The use of digital technologies for learning is high on the policy agenda and is believed to benefit disadvantaged groups of students especially. This study assesses the extent to which the association between learning outcomes and the use of digital technologies differs systematically between students with different socio-economic statuses.
We start by summarizing the existing evidence on the causal effects of digital technologies on learning outcomes. We highlight the relative lack of evidence on the pedagogical use of digital technologies on disadvantaged students when compared to the general student population. The overall consensus emerging from the literature is that the causal effect of digital technologies is mixed. While it is unclear whether disadvantaged students are differently affected by them, the available evidence does not suggest that digital technologies contribute to further disparities in students' learning outcomes.
Using data from PISA 2015, we document that students from low socio-economic backgrounds start using digital devices later in life, have slightly less access to ICT at home and tend to use ICT less intensively especially in out-of-school activities than their counterparts. In the multivariate analysis, we find a positive association between disadvantaged students' achievement and the use of ICT for some purposes, but only among those students who use ICT less intensively. However, we find no evidence that this association is systematically different from that of students from higher socio-economic backgrounds. The exception is the use of ICT outside of school for general purposes by low-intensity users: in this case, disadvantaged students would particularly benefit from using ICT more intensively. Furthermore, we also find that - among low-intensity users of ICT - the probability of being a resilient student is positively correlated with the use of ICT at school for educational purposes and at home for schoolwork and general purposes.
More generally, our research suggests that low-intensity users of ICT are likely to be using ICT sub-optimally, both at home and at school, and would benefit (in terms of PISA scores) from using ICT more intensively. However, the fact that medium and high-intensity users of ICT typically would not gain from additional ICT use is consistent with the hypothesis that the relationship between use of ICT and learning outcomes is inversely U-shaped.