a sense of how they related to the computer—were they developing personal strategies for using the technology—really making it their own—or were they relying solely on received operating strategies?”
Researchers observed a wide variety of differences and similarities across the whole set of young people, but they also saw some broad distinctions emerge between the two communities. “Some parents in both groups were really modeling rich and varied uses for the computer, while other parents in both groups didn’t know what to do with it,” says study co-author Harouna Ba. “We observed that parents in both affluent and low-income communities want kids to learn computing—but the parents in the underserved communities need support in doing this.” For instance, maintaining stable Internet access was a constant challenge for many of the low-income families in the study because a credit card is required for Internet access. “Well, everybody these days has a credit card, right? No. In fact, many low-income families don’t have credit cards,” says Ba. “In the middle-income homes, there were also more computers and bigger houses with more rooms, so kids tended to have more privacy around their computer use,” explains Tally. “They also had more robust technology resources—better Internet access and parents who liked to update the equipment with digital cameras, new software programs, IM, Napster, burning CDs to share with friends.”
In those middle-income families with very involved parents focused on high academic achievement, researchers also observed a lot of talk between parents and children about the computer and its uses. “There were conversations about how the computer worked, about a new software package, about how you can’t always trust what you read on the Web, that sort of thing,” says Tally. “It was interesting to see to what extent the kids had developed a vocabulary of their own to talk about computers. At some point it does become important to have a language for talking about your operating strategies and for making distinctions. We saw a real range in this, largely determined by whether or not the kid had a social environment to support this kind of talk.”
In the low-income communities, researchers found that there was a heavier emphasis on schoolwork. Families had many fewer computing resources—limited Web access, no IM, no capacity to download music or burn CDs. Also, parents generally lacked the professional or educational backgrounds that would have prepared them for the same level of critical talk about the computer and its uses that their middle-income counterparts had. “In middle class homes, the workplace really provides a lot of invisible supports for family home computer use and technical literacy,” says Tally. He cites one example of a single mother in the middle-income group who took the family computer into the law office where she worked to have the computer department fix it for her, free of charge.
By contrast, the children in the low-income group relied almost completely on their school and CFY for technical support. In addition, many of the low-income children were more knowledgeable about technology than any other member of the family. Interestingly, this knowledge gave them more opportunities than their middle-income peers to interact with family members, helping parents troubleshoot the computer, for example, or helping siblings with homework assignments. “Programs that serve low-income communities need to be aware of these kinds of differences,” noted the study. “As novice computer users, they are not able to rely on siblings, parents, neighbors, or workplaces for support, so programs like community technology centers and after-school technology programs are crucial in providing this kind of support, at least until they build up some technical capacity themselves.”
The number and placement of computers was also different in the low-income families. Because the school computer was the only computer in the home, it tended to be kept in the kitchen or in the living room, and all of the family members would have to take turns. Some families worked out a schedule for computer use, while others negotiated a more ad hoc arrangement. As a result of this more communal style of use, researchers observed more instances of the family working together on the computer, often pursuing activities that reflected a shared interest. In one case, the children were helping the parents produce a flyer for a church event. In another, the family found and printed songs from their native country. Another family used the Internet to locate Spanish-language news.
The role that the schools played in fostering robust computer and critical-thinking skills also emerged as a major issue in the study. “We learned that expectations are different,” says Ba. “For the low-income kids, the main goal was using the computers at home. But the middle-income kids were already doing media literacy—they had classes that were giving them sophisticated assignments to do on the computer.” Tally agrees about the importance of school assignments in fostering digital literacy: “When it comes to technology, there is an interaction that goes on between schools and families—this interaction can be at cross purposes, without coordination, or in concert. In the middle-income homes, they were basically pushing in the same direction. Library and media people were teaching how to do searches and how to cite and evaluate material. Parents were also talking about some of these issues at home. But in the low-income community, the schools were pushing more toward getting the homework done, with less attention to the evaluation piece.”
Both Ba and Tally caution that middle-income students’ fluency in commercial applications like IM and Napster might give them an advantage over their low-income peers who didn’t have the same kind of access. But both are quick to note that those masteries don’t necessarily translate into depth of knowledge or critical-thinking skills. “Knowing how to find a favorite band’s Web site, or download music from Napster and burn it onto a disk, or negotiate a seven-way conversation on IM are different from knowing how to locate and evaluate a range of resources for a paper on the Civil War, or online medical information about an illness in the family, or [how to] express yourself creatively in a new medium,” says Tally. “We all say this is a young person’s medium and we’re impressed with kids’ skills in using it, but all uses don’t necessarily lead to critical-thinking skills. If you ask most kids [regardless of economic background] to make sense of what they are reading or seeing, or if you ask them to pursue a topic in depth with careful reading comprehension, evaluation, and use of sources, you will find much less facility. But kids who are taught to read critically can and do make a lot of use of written material online. Some schools and some parents know how to encourage this sort of critical thinking; others simply don’t.”
The School Study
For Tally and Ba, the obvious next step in their research is to learn more about what school- and community-based programs can do to support the kind of critical literacy that transcends media and prepares both middle- and low-income children for advanced study, high-wage employment, and engaged citizenry. In their follow-up study, The Ecology of Children’s Computing, they are working with seventh graders in two urban schools. One school has adopted a project-based program where technology is integrated into the curriculum, while the other has adopted a more traditional approach in which technology is an adjunct to the regular curriculum, a tool for information delivery. In the course of their two-year investigation, they hope to learn how these different approaches to educational technology affect student relationships to computers both inside and outside of school. In the process, they hope to develop a more refined sense of what school and after-school environments can contribute to deepening young people’s technical literacy.
Originally published on August 31, 2003