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Does having a computer at home improve results at school?

Michael Trucano's picture

do you think the students are at home learning with their computers? | image attribution at bottomLast week's EduTech blog asked, How would you design an ICT/education program for impact? 

A recent paper suggests that a good answer to that question is *not* to simply make computers more widely available in homes and leave it at that.

Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement [pdf], an NBER working paper by Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd released in June, used administrative data on North Carolina (U.S.A.) public school students in attempt to help answer the questions, Does differential access to computer technology at home compound the educational disparities between and rich and poor? and Would a program of government provision of computers to early secondary school students reduce these disparities? In this case, Vigdor and Ladd found that the

introduction of home computer technology is associated with modest but statistically significant and persistent negative impacts on student math and reading test scores. Further evidence suggests that providing universal access to home computers and high-speed internet access would broaden, rather than narrow, math and reading achievement gaps.

This is not the first such study to look for a positive impact on access to computers outside schools on student learning.  Earlier this year, another NBER working paper (Home Computer Use and the Development of Human Capital [pdf]) from
Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches looked at a home computer access voucher program for low-income children in Romania found that

Children who won a voucher had significantly lower school grades in Math, English and Romanian but significantly higher scores in a test of computer skills and in self-reported measures of computer fluency. There is also evidence that winning a voucher increased cognitive ability .... We do not find much evidence for an effect on non-cognitive outcomes.

Both studies were preceeded by a widely read and influential (at least in some circles) paper from 2004, Computers and Student Learning: Bivariate and Multivariate Evidence on the Availability and Use of Computers at Home and at School [pdf], in which Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann looked at the use of computers at home and at school and students’ educational achievement and found (when controlled for family background) that

the mere availability of computers at home is negatively related to student performance in math and reading.

While there has been little similar work done outside OECD countries, research in Brazil (Too much computer and Internet use is bad for your grades, especially if you are young and poor: Results from the 2001 Brazilian SAEB [pdf]) has shown roughly similar results.

Critics of technology use in education will (and have) latched on to results from these studies to reinforce their contentions that investments in computers to aid education are largely, for lack of a better word, folly.  That said, findings from these studies are of course more nuanced than what I have excerpted here, and not all the findings are negative (as always, read the papers themselves for a full view of the findings -- and to understand the methodologies underlying them, which you may or may not agree with). Just to complicate matters: A 2010 report from the OECD (Are New Millennium Learners Making the Grade? [pdf]) considers a number of studies, combined with new analysis it has done based on internationally comparable student achievement data (PISA), and finds that indeed that

gains in educational performance are correlated with the frequency of computer use at home.

If all of this leaves you a bit confused -- and/or ready to argue -- you are not alone. 

(Of course some wide-eyed educational technology utopians simply refuse to consider these sorts of studies at all. Discussions with such folks typically focus on, well, things other than the existing evidence base -- and they are probably not reading this blog post anyway.) 

One way to try to make sense of all of these studies together is to consider that ICTs may function as a sort of 'amplifier' of existing learning environments in homes.  Where such environments are conducive to student learning (as a result, for example, of strong parental direction and support), ICT use can help; where home learning environments are not already strong (especially, for example, where children are left unsupervised to their own devices -- pun intended), we should not be surprised if the introduction of ICTs has a negative effect on learning.

Consistent with this line of thinking, the Romania study notes that "the presence of parental rules regarding computer use and homework appear to mitigate the effects of computer ownership, suggesting that parental monitoring and supervision may be important mediating factors."

This notion of ICTs as 'amplifiers' for learning environments in the home echoes in some ways conclusions of respected scholars like Mark Warschauer about ICT use at school, which suggests that laptops can make a good school better, for example, but they won't make a bad school good.

On a broader note, and in response to his reading of the Vigdor/Ladd paper, Warschauer states on his insightful blog that the "aim of our educational efforts should not be mere access, but rather development of a social environment where access to technology is coupled with the most effective curriculum, pedagogy, instruction, and assessment."

This seems a sensible approach to me -- if far more complicated and difficult to implement than 'if we provide it they will learn' approaches to student computer use that underlie some out-of-school ICT access initiatives.

But: What do you think?  Does access to computers at home impact student performance in school? (And how?  And why?)  Posters on the EduTechDebate site site are currently discussing these questions -- and you are invited to join them.


Please note: The image of an empty Japanese high school classroom used at the top of this blog post ("do you think the students are at home learning with their computers?") comes from Flickr user frwl via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Comments

After this blog post was put together, but before it was published, Mark Warschauer published some useful related analysis on his blog. You might find it interesting: http://papyrusnews.com/2010/07/14/learning-change-and-power-frameworks-for-interpreting-the-romania-and-s-carolina-studies/ (For what it's worth, EduTech blog postings are typically prepared many days -- sometimes many weeks -- before they are actually published on the site. There is currently a bug in the World Bank blog publishing platform with the 'forward-publish' feature that some readers have picked up on, especially those who read the individual posts via RSS. We apologize about this and are working to fix the situation.)

In my opinion, these studies are perfect examples of the Knowledge Gap Hypothesis, so many times referred to in politics and participation, but that might well apply too in the learning sphere. All in all, ICTs are just about that, information, communication, knowledge, so it makes perfect sense that the knowledge gap hypothesis is stronger the more knowledge intensive is our society.

Isamel, An excellent point! For those unfamiliar with the 'knowledge gap hypothesis': http://ow.ly/2dTZL -M

Submitted by Rob O. on
While it'll undoubtedly make some of those wide-eyed educational technology utopians uncomfortable, you might as well concede that most children ARE left unsupervised with technology and RARELY have parental direction and support. I'm not being negative - I'm being a realist. It's telling that the Romania study notes that "the presence of [parental direction and support] mitigates the effects of computer ownership." That's a bit like saying, yeah, we know that eating Twinkies all day is bad for our kids, but we're giving them antioxidant multivitamins to offset the damage. I'm not saying that kids shouldn't have the opportunity to acquire and improve their computer-use skills, but we should be moving much more cautiously and mindfully towards that. The way we're recklessly pushing technology on children shows little consideration for the long-term effects or even any specific goals. I worry that far too many of the groups who most heavily promote the agenda of computers for boostimg student achievement are manned by representatives of tech companies & agencies that stand to benefit economically from the added business. That is, it seems to me, a classic case of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Submitted by Anonymous on
I am sorry but the article in the NYT was very one sided. It is very clear that the answer will be part of: how complex is the eco system? Does teachers training support encourage these kids to study at home, do they challenge them to study at home? The research from Texas actually confirms this if you read between the lines. And there is of course the parents issue. So jumping to conclusions on the basis of a few vouchers in Romania is a waste of time. The question is much MORE COMPLEX than this.

Submitted by Tony Forster on
I believe that the results of the Romanian study are invalid due to the misuse of regression discontinuity analysis. For the technique to be valid, an underlying distribution must be linear, which it is not. I give more detail at http://tonyforster.blogspot.com/2008/06/home-pcs-lower-education-results.html

Submitted by Rob O. on
You can argue about the flaws of the statistical technique used in the study - and perhaps rightfully so - but above all, there still seems to be an glaring lack of evidence that at-home computers - or even in-classroom computers - have a positive effect upon academic performance. We're just throwing computers & technology at kids because it seems like the brainy thing to do, but most attempts seem very vague about the intended results. Is it truly a worthwhile endeavor if the greatest single outcome is that lots of kids know how to use Powerpoint? And at what cost? Children need tactile, real-world interaction, not gadgets and technologies that encourage escapism into the abstract digital void.

Submitted by Tony Forster on
Rob I think we are agreed that there is a lack of clear evidence for or against home or school computers. There are studies against and studies for such as http://www.pisaresconf09.org/user_uploads/files/context/room2/Kluttig_Peirano_Vergara.pdf "There is a low, significant and positive effect of the use of computers at home regarding school achievement. Furthermore, the frequent use of the computer at home impacts positively learning in science." There are studies with invalid results, as I think I show. It may be that both views are true and it depends on the details of the computer use. More research is needed. As you suggest, its irresponsible to have large laptop rollouts without detailed research into the results. If the main effect is proficiency with packages like Powerpoint then its hard to see the benefit. It may be true that "Children need tactile, real-world interaction, not gadgets and technologies that encourage escapism into the abstract digital void." but there is no clear evidence to support that assertion at this stage.

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