Going Paperless but Not Effortless

A young student sits with a laptop and book

“Alexa, what’s 5 minus 3?” A 6-year-old boy discreetly asked Amazon’s voice-activated assistant for the answer to his homework; he got a perfect answer right back, while his mother was busy doing household chores. This short video was posted on Twitter and received more than 8.5 million views.

National Public Radio introduced this case to raise awareness among parents and educators of the challenges posed by the pervasiveness of digital technology and artificial intelligence in everyday life. As technology is increasingly common in households, one pressing question for educators and parents alike is how technology-assisted homework can foster students’ problem-solving skills rather than crippling indolence. 

Going Paperless

Technology makes our life easy — bills can be paperless; homework can be completed via the internet. Online homework is a major component of e-learning through network technologies. Previous research shows that most U.S. students in sixth grade and above have experience using computers and the internet to complete such “paperless” homework. As students advance in higher grades and education levels, the percentage of digital homework increases correspondingly.

There is no clear-cut definition of what digital homework is. It can be any assignment that students need to complete with the assistance of a computer, the internet, or other information and communication technologies (ICT). Although it would seem the opposite to the traditional homework that students complete with pen, pencil, and paper, it should be noted that, in a broad sense, digital homework includes homework that students write on paper but also requires using computer and/or internet assistance for its completion.

Data show that digital homework is growing in popularity in the 21st century. In 2009, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported that about 65 percent of U.S. students used the internet at home to complete their homework, and approximately 70 percent of teachers assigned homework that required access to broadband. Surveys conducted by the nonprofit educational organization Speak Up in 2017 showed that nearly half of the students in grades six to 12 reported getting internet-based homework assignments daily or almost daily. About 90 percent of high-schoolers reported that they had to do internet-based homework at least a few times a month.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The transition from traditional homework to digital assignments offers both advantages and disadvantages. A 2014 study by researchers Marco Gui, Marina Micheli, and Brunella Fiore shows that students who used the internet moderately for homework performed higher academically than students who used the internet too often or infrequently for homework. Many factors can affect the learning outcomes that students are expected to achieve through digital homework, but critical thinking is always the key to success in using technology
for learning.

Digital homework benefits students when educators and parents effectively guide students to maximize the use of ICT for learning. For instance, digital homework can increase students’ interest in doing homework, boost their efficiency in submitting assignments as well as teachers’ efficiency in providing feedback (if submitted online), and inspire students to learn more and more deeply by providing immediate feedback (if graded automatically).

Digital homework fosters and hones the skill of using ICT to solve problems, which is important for students’ postsecondary life. Research shows that people who can solve problems using ICT have higher chances of being employed, and even earn more than people without ICT experience. Meaningful digital homework encourages students to think through what they are learning and enriches their experience using ICT.

Parents and educators have legitimate concerns about digital homework. For elementary school students, the concern is that the use of hi-tech mechanization may hinder their cognitive development, such as memorization and sensory motor skills. For high school students, the worry is that students may largely depend on technology for their assignments rather than use their brains for the thought process.

Digital Divide

Educators also consider the digital divide a matter of big concern. In a 2016 nationwide survey (Speak Up, 2016),
49 percent of principals said that ensuring students’ access to technology outside the school was a major challenge, and 44 percent of teachers worried that they could not effectively integrate technology in the classroom because their students may not have access to consistent and safe internet outside the school. It should be noted that among the surveyed students:

  • 48 percent went to school early or stayed late so they could use their school’s internet
  • 32 percent would access the internet at fast food restaurants or cafes to do their homework
  • 30 percent used their public library internet.

What Works

Digital homework should be effective in supporting students to master what they have learned and strengthening their problem-solving skills. The data of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP 2017) show that students who frequently used computers and the internet for math homework performed at much lower rates than students who never or rarely used digital devices for math assignments (see chart). By contrast, students who received
45 minutes to an hour of math homework every day, regardless of whether digital or traditional, performed the best. The data suggest that persistent practice matters the most for math performance.

Age, grade and subject appropriateness are always the key to the use of technology in education. In sum, digital homework may go paperless, but should never be effortless.

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