High School Student Use of Computers: A Survey

Getting data from high school students on what computer devices they have, how often they use them, and for what purposes is uncommon.

In 2014-2015, a Northern California high school teacher, Sara Denniston (pseudonym), (see here and here) surveyed 211 of her history students about their daily use of computer devices, the devices they use, and whether they like to read online. For questions on the survey she constructed the choices that students picked. She gave me permission to use the results of her student survey. All numbers below are percentages.

How many digital devices do you have access to? (desktop, laptop,smart phone, tablet, iPod Touch)

one         two          three           four          five

6               33              36              16             8

Of those digital devices, 84 % of the students had smart phones.


Your attitude toward reading online?

 “I prefer reading online” “Reading online is OK but I prefer reading on paper”    “I hate reading online
               35            60                   5


How much time do you spend online each day ?

Less than an hour 1-2 hours 2-4 hours Five or more hours “too many”
4 30 40 10 15


How comfortable are you with finding info online and navigating websites?

Very competent/comfortable Somewhat comfortable Not comfortable at all
84                  15               1



What do these data tell me?

First, are the responses from 211 students representative of all high school students? This Northern California high school has nearly 1800 students with about half white and half minority (Asian and Latino). Nearly 20 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch–a measure of poverty used in U.S. public schools. Over 95 percent attend college after graduation. About one-third of the students take Advanced Placement exams with well over 80 percent of test-takers qualifying for college credit. So the students surveyed here represent high-performing students from middle- and upper-middle-class families determined to see their sons and daughters get a college degree. But what about students who attend academically low-performing schools in largely poor communities?

And that is my second point. Were this high school teacher’s survey given to students in schools that are de-facto segregated and poor what might be the results? A recent Pew Research Center survey of teenager use of devices, for example, found:

Nearly three-quarters of teens have or have access to a smartphone and 30% have a basic phone, while just 12% of teens 13 to 17 say they have no cell phone of any type. African-American teens are the most likely of any group of teens to have a smartphone, with 85% having access to one, compared with 71% of both white and Hispanic teens. These phones and other mobile devices have become a primary driver of teen internet use: Fully 91% of teens go online from mobile devices at least occasionally. Among these “mobile teens,” 94% go online daily or more often. By comparison, teens who don’t access the internet via mobile devices tend to go online less frequently. Some 68% go online at least daily. African-American and Hispanic youth report more frequent internet use than white teens. Among African-American teens, 34% report going online “almost constantly” as do 32% of Hispanic teens, while 19% of white teens go online that often.

Does the high use of hand-held devices among minority teens, then, mean that the digital divide outside of schools no longer exists? Maybe. Yet in most of these schools–but not those that have Bring-Your-Own-Devices (BYOD)–you see the common sign in hallways and classrooms:



In most urban, low-performing schools, administrators and teachers see hand-held devices as serious distractions to the central task of improving academic achievement. Thus, de-facto segregated, low-performing schools are unready for BYOD. Unready also for another reason.

That reason is my third point. Do students learn more, faster, and better with BYOD? Cost-efficient as BYOD may appear to be does not mean that it is cost-effective. Advocates of BYOD cannot say with any degree of confidence that students learn more by having 1:1 access to their devices in classrooms. What is of greater importance, of course, are those crucial factors that come into play in determining whether students have learned: the teacher’s expertise and experience, her pedagogy, the socioeconomic background of students, the culture of the school and other influences. With all of the pluses and minuses accompanying 1:1 laptops and tablets, researchers and practitioners still tiptoe around the unanswered question: How much and in what ways do these devices contribute to students’ academic achievement?

Learning about students’ ownership of devices, how often they go online, what they like and dislike about using mobiles and tablets through surveys is helpful information to teachers. But such helpful information does not touch the important issues of how best to integrate devices and software into daily lessons and whether such integrated use increases students’ academic achievement.



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12 responses to “High School Student Use of Computers: A Survey

  1. The article does bring up some major discussion points. Does a cell phone really constitute a school-work/classroom usable device? Debatable. It sounds like BYOD and 1:1 are used synonymously. They are definitely not. Still the survey is interesting. It would be more interesting if the questions about devices were more specific. I did basically the same survey in my school last year when trying to make a decision about a computer lab expansion or going BYOD. 80% of the kids had a laptop or tablet they could use at school. Only about 60% actually brought them. I did not survey phone use because I did not consider them a device that could be used for producing. Observation has shown that no student uses a cell phone for anything other than communication or distraction. As with the school in the article we are an upper level school, Catholic college prep with a higher than average income.

  2. So why are we spending billions of dollars worldwide on laptop, … phablet and BYOD programs in education if there is little demonstrable evidence of quality improvement in student learning? Is this technological push really all about marketing, enrolments and ‘toys rather than tools’ for learning? What qualitative improvements do digital devices make to the quality of student learning? They do appear to enhance student motivation and data access / retrieval … but do they enhance the quality of student learning experiences, learning processes and demonstrable outcomes?

  3. Sandy

    I don’t know how your final remarks will ever be answered. No one ever did any research on whether a pencil improved academic achievement. I rather doubt that parents would let you put their child in a classroom that had no access to pencils, while in another classroom, children use pencils at will. Until devices are ubiquitous, I imagine there is no way to measure. Devices won’t be ubiquitous for more reasons than I can name, but chiefly money. I believe there will a push-pull about technology integration for decades to come just as it has been in the past.

    I did a short-lived experiment one year with a geometry teacher. He wanted to see if using computers everyday would improve achievement. I assigned him to a computer lab two periods a day so that each student had a computer with Geometer’s Sketchpad, access to simulation programs online, and online videos. He had been using this software before, so he didn’t go in cold. He wanted to see if being in an immersive environment would be effective. Then he had 2 additional periods in a regular classroom of geometry who would not be using computers. He was enthused, and motivated.

    His enthusiasm was quelled when he saw that he got more accomplished in the regular classroom than in the computer lab. He was trying to be student-centered in the lab, but he was still using the same pedagogy as in the regular classroom. He wanted to change his practice in theory, but in application, he couldn’t. When he felt the pressure of time to cover all the content, be test ready at the end of the each quarter, he abandoned the computers and locked stepped all four classes together. So much for trying to create an experiment in comparing learning with and without technology.

    My take-away from this: teacher practice won’t change much if the curriculum is driven by high stakes testing. So I don’t know how there will be a reliable body of evidence that technology devices improve achievement.

    • larrycuban

      Again, thanks, for your comments, Sandy. Especially the one experience you described with that enthusiastic geometry teacher.

  4. David

    Hi Larry,

    I acutally have a lot on this topic, but I’ll try to boil down what I have to a few references.

    1. Naomi Baron’s new book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford, 2015), addresses many concerns regarding student preferences (they like print) and the effects of devices on their reading.

    2. Dan Willinghams article in the spring edition of the American Educator highlights the problem of the lowering threshold of boredome among students and its effects on reading. For the Love of Reading: http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/ae_spring2015.pdf

    3. Common Sense Media’s 2014 report, Children, Teens and Reading, highlights the issue that teens are reading less for pleasure than ever before, especially boys: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/children-teens-and-reading

    4. Finally, I asked similar questions as Sara of my own students, where I teach history at a private Catholic school. The number of screens (including smartphones) the students had access to ranged from 5 to “countless”, with the mean being over 10. The majority of my students indicated that there was always a device, especially a TV, on in their houses. More than half indicated using a device while also trying to read, usually a smartphone. 71% indicated a preference for print if given a choice.

    While it may be alarmist, I feel that we are creeping closer to the world of Fahrenheit 451…

    • larrycuban

      Hey, David, thanks for the suggested readings and your comments including what you found out about your students and their devices.

  5. To me the most salient fact here is that students prefer print.

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