Smart technology will revolutionize education, but throwing computers at kids backfires

Several recent studies using different techniques and data sets have found, as one states, “the introduction of home computer technology is associated with modest but statistically significant and persistent negative impacts on student math and reading test scores.”

In The New York Times, Randall Stross summarizes the studies:

Ofer Malamud, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago, is the co-author of a study that investigated educational outcomes after low-income families received vouchers to help them buy computers.

“We found a negative effect on academic achievement,” he said. “I was surprised, but as we presented our findings at various seminars, people in the audience said they weren’t surprised, given their own experiences with their school-age children.”

“Scaling the Digital Divide,” published last month, looks at the arrival of broadband service in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005 and its effect on middle school test scores during that period. Students posted significantly lower math test scores after the first broadband service provider showed up in their neighborhood, and significantly lower reading scores as well when the number of broadband providers passed four.

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.

…The state of Texas recently completed a four-year experiment in “technology immersion.” The project spent $20 million in federal money on laptops distributed to 21 middle schools whose students were permitted to take the machines home. Another 21 schools that did not receive funds for laptops were designated as control schools.

At the conclusion, a report prepared by the Texas Center for Educational Research tried to make the case that test scores in some academic subjects improved slightly at participating schools over those of the control schools. But the differences were mixed and included lower scores for writing among the students at schools “immersed” in technology.

Technology is poised to revolutionize education. But its early impact will be greatest for mature, self-motivated students — esp. university, adult education, and advanced high school students — because, currently, most kids only use computers to play games. As educational technology becomes more game-like and immersive, its ability to motivate younger students to learn should rise.

Posted by James on Sunday, July 11, 2010