Does having a computer at home improve results at school?

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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.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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