By Leslie Harris O’Hanlon

If a student is getting Bs in school, will giving him a home computer, if he doesn’t have one, bump his Bs up to As?

Most likely not. That’s what the authors of a working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded. As part of this study, several hundred students who did not have home computers were given computers to see if the devices would have any impact, positive or negative, on their academic performance. The researchers found that this action didn’t have any positive effects on a whole host of educational outcomes, including grades, standardized test scores, credits earned, and attendance.

It’s important to note that the computers in the home could have had positive effects that weren’t captured by the specific measures the researchers used. For example, the devices could have helped students and their parents find information about jobs, colleges, and any number of other subjects. Computers could have helped students connect with their educators and other students. They could have helped students learn about subjects and ideas that were not measured by grades.

“There could have been a million little things that it helped with,” said Robert Fairlie, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who collaborated with Jonathan Robinson, an assistant economics professor at UC Santa Cruz, on the paper. “Technology has a lot of positive influences on things, but they may be small and hard to measure.”

Either way, one big takeaway is dropping the expectations that a computer is a savior, Fairlie said. “There are a lot of other things that are important to student achievement, such as parental influence, teachers, and what’s happening in the classroom. Technology isn’t going to necessarily solve all of our problems (in education). But a lot of schools and policy makers are gung ho about investing in technology.”

The study, the largest of its kind involved 1,123 students in grades six through 10 attending 15 schools in California, mostly in the Central Valley. Many of the schools had higher percentage of poorer students than the average California school. For instance, 81 percent of the students were on free and reduced lunch plans. Half of the students were randomly selected to receive a free computer while the other half served as a control group. Since the purpose of the study was to evaluate the role of the home computers alone, no training or assistance was provided on how to use the computers. At the end of the school year, the researchers looked at data provided by the schools to see what effects the computers had on various educational outcomes. Researchers also conducted a survey of the students at the end of the year to glean information on how they used the computer and their homework efforts.

In addition to the computers not having any impact on grades, standardized test scores, credits earned or attendance, students with the computers didn’t spend more, or less, time on homework; nor did these students turn in their homework more as a result of having a computer.

While computer use in schools is widespread, with an estimated $5 billion a year being spent on computers and information technology in schools (the figure depends on your source), nearly nine million children, particularly low income children, do not have computers at home, according to the paper. So, improving access to technology is often seen as a way to close the achievement gap between poor and more well off students.

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But previous research, including work Fairlie has done, on the role of computers and educational achievement is mixed. Some studies have shown positive effects on grades and other outcomes, while almost an equal number show negative effects. Most of that work involved statistical analysis, Fairlie said, taking existing data on who owns a computer and who doesn’t, crunching numbers and controlling for other factors, such as income and parents’ education.

“What I found is computer-owning kids did better in school than non-computer owning kids,” Fairlie said. “But, I thought, to do this right I have to do an experiment.”

His first experiment in this area involved 286 community college students, half of whom received home computers.

“I found small positive effects on educational outcomes, nothing really large, but there was some evidence across a lot of different measures of modest size positive effects,” he said.

For example, the computer owning students were more likely to take classes for letter grades rather than for pass/ fail. Owning a computer didn’t have much of an impact on grades however.

In this larger sample of students, there were no positive effects.

“We found this on every measure. It was very consistent, amazingly consistent,” Fairlie said. “I’m not sure what’s driving that.”

On the flip side, the computers didn’t seem to have any negative effects either. Fairlie said there may have been more positive and negative effects, but they could have canceled each other out. For instance, the students in the computer group used the computers to complete school work but they also spent more time playing computer games and using the computers for entertainment purposes.

“So the computers may have helped them complete school work but also displaced some school work that they would have otherwise been doing, or some studying,” he said.

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Eric Sheninger, principal of the 660-student New Milford High School in New Milford, New Jersey, said he wasn’t surprised by the findings.

“Technology is just a tool. It’s how the tool is used to support learning that is key,” he said. “This study had nothing to do with how technology can support learning. It was just, ‘Let’s put this in here, and see if it has any impact.’”

The results may have been different had the students had some guidance on how to best use the computers and if teachers  had been involved in connecting the home computers with what was going on in the classroom.

“You need to have other support structures in place to enable technology to be an effective learning tool outside of the classroom,” Sheninger said. “If the students had been given specific assignments, projects or activities that integrated the computer, then clearly there would have been a connection between technology and increasing student achievement.”


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  • The important thing to note with this study is that success and learning are separate to grades and test scores. Also, the amount of homework done or whether it is handed in on time has very little to do with learning or grades. The computer were not even encouraged to be used as learning tools, students may not have even thought to use them for learning.

    What technology does is it gives us the opportunity for students to learn in ways that were otherwise impossible. It allows for students to express themselves and learn in ways that work best for them. And when they are utilised properly, it can transform learning in and out of the classroom.

  • umbrarchist

    Is moving the needle the objective. What if the computer causes a kid to learn things that are not even being measured and consequently he decides what is being measured is not so important and goes down to C’s in history.

    What history books say Ford donated money to the NAZI party in the 1920s and Thomas Edison electrocuted animals to scare people away from AC current?

    Do we need to put more study into the relevance of the needle?

  • .“You need to have other support structures in place to enable
    technology to be an effective learning tool outside of the classroom.” Absolutely agree. You could say, when a student is without the lower tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy fulfilled, ed tech just complicates educational matters.

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  • Jacob Wadsworth

    I totally agree with this, “Technology is just a tool. It’s how the tool is used to support learning that is key”. I agree with it because technology has a big impact on my studies when I was still a student. It helped made my homework so easy. Then I got good grades. But with some of my classmates, they failed. It is because they keep on playing. So for me, it depends upon how people will use technology.

  • jgrim

    “You need to have other support structures in place to enable
    technology to be an effective learning tool outside of the classroom.”

    It’s taken economists this long to figure out this simple fact? The shallowest type of thinking puts form before function. It has become axiomatic among non-experts that computers enhance learning. But educators have know for years that simply putting a child in front of a computer with ‘magic’ software packages does not guarantee learning will happen. That’s the reason computers are called digital TOOLS. You can’t build a house with one tool nor can you build knowledge with the mere presence of a computer. You need a team of trained educators working to meet agreed upon subject goals. Technology alone is not a magical elixir.

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  • subject irrelevant

    The computer cannot do anything on its own. The user should be the one doing the changes in his/her life. This subject is irrelevant, because we all know that a child needs parent support, not a lifeless computer babysitter.

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  • danasf

    By extension, researchers also find that the digital divide is no longer a concern for educational parity. To be fair, it seems to be a thoughtful research paper useful for guiding tech-ed rollouts, but I’d imagine the headline coverage will focus on just the no-impact finding. I wish the researchers had taken more time to produce a more nuanced bottom-line.

  • imtheone

    A great tool for todays students. Such nice to hear people pushing knowledge to kids at an early stage. Computers ( ) are one key in facing the future ahead.

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