The relationship and possible impact of information and communication technology (ICT) on academic outcomes has received considerable attention over the past years. Diffusion of various devices, such as personal computers and laptops, smartphones, and tablets have the potential of enhancing productivity and efficiency of learning. For instance, it is possible to have a library of materials in one’s personal device, replacing a heavy backpack filled with textbooks. Information-seeking is easier than ever—popular search engines, such as Google, and online encyclopedias (e.g., Wikipedia) allow to browse for up-to-date knowledge, supplementing or even replacing textbooks. Various applications may be useful in visualizing mathematical concepts (e.g., the nature of a regression equation, geometry, etc), and simulations could help with understanding scientific concepts (Atit et al., 2020). Paper-and-pencil testing could be supplemented or substituted by computer-based assessment (Nissen, Jariwala, Close, & Dusen, 2018). There is also evidence that educational technology applications may have a positive effect on mathematics achievement (Cheung & Slavin, 2013; Miller, 2018).
On the other hand, it has also been shown that ICT use may not necessarily enhance academic experience as expected (Star et al., 2014). Furthermore, several studies have reported that excessive use of Internet-based digital technologiesFootnote 1 is associated with impairments in daily life. Not only has it been demonstrated to inversely correlate with psychological well-being (Twenge & Campbell, 2018), it has also been shown that educational factors have negative associations with excessive Internet-based digital device use (Kates, Wu, & Coryn, 2018; Lepp, Barkley, & Karpinski, 2015; Rozgonjuk, Saal, and Täht, 2018). From an instructor’s point of view, it may be relevant to understand the association between online- and offline-teaching (Yang, 2017) as well as study habits that could be influenced by ICTs (Hora & Oleson, 2017; Rozgonjuk, Kattago, and Täht, 2018). In addition, it has been found that the potential benefits of ICTs in mathematics education context may not be fully harnessed if the educator lacks ICT-related knowledge, has minimal training as well as learning opportunities regarding ICT, and if the technical support of ICT is limited (Zakaria & Khalid, 2016). Therefore, it would be relevant to take a closer look at Internet use in relation to mathematics achievement.
In the current study, we focus on students’ general self-reported duration of Internet use at and outside of school, as well as on weekends, in relation to PISA 2015 mathematics test results and 9th- and 12th-grade national mathematics exam scores. The results could be helpful, as they may provide insights into the association between ICT and mathematics outcomes; this knowledge, in turn, could be potentially useful in designing cyber-hygiene practices that may be helpful in improved academic achievement.
Mathematics has been demonstrated to be a key factor in future academic success (Konvalina, Wileman, & Stephens, 1983). The results of mathematics exams could play an important role in students’ future educational path: for instance, in Estonia, a students’ admission to university may heavily depend on how well one performs on a mandatory national mathematics exam. Although there are many studies that have investigated the interplay between academic outcomes and Internet-based digital technology use, studies have not generally focused on mathematics or have focused on very specific educational technology applications or platforms (Cheung & Slavin, 2013; Fabian & Topping, 2019). Nevertheless, it has been suggested that these digital technologies may shape the future of mathematics education (Engelbrecht, Llinares, & Borba, 2020).
Even though the usage of ICTs has the potential to improve the efficiency of a classroom experience (e.g., by substituting paper-based books with digital resources, as well as by allowing the implementation of distance learning), previous studies have demonstrated that the effects of ICT use are not necessarily learning-enhancing. In fact, some studies have found that ICT use may even impair learning—this also in the context of mathematics (Bulut & Cutumisu, 2017; Zhang & Liu, 2016). Ravizza, Hambrick, & Fenn (2014) demonstrated that non-academic Internet use was negatively related to learning even when the students’ ability was controlled for.
Several factors may explain this association (Hu, Gong, Lai, & Leung, 2018). First, school-level indicators, such as the availability of Internet-based technologies as well as the size of school could play a large role (Eickelmann, Gerick, & Koop, 2017; Luu & Freeman, 2011). Second, several factors regarding individual differences in students’ perception and attitudes towards ICT use may be relevant (Hu, Gong, Lai, & Leung, 2018). Third, where (e.g., at school vs outside of school) and for what purposes (e.g., purely for learning vs entertainment) the ICTs are used may also be helpful in explaining the association between ICT use and academic outcomes (Petko, Cantieni, & Prasse, 2017; Skryabin, Zhang, Liu, & Zhang, 2015). Finally, individual differences in predisposing factors, such as personality traits, emotion regulation, and tendency to procrastinate have been shown to be relevant in developing problematic ICT use patterns (Brand, Young, Laier, Wölfling, & Potenza, 2016, Brand et al., 2019; Rozgonjuk, 2019) .
While there are studies that have investigated the relationship between Internet and other ICT use and academic achievement, research on general ICT usage patterns in relation to mathematics outcomes is rather scarce. Moreover, most of these studies tend to rely on cross-sectional data. Of note, however, it should be mentioned that Zhang and Liu (2016), for instance, have also provided evidence over a longer period of time, finding that ICT use at school is negatively correlated to academic achievement.
In the current study, we aim to present a more comprehensive set of empirical evidence on the association between Internet use and mathematics achievement. Specifically, we take into account the differences in Internet use at and outside of school and on weekends, and we include both low- and high-stakes mathematics achievement test scores. The former includes the PISA 2015 (see the Sample and procedure section) mathematics test scores, while the latter data are from two additional time points: from 9th- and 12th-grade national mathematics exams. Importantly, while PISA 2015 mathematics test could be considered as a low-stakes test—since the outcome of this test does not affect a student’s future significantly (Mägi, Adov, Täht, & Must, 2013; Silm, Must, & Täht, 2013)—the national mathematics exams can be considered as high-stakes tests within the Estonian educational system, because the results of these tests could play a proportional role in a student’s admission scores for the next stage of education.
Additionally, students’ gender and socioeconomic status (SES) may play a role in academic achievement and mathematics results. According to a meta-analysis by Voyer and Voyer (2014), female students tend to achieve better grades in school—this is a common finding, regardless of culture, school subject, or time period (based on literature from 1914 to 2011). But in addition to better academic achievement, female students also achieve better rates in higher education graduation and post-secondary school enrollments, and demonstrate better overall retention when compared with male students (Clark, Sang Min, Goodman, & Yacco, 2008). On the other hand, meta-analysis that included standardized test performance results indicates that male students tend to achieve better results in mathematics (Lindberg, Hyde, Petersen, & Linn, 2010) and natural sciences (Hedges & Nowell, 1995). Men also tend to have a higher propensity towards choosing a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-related career (Ketenci, Leroux, & Renken, 2020). On the other hand, female students have been found to have more positive mathematics attitudes compared with male students (Zuo, Ferris, & LaForce, 2020).
The positive relationship between students’ SES and academic achievement has been shown in many studies (e.g., Jimerson, Egeland, Sroufe, & Carlson, 2000; Liu & Schunn, 2020; Sirin, 2005; White, 1982). For instance, a meta-analysis by White (1982) demonstrated that the relationship yielded an effect size of r = .343, while a meta-analysis by Sirin (2005) found the effect size of r = .299. Therefore, one may conclude that SES generally has a medium-sized positive effect on academic achievement, including in mathematics and natural sciences. Therefore, it would be a necessary covariate in investigating links between mathematics performance and other variables.
The data set of the current study is based on an Estonian student sample. This may be of interest for mathematics as well as educational scientists in general for two reasons. Firstly, according to PISA 2015 results, the achievements of Estonian students in mathematics (as well as functional reading and science) were among the highest within the countries participating in PISA 2015 survey (OECD, 2016). Second, Estonia is also well-known for its high levels of digitalization and diffusion of e-governance (Solvak et al., 2019) that may also promote higher digital technology implementation in education. The results of this study could shed light on whether these aspects could be relevant when compared with previous findings in the field of ICT use and academic achievement (in mathematics).
One of the explanations to these findings is the so-called displacement hypothesis, according to which the negative effects of ICT use are directly proportional to time spent on one’s device. This is because time spent on a digital device decreases the potential time one could spend on reading books, exercising, and/or socializing in non-digital settings (Neuman, 1988). According to another explanation, the digital Goldilocks hypothesis, engaging too little or too much in digital technology use could result in poorer outcomes (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2017). On one hand, not using the Internet may result in a student’s inability to seek for additional information and to discuss homeworks via social networking sites. On the other hand, too much Internet use could result in a student not paying attention to learning relevant materials—especially when it is being communicated orally by a teacher. In fact, some ICT use has been shown to be related to more favorable outcomes than no or too much use in children’s subjective well-being (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2017; Twenge & Campbell, 2018) and cognitive test results (Rozgonjuk & Täht, 2017). In general, the lowest test scores were associated with individuals reporting highest time spent online.
The current study could add to this theoretical framework by providing empirical evidence that could further help the discussion on the association between ICT use and academic outcomes. Specifically, we show how groups based on self-reported Internet use at and outside of school as well as on weekends differ from each other in mathematics performance. Furthermore, the associations are controlled for students’ SES and gender, variables that are typically associated with academic performance, including STEM subjects (Sirin, 2005; Voyer & Voyer, 2014). Therefore, these results could potentially show if any of these conceptual frameworks could be used as a potential explanation for the results.
Aim of this work
The general aim is to investigate if self-reported Internet use at and outside of school and on weekends that was queried in 9th grade is associated with mathematics test performance across both low- and high-stakes mathematics testing conditions over a period of approximately 3 years. It should be noted, however, that in the current study, Internet use at school means not only using it for schoolwork, but also for leisurely activities.
Based on previous findings, there is reason to believe that the lowest mathematics achievement scores are associated with the highest self-reported Internet use. However, in addition to providing insights into Internet use at school in association with mathematics performance, we also provide evidence for how mathematics performance is correlated with Internet use outside of school as well as on weekends.
The findings of this study may be informative regarding how general Internet use could be a predictive factor for mathematics achievement. For instance, large-effect associations would mean that Internet use at school could play a pivotal role either in improving or hindering students’ achievement in mathematics. On the other hand, small or non-significant associations between Internet use and mathematics test scores may be helpful for recalibrating people’s expectations towards technology’s effects on mathematics achievement. As has been shown recently, the potential effects of digital technology use may be smaller (yet negative) than could be expected from sensationalized headlines in mass media (Orben & Przybylski, 2019) which may unnecessarily fuel technology use-related panics (Orben, 2020; Segool, Goforth, Bowman, & Pham, 2016). In other words, due to sensationalized headlines in the media, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders may be led to believe that digital technology use is more harmful than it actually may be. In the context of the current study, for instance, mathematics teachers may choose not to use digital technology-based teaching methods because of the fear that digital technology use may be detrimental for students’ achievements. Similarly, small or non-significant associations could also be helpful in curbing one’s enthusiasm regarding the hype typically associated with new technological advances. Accordingly, this study may have the potential to provide input into policymaking regarding ICT use in education (e.g., whether the general public should be concerned or not).
In addition, if the results demonstrate the associations between Internet use (e.g., the more Internet is used, the lower the mathematics results) outside of school or on weekends, there could be a reason to believe that by targeting the Internet use on one’s time outside of school could have potential to improve a student’s mathematics performance.