Computers don't boost poor kids' grades

Giving poor kids computers doesn’t help them do better in school, writes Ray Fisman in Slate. Children are more likely to use computers for entertainment than for learning.

In Romania, some low-income families were given vouchers to help them buy computers; others applied but were turned down. Children spent seven hours more per week on the computer once they had one at home.

Much of this computer time came at the expense of television-watching: Children in families that received a voucher spent 3.5 fewer hours in front of the tube per week. But computer use also crowded out homework (2.3 hours less per week), reading, and sleep. Less schoolwork translated into lower grades at school — vouchered kids’ GPAs were 0.36 grade points lower than their nonvouchered counterparts — and also lower aspirations for higher education. Vouchered kids were 13 percentage points less likely to report an intention to attend college. And, interestingly, vouchered students who were college-bound were not more likely to express interest in majoring in computer science.

If a parent was at home to supervise, the negative effects were diminished significantly.

So, do we want to give a cheap laptop to every child?

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Comments

  1. Look, I think that if we as educators are charged with preparing students with the strategies that are their future, we must make them computer literate. That means doing everything we can to promote safe and easy computer usage in the home. Just as we as educators strive to make books accessible to those who are struggling readers, so too must we add computers to that list, for technology is not just for the elite anymore. The Home Ec and Shop classes of yesteryear are dwindling away and in their place needs to be classes and encouragement in those skills that will be our students’ future blue-collar skills – those in technology. The statistics of what the kids do with it once it’s in the homes can’t derail us from our mission, to educate and prepare. Get those computers in the homes and in the schools. Then we’ll tackle responsible usage. But if we allowed the irresponsible to dictate every generation’s movement towards their future success, TV would have been banned long ago and books would still be in pyres.

  2. Richard Nieporent says:

    Giving poor kids computers doesn’t help them do better in school, writes Ray Fisman in Slate. Children are more likely to use computers for entertainment than for learning.

    They had to do a study to figure this out? When are we going to learn that there is no magic way to improving education. It takes good teachers, concerned parents and students who want to learn.

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Computer aid to education must be directed, just as classrooms need control. The operating systems of education computers must be programmed to allow recreational use only after satisfactory completion of assignments. Give kids, or adults, free choice, they will go to the desert cart immediately, bypassing the healthy food.

  4. Tracy W says:

    Look, I think that if we as educators are charged with preparing students with the strategies that are their future, we must make them computer literate.

    Since educators are charged with preparing students with the strategies that are their future, I would prefer if they focussed on getting every single kid to normal literacy, before worrying about computer literacy.

  5. It doesn’t sound like the students are getting much guidance from teachers on how to use the laptops. In schools where students use the laptops at school and at home, I suspect the results might be different. Also, there is some value to the students knowing how to use the computers…whether it is for game playing or research…that could potentially translate into getting a job over students who do not have computers.

  6. I think it goes back to the first few days of school when you allow your students to blog. You get crazy font, text like messages, and moot points. Back it up even further to the first time my first graders held hand-helds, all they wanted to do was play. If you give somebody a “new toy” they want to use if for recreation first, explore every aspect of it. It takes time and guidance by an expert, most likely the teacher whom in this case may or may not be an expert, to work through this initial phase and begin to show them how to use a computer for educational gains. To show that the educational gains can be just as much fun as “playing.” How long was this study conducted? Did it mention if there was any guidance from anyone on how to use the new “tool” for education or was it just thrust into their hands?

  7. I thought that the push for really cheap laptops were for places where the average family would be unlikely to even have electricity, much less already have a TV, hence the need for them to have cranks to charge the battery. Right? Or am I making that up?

    My point is that even goofing off on a computer might have educational benefits for a student with no educational resources. It would seem to me that something is much better than nothing. It doesn’t seem right to assume that because recreational computer use proved no more beneficial than TV watching in Romania that it’s universally a waste of resources to provide cheap laptops to those with nothing.

    I also think that giving poorer kids computers in the US who were attending school where they were among the few who didn’t have that resource at home could probably improve their performance as well. I’m in a community where there’s a marked difference between the kids with everything and the kids with very little. At school both groups are getting pretty good instruction and are meeting most standards, but one group falls behind at home.

  8. Half Canadian says:

    I think that this is pertinent:

    “If a parent was at home to supervise, the negative effects were diminished significantly.”

    How about parents in every home before we worry about computers?

  9. I may have linked this before, but Michael Schrage, who knows a great deal about technology and its uses, has some relevant thoughts: All Rousseau and no Epictetus.

  10. Also…learning how to use computers, at the level usually considered as “computer literacy” is really pretty trivial. You need to know how to type. You need to know the basic conventions of the operating system and maybe some applications like Word. You are no more “learning about technology” than you are learning about electricty by turning on a light switch.

    Thought experiment: You run a factory, and are hiring someone to program and run a CNC (computer-numerical-control) metal-cutting machine, like a lathe or milling machine. You have two choices:

    1)Linda has had computer-literacy training at the level described above, but is weak on math and has never had geometry or trig. She can read and write, but has some difficulty with complicated documents.

    2)Susan has never used a computer, but she’s good at math, especially geometry, and she reads complicated documents without difficulty.

    Which prospective employee would you hire for your new CNC machinist?

  11. At the risk of sounding unbelievably harsh, but what are the chances of actually making the choice you’ve described?

    How many countries or domestic school systems are competently teaching math and high level reading and not also teaching computer literacy almost incidentally along the way?

    I think we ought to adopt the use of technology in so far as it serves other educational ends but never as an end in itself. Anyone with any experience with technology probably realizes that complete mastery of any particular program or system is largely pointless as an end in itself, unless you are the guy paid to keep the equipment functioning.

  12. I don’t know if we should give a laptop to every child or not. But I sure would like to see one in every classroom, even if it’s a trailer or a closet (Ideally, I’d like a real classroom too).

  13. I think the readership of Slate would’ve been better served if the author of the article delved into the reasons why computers continue to show up in public education despite the fact that there’s not a single success story or, indeed, much notion of what success would look like were it to occur.

  14. half Canadian said:
    —I think that this is pertinent:

    “If a parent was at home to supervise, the negative effects were diminished significantly.”

    How about parents in every home before we worry about computers?—

    Bingo! I’m amazed at how that got lost in all this. The computers are beside the point. It’s the parents that matter. Forget programs that try to inject school into homes, spend the money helping parents do their job instead.

  15. Elizabeth says:

    Well…dud…

    When my private school student was required to purchase a computer for high school…I was waiting to see if the school would tell the parents the computer would NOT help improve the students’ academic performance. I did not have to say a thing. They told the parents the truth.

    What did happen was my son no longer had to carry home the ridiculously large textbooks (yes, they do come with CD Rom but how many schools hand them out?). It did make it easier for him to submit his homework (yes, electronically) and he saved several trees.

    For us it did everything we were told it would

  16. SuperSub says:

    Dawn-
    “Forget programs that try to inject school into homes, spend the money helping parents do their job instead.”

    Or maybe we can stop spending money to motivate parents to do their job out of necessity.

  17. BadaBing says:

    I wish the administration would take every damn computer out of my classroom and toss them into the recycling bin. They’re a distraction and I don’t need them or use them. Learning requires hard work and the ability to focus. Computers loaded up with the best educational software in the solar system can’t replace the hard work and time that must be invested if kids are to learn how to read, write and do math. Computer literacy? Don’t make me laugh.

  18. In our school district, teachers often give children books as gifts. This practice doesn’t seem to have hurt them or helped them academically, as the standardized reading scores are flat over the last six years. Perhaps the children are only spending a little time looking at the pictures. The city I live in also has an excellent library system with lots of books. However, this excellent library system with lots of books doesn’t seem to have raised standardized reading scores either. Perhaps its all the computers that they’ve installed? I’d guess not as the scores were low and stable before the computers came. Well at least things aren’t so bad, as the students are not entertaining themselves by burning the books.

    Ok, enough sarcasm. Points taken:

    1. Some tools are more flexible than others
    2. Tools need a purpose
    3. We really care more about the purpose than the tool

  19. Part of the attraction of computers lies in the fact that they (and their software) are known quantities. Administrators can find out how much they cost and put them in their budgets. And spending money always creates the impression of Doing Something for the Children. Computers are a procurement-based solution for a human problem. One can order X number of computers from a manufacturer (possibly at a nice discount!), but one can’t order good teaching or good parenting, or even figure out how much they cost.

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