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Computer use irrelevant to education outcomes, says US study

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The accepted wisdom that computers are an indispensable tool of modern education is under challenge in a study conducted for Germany's Centre for Economic Studies IFO (CESifo).

The study, published by the University of California Santa Cruz's Robert Fairlie and Johnathan Robertson, detected no difference between computer-owning children and those on the wrong side of the digital divide, on “educational outcomes, including grades, standardized test scores, credits earned, attendance and disciplinary actions”.

America spends $5 billion each year on computers in schools programs – nice work if you're a vendor since obsolescence is guaranteed – but the paper notes that nine million US children between the ages of 10 and 17 lack either a computer or access to the Internet.

With previous literature divided on whether or not computers were beneficial, the UCSC researchers chose a large-scale experimental approach: they selected more than 1,000 computer-less students in grades 6 to 10, in 15 different Californian schools. Half of those students were provided with computers for free.

The researchers then worked through the schools' administrative data at the end of the year to track the performance of the study subjects.

Their conclusion is simple:

“We do not find effects at the mean, important cutoffs in the distribution (e.g. passing and proficiency), or quantiles in the distribution. Our estimates are precise enough to rule out even moderately-sized positive or negative effects.

“Evidence from our detailed follow-up survey supports these findings. We find no evidence that treatment students spent more or less time on homework, and we find that the computers had no effect on turning homework in on time, software use, computer knowledge, and other intermediate inputs in education.

“Overall, these results suggest that increasing access to home computers among students who do not already have access is unlikely to greatly improve educational outcomes, but is also unlikely to negatively affect outcomes.”

The report concludes that subsidies designed to push computer use in schools “need to be realistic about their potential to reduce the current achievement gap”.

The research is certain to reboot the ongoing debate about computers in schools, in which governments and political parties are encouraged to enter a bidding war, and in which schools compete for the glossiest technology.

It's also important to note that the research restricted itself to a single variable: the possession and use of a computer. In particular, there was no effort to integrate the computers into the respective curriculums of the recipients' schools.

However, The Register would observe that this probably reflects contemporary reality: computers get lobbed over the fence, but spend their lives as glass typewriters, only occasionally straying into other territory such as presentation preparation and Wikipedia lookups. It would probably not be a bad thing if governments slowed their subsidies to the computer industry, settled for a slower hardware refresh cycle, and spent the savings on proper curriculum development and teacher training. ®

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