February 2001

From Economic & Social Research Council

Computers used differently at home than at school, says new report

Teachers need to recognise that children are using computers in a variety of different ways, says ESRC-funded research.

New research has found that children are learning to use their home computers in a totally different way from the way they use them at school, which raises questions about current educational thinking on ICT teaching at school, as well as future policies aimed at linking homes and schools through new technology.

Researchers from the Graduate School of Education at Bristol University studied young people to find out who has access to screen-based technologies at home and in school, how they learned to use them, and how it affected their lives. They questioned 855 pupils aged between nine and 14 and studied computer use within the homes of 18 families. This included making video recordings of computer use.

The researchers found that, contrary to popular belief, there are groups of young people who are completely disinterested in using a computer. They also found that computer ownership is determined by socio-economic status, with 80 per cent of children in upper income brackets having a computer at home compared with only 54 per cent of children in lower income brackets. The age and quality of the home computers is also affected by the family’s socio-economic status. There is evidence of an emerging digital divide between children with computers at home and those without. “We found 96 per cent of children with computers at home also use a computer outside school compared with only 54 per cent of children without a computer at home,” says Professor Rosamund Sutherland co-author of the report.

The researchers also found:

  • Many young people feel very positive about using computers at home whereas they were disillusioned with school ICT
  • Young people’s use of computers at home does not tend to include educational software although they do choose to write, design and play games for pleasure
  • Young people learned ‘in depth’ about their particular interests
  • Young people learned by asking for help from family, friends and by reading computer manuals, and gained skills and knowledge that overlapped with the school curriculum

Researchers found most of the young people were very negative about their use of computers at school because of the:

  • Prescriptive way in which they were told to use them
  • Lack of time for playful discovery in a school lesson
  • Relative slowness of school equipment compared to what they had at home
  • Limited access to computers

The research shows that many families now view the purchase of a home computer as a major financial investment in their children’s futures, preparing them for the world of work and supporting their educational needs.

“Families are adopting elaborate rules in order to ensure some equality of access to the home computer. These included taking turns and giving priority to homework. When there were boys and girls in the family, parental rules were extremely important for ensuring that girls had equal access. However, children - especially boys - managed to subvert these rules,” says Professor Sutherland. “Families are adjusting to allow children to make the most of the technology. Schools should use the findings of this research to rethink the way they use their computers in the classroom,” she adds.

For more information, please contact Professor John Furlong in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Cardiff. Tel: 029 2087 4459 Or, Professor Rosamund Sutherland in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol. Tel: 0117 928 7105 Or, Lilian Eldoufani, Lesley Lilley or Karen Emerton in ESRC External Relations. Tel: 01793 413032, 413119, 413122


1. The three institutions involved in this project were Cardiff School of Social Sciences, Bristol Graduate School of Education, and the School of Art Media and Design at University of Wales College Newport. The project’s three directors were Professor John Furlong, Professor Rosamund Sutherland and Mrs Ruth Furlong.

2. The ESRC is the UK’s largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and government. The ESRC invests around £46 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences, thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is http://www.esrc.ac.uk

This article comes from Science Blog. Copyright © 2004

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