Monday, April 19, 1999 Published at 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
Online education 'increases inequality'
Computers in schools can be "engines of inequality", say researchers
Computers in education can deepen the divide between rich and poor, claim researchers in the United States.
The use of online technologies in schools and colleges has expanded rapidly in the past decade, but it can put children from deprived backgrounds at a greater disadvantage, report researchers from The College Board, the non-profit group that oversees national school tests.
The Virtual University and Educational Opportunity, a research paper written by Lawrence Gladieux and Watson Scott Swail, concludes that new technology can create a "digital divide" between "white and minorities, the wealthy and less advantaged".
Poorer children are less likely to have access to computers at home and when offered the chance to use online resources at school are less able to make use of them than pupils who have the experience of using the Internet at home.
"Advantage magnifies advantage," say the researchers. "Those who use computers on a regular basis are more apt to use them routinely in problem solving and critical thinking."
"While education is the great equaliser, technology appears to be a new engine of inequality."
The researchers have called upon the government to intervene to ensure that access to new technologies is more fairly distributed, arguing that unrestricted market forces will lead to the wealthy taking the greatest advantage from the educational potential of computers in education.
According to the researchers, access to the Internet at home follows a pattern similar to access to higher education - with wealthy, white families benefiting most from both.
There is also an over-emphasis on high-profit, fast turnover of new products within the information technology market, say the researchers. Instead they call for a greater development of products available to low-income families.
Without intervention, the research warns that social division within education will continue to grow.
"Those with limited computer experience will be handicapped in their ability to access knowledge and avail themselves of the ever-increasing variety of learning experiences."