Monday, July 19, 2010

Computers at home provide "little or no educational benefit" - on their own that is

An interesting piece in the New York Times, describing a number of research projects measuring the educational impact of technology on schoolchildren from low-income households who receive financial support to purchase a computer and broadband connectivity. The article starts on a positive note:
"Middle school students are champion time-wasters. And the personal computer may be the ultimate time-wasting appliance. Put the two together at home, without hovering supervision, and logic suggests that you won’t witness a miraculous educational transformation."
"Hovering supervision" is an interesting choice of words. It's foolish to imagine that technology can deliver benefits of itself. Parachuting computers and connectivity into any household, whether low-income or not, is very unlikely to have a positive impact without the right set of support for parents and children. But it's the implementation that's at fault in such instances, not the principle. "Hovering supervision" seems a very unfair choice of words to me, given the huge empowering impact technology in the home can have in the right context, not just in relation to education but in many other areas as well. Just because you need to do more that simply provide computers and connectivity to achieve these benefits doesn't mean you shouldn't consider ways to provide them to those that couldn't otherwise afford them, surely?

The article continues:
"...little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts."
Three studies are referenced: a paper from the University of Chicago and Columbia University investigating a project in Romania (which found “strong evidence that children in households who won a voucher received significantly lower school grades in math, English and Romanian”, but also that "there is also evidence that winning a voucher increased cognitive ability" and that "parental monitoring and supervision may be important mediating factors", neither of which aspects were mentioned in the New York Times article), a National Bureau of Economic Research report, Scaling the Digital Divide, which looked at the arrival of broadband service in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005 and its effect on middle school test scores during that period:
"...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."
...and finally a report prepared by the Texas Center for Educational Research following a four-year experiment in "technology immersion", which "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." But the executive summary of this last report lists many positive benefits of the technology beyond its impact (or not) on academic achievement, which the author of the New York Times article also neglected to mention.

Thankfully, the FCC have some much more considered commentary on their National Broadband Plan blog:
“...connectivity and hardware matter, but computers and broadband access cannot replace parents, teachers and broader social support as critical inputs into student achievement. Laptops in the home are not a silver bullet – digital literacy training for parents and teachers, appropriate content for online learning systems, and broader community digital literacy efforts are necessary to ensure children benefit from technology...The National Broadband Plan recognizes that computers and high-speed connectivity can play an important role in improving outcomes in the classroom – along with the expertise of the educational community, engagement by the technology sector, and involvement of family.”
Absolutely. Interestingly, digital literacy training for parents and teachers, appropriate content for online learning systems, broader community digital literacy efforts, engagement by the technology sector, and involvement of family are/were all strands at the heart of Becta's activities in the UK. What a shame.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you when you say, “Parachuting computers and connectivity into any household, whether low-income or not, is very unlikely to have a positive impact without the right set of support for parents and children.”

    This is exactly what we’re finding at Computers for Youth (, where we’re focused on the Home Learning Environment as a lever for improving academic achievement. To date we have served more than 23,000 middle-school students and their families across the U.S.. A study done in partnership with ETS found that our program had a positive and statistically significant impact on math test scores. We attribute these positive results to our emphasis on educational content, family training, and teacher professional development. The computers we provide to families are valuable merely as “content delivery vehicles.”

    The Texas pilot study, cited in the New York Times piece, also included content and training and had a statistically significant impact on student test scores in reading and math (see response for details).

    Most tellingly, the Texas pilot study found that the strongest predictor of students’ test scores was the amount of time students used their computers outside of school for homework or learning games.

    This finding is the most interesting of all. It cries out for a greater focus on the value of a vibrant Home Learning Environment – and evidence of this value is abundant. Research has shown that parental involvement at home has an even greater effect on student achievement than school itself (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003). A large longitudinal study of 3,100 students found that the Home Learning Environment was one of the strongest predictors of achievement in reading and math for 10- and 11-year olds. A related case-study on students who “succeeded against the odds” showed that what they had in common was a stronger Home Learning Environment (Sylva et al, 2008).

    The United States is currently taking a back seat to the U.K. in designing programs that improve students’ Home Learning Environment. Both studies cited above were conducted by U.K. researchers and your country has responded to this research by encouraging innovation to improve the Home Learning Environment.

    We at CFY were big fans of Becta's work. We can only hope that the U.K. re-invests in Becta to help harness the potential of the Home Learning Environment to move the academic needle.

    Elisabeth Stock
    CEO and Co-founder
    Computers for Youth