2020 has definitely become a year of online learning. Children of all ages, as well as many adults, have had to study remotely. This has allowed researchers to look at education accessibility problems from a new perspective and evaluate how the massive transition to online learning aligns with existing norms and attitudes toward limiting screen time. Nadezhda Knyaginina and Evgenii Puchkov, researchers from the Education Law Laboratory at the HSE Institute of Education talked about their lab’s research on this matter.
While access to education was previously understood as a place in school or the opportunity to enrol in a university, today it also includes having a computer and internet connection. The Education Law Laboratory at the HSEInstitute of Education carried out a survey in 2020 to learn how well school students are provided with devices and how parents limit their use. A total of 803 school students and 981 parents participated in the survey.
According to Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat), the share of households in Russia with a personal computer was 72.4% in 2018. A survey among children showed that on average, 75% of school students have personal computers or laptops. Meanwhile, this share is considerably higher – 85% – everywhere except villages and small towns; in villages, only 52% of kids have such equipment. The situation with tablets is similar. On average, 50% of kids have tablets, but in villages and small towns, the share is 31%.
State statistics do not reflect the number of smartphones per population. This share can be estimated from mobile device market studies. In 2018, a U.S. research agency, Pew Research Center, estimated that 59% of the Russian population have smartphones, 37% have ordinary mobile phones (not smartphones), and only 4% of the population have no mobile phones at all. According to Forward Leasing, by the end of 2019, the number of Russians with smartphones would reach 95.3 million people, which is about 63% of the country’s population.
The survey among children showed that the number of smartphones per capita is extremely high in this demographic: 98% of school students have them. The only grade where this share is considerably lower is the first (67%).
Parents’ responses to the survey about kids’ devices showed smaller numbers but still demonstrate similar dynamics. Only 6% of parents say that their kids have no personal devices. A vast majority of parents say that their kids have personal smartphones (91%). Computers (63%) and tablets (29%) have smaller shares.
The parents’ responses confirm unequal access to equipment among kids from small towns and villages: only 44% of parents report their kids having computers, as compared to 67% and higher in bigger towns. The situation is similar with tablets (14% vs. 27% and higher). Only the number of phones and smartphones is formally the same. Meanwhile, the survey did not cover smartphone models and parameters, which may also considerably impact the access equality assessment.
It turns out that the only device owned by nearly every child in Russia is a smartphone. But this is not a device that contemporary online education can take advantage of with its small screens, lack of an external keyboard, and small number of apps. The most popular educational apps for smartphones in Google Play and App Store are games for learning foreign languages, ready-made homework, and online student planners. These platforms offer almost no educational content in school curriculum subjects.
For other forms of online learning, access to computers or, at least, tablets remains inadequate. For example, the share of school students who use a computer reaches only 50% in the fourth grade, while it grows with age. Parents sometimes say that they can’t provide their kids with access to a computer, since not only are kids studying remotely, but parents are also working from home.
According to teachers, only 38% of students were able to complete homework assignments on various online platforms in March and April 2020, which is an indirect indicator of access to equipment and conditions for remote learning. Children also mention problems with access to high-speed internet. The total share of people who have internet access in Russia was about 81% in early 2020. In a joint study by the HSE Institute of Education and Yandex.Uchebnik, 25% of primary school students said that they have no internet access on their computers, and 20% had no internet access on their smartphones or tablets.
It is hardly possible to quickly provide all school students across the country with expensive equipment and guaranteed internet access. This places the burden on parents and schools to look for possible ways to organize the study process.
Children use devices throughout the day, and many types of leisure activities are related to devices. 51% of kids say that even in the morning, before school, they use social media, and 26% talk online.
35% of school students say that they use their phones between 2 and 5 hours a day; 33% say that they use it for more than 5 hours. They use computers and tablets less. For computers, 22% say they use it for less than one hour, and 23% indicated that use was 1 to 2 hours. 16% assess their computer use time as 2-5 hours, and only 7% as being over 5 hours. Time spent on tablet use was most often within one hour (22% of respondents).
However, these assessments are subjective and are based on feelings and perceptions of time. In order to obtain objective data, special apps could be used in research.
Not all parents limit the their kids’ screen time. A ‘no limits’ policy is used for 26% of students. The most popular parental strategy (chosen by 48%) is to allow the use of devices after homework is done. In this case, getting access to computers or devices can be an additional motivation for kids to do their homework. 18% of parents limit screen time (they set timeframes and use special software). 8% allow devices to be used for study purposes only. Parental approaches to controlling screen time change depending on a child’s age.
The most popular method – allowing use of devices after the homework is done – is used for students of all grades. This type of limitation peaks in the third grade, and after sixth grade its popularity consistently decreases to 37% in the tenth grade. In the 11th grade, there is a small ‘rebound’ to 35%, which is likely how parents react to the need to prepare for final exams and university admission.
Parents mostly limit screen time for kids in primary school (up to 32% in the second grade). Eventually, as children get older, they are more frequently allowed to use devices without any limitations. As a result, 40% of eighth-grade students do not have such limitations; this strategy becomes the most popular among parents of ninth grade students and is also the most popular in the tenth grade (57%). During the final year, the ‘no limits’ policy is less popular and is set by 48% of parents.
The limitations described by parents are reflected differently in children’s responses. Those responses largely confirm that as children get older, parents exercise much less control over their screen time. However, fewer children generally say that they face any limitations. 78% use their smartphones freely, and in the tenth grade, the share is 96%. 75% use computers without limitations, and 44% use a tablet. Generally, no more than 25% of children mention any limitations set by their parents.
When devices were only occasionally needed for study, limitations on their use (time boundaries and conditions) appeared quite natural. But today, the situation has changed. Devices have become an integral part of access to education, and limitations may be an obstacle to education. Meanwhile, if the use of devices is allowed and approved for study, it is quite natural to insist on no limitations for leisure time (homework is as ‘bad for the eyes’ as social media). The pattern of simple strict limitations does not work in this situation. This is confirmed by responses of parents, who mostly choose the mildest scenario of limitation (‘after homework’) or do not limit screen time at all.
These parental strategies contradict the new position of the regulator, Rospotrebnadzor, which approved the new ‘Public Health and Epidemiological Requirements at Educational and Recreational Organizations for Youth and Children’ in 2020, which aimed to replace the existing public health regulations starting January 1, 2021. Controlling screen time is becoming tougher and now includes not only studies at school, but also at home:
1. Smartphones, which are owned by almost every child, are not allowed to be used in the study process at all, both at school and at home (paragraph 3.5.3). The definition ‘mobile communication devices’ that is used in the text can also be understood as including tablets;
2. Using several devices at a time for studies is not allowed (par. 3.5.2);
3. Primary school children who use laptops must use an external keyboard (par. 3.5.4);
4. The use of headphones is limited – no more than one hour per day (par. 3.5.10). Their use is only allowed ‘if necessary’.
The public health standards also require that a child’s workplace and schedule are organized in compliance with the existing hygienic rules (par. 3.5.9 and 3.5.14, respectively).
These standards can hardly work during remote learning (it is impossible to check how many devices are used by a child, as well as whether they are using their smartphones). It would also be absurd to check whether parents organize their children’s routine in compliance with public health standards, and whether they keep track of their screen time. However, strict limitations distract attention from developing a culture of device use and from acquiring healthy habits related to their use. Furthermore, they hamper the development of remote learning technologies, such as smartphone apps and other resources; at the end of the day, these limitations decrease the accessibility of education.
Academic studies of the positive and negative consequences of kids’ device use generally emphasize that smartphones and other devices may become a good aid in reforming classes with effective practices and their inclusion in the study process. A 2016 study demonstrated that in reality, using devices at school, even for extracurricular purposes, do not decrease student performance. Meanwhile, the same studies mention almost ubiquitous bans on the use of smartphones at schools, which, according to the authors, slow down technology progress in education. However, VCIOM surveys demonstrate that in the case of on-site learning, parents support banning smartphone use in schools: 73% of respondents supported the idea.
In fact, children use devices far more than the time limits set by the public health standards, which are no more than 15 minutes of screen time during a lesson. Researchers believe that it is hardly realistic for schools and parents to strictly comply with the new standards, especially during remote learning.
The results of the survey revealed two new problems related to the new reality of remote learning and the use of devices by today’s school students.
The first problem is related to access to education and concerns the presence of computer equipment in children’s homes. In rural areas, almost half of children do not have computers or laptops. Even though 85% of children are provided with computers in cities, this equipment is not necessarily high-quality and modern or that it provides internet access and is available at all times. The use of smartphones, which are owned by almost every child, could likely be a solution to the problem and become the primary tool for online education.
The second problem is related to the remaining regulatory limitations on the use of devices during study. While parental strategies seem to rely on scenarios that are milder and align with today’s realities, the state continues to suggest new public health limitations on schools and even toughen them. This hampers the development of online education tools, including those based on smartphones. Teaching kids to use devices properly (digital hygiene and other healthy habits) might be an alternative to bans that are hardly enforceable.