Digital literacy and academic success in online education for underprivileged communities : the prep@net case

Lopez Islas, Jose Rafael
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This study investigated the relationship between digital literacy and academic performance in the context of an online learning high school program aimed at students from underprivileged groups. The study proposed that digital literacy should be understood as a construct of several variables that create a progression from basic--though indispensable--physical conditions of access to technology, to complex skills and attitudes that permit a student to succeed in an online learning situation. Using path analysis as a methodological tool, the study tested a three-stage model that measured the chain of effects of the variables that integrate the digital literacy construct both among them, and on academic performance as the overall dependent variable of the study. The model organized the variables in three stages: conditions of access to technology; general digital skills (that included motivation, knowledge and skills to use digital technology, as well as frequency and diversity of usage practices of technology); and context-specific skills required to successfully use technology in a particular domain (in this particular case, online distance learning). The study found that in the particular online learning context of this investigation, better conditions of access to technology had a mediated and strong positive effect on academic performance by increasing the use of Internet for social and entertainment purposes, which in turn led to a higher use of the learning platform software and to better digital and academic skills. These skills had a positive effect on academic performance through independent learning as a mediating variable. A second finding--that runs in part in an opposite direction--was that better conditions of access increased the use of social networks, which had both a positive effect on independent learning in terms of increasing familiarity with the Internet and computer resources, and a negative effect, perhaps simply because the time one spends with social media may diminish the time one has available for learning.