The New York Times ran an article by Randall Stross, a professor of business over at San Jose State, this summer about research on the impact of home computers on academic achievement in low socio-economic status households. Games and entertainment options were blamed for poor results.
The first paper discussed was by Ofer Malamud over at University of Chicago and Cristian Pop-Eleches at Columbia, who studied low income families in Romania receiving a voucher to assist in purchasing a home PC. The control group were families who applied for the voucher but did not receive it.
In a draft of an article that the Quarterly Journal of Economics will publish early next year, the professors report finding “strong evidence that children in households who won a voucher received significantly lower school grades in math, English and Romanian.” The principal positive effect on the students was improved computer skills.
At that time, most Romanian households were not yet connected to the Internet. But few children whose families obtained computers said they used the machines for homework. What they were used for — daily — was playing games.
Stross next discusses work by Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd over at Duke University, who performed similar research in the United States for the National Bureau of Economic Research. Their study noted after broadband became widely available in North Carolina, math and reading scores plummeted in low SES homes.
The Duke paper reports that the negative effect on test scores was not universal, but was largely confined to lower-income households, in which, the authors hypothesized, parental supervision might be spottier, giving students greater opportunity to use the computer for entertainment unrelated to homework and reducing the amount of time spent studying.
The North Carolina study suggests the disconcerting possibility that home computers and Internet access have such a negative effect only on some groups and end up widening achievement gaps between socioeconomic groups. The expansion of broadband service was associated with a pronounced drop in test scores for black students in both reading and math, but no effect on the math scores and little on the reading scores of other students. In the report, the authors do not speculate about what caused the disparities.
Last, the article touches on the final report (large pdf) from the Texas Center for Educational Research on the state’s one-to-one laptop pilot, which indicated modest improvement on some test scores in the experimental group over the control group.
THE one area where the students from lower-income families in the immersion program closed the gap with higher-income students was the same one identified in the Romanian study: computer skills.
Catherine Maloney, director of the Texas center, said the schools did their best to mandate that the computers would be used strictly for educational purposes. Most schools configured the machines to block e-mail, chat, games and Web sites reached by searching on objectionable key words. The key-word blocks worked fine for English-language sites but not for Spanish ones. “Kids were adept at getting around the blocks,” she said.
Unfortunately, all these studies are measuring the wrong thing. This is equivalent to giving a 1920s farmer a new radio, then measuring the increase or decrease in his crop yield. Why would you expect his crop yield to increase after he’s been given this new communication technology?
A better tool for increasing crop yield would be a tractor, which could plow more than his horse. But, the radio — the highest available technology at the time — would be considered a failure because it did not directly result in higher crop yield.
The farmer would have received timely news and weather reports which perhaps would have indirectly affected his yield. Also, the farmer and his family would have been exposed to an increase in entertainment, experiencing the latest from New York and LA. This cultural acclimation would be accompanied by a wider appreciation of world and national events, which would have had no effect on farming but would have benefited the farmer and his family nonetheless, albeit indirectly. Perhaps the farmer would learn something useful from an agricultural program, but again, looking for a direct increase in crop yield completely misses the point.
Ultimately, computers at home or in one-to-one programs should never be expected to increase academic scores, just as a farmer’s radio shouldn’t be expected to directly increase his crop yield. Home computer functions simply do not correlate well to traditional test taking. But computers do have value in several other areas, in the creative programs and games they run, and the communications capabilities they offer to students. But discerning whether an experimental group earns higher test scores than the control group is simply measuring the wrong thing.
Stross, R. (2010, July 10). Computers at home: Educational hope vs. teenage reality. The New York Times, p. BU3.
Vigdor, J. L, & Ladd, H. F. (2010, June). Scaling the digital divide: Home computer technology and student achievement. National Bureau of Economic Research. [Online.] Available: http://www.nber.org/papers/w16078