Just Having A Computer Doesn’t Do Much For Poor Children

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Nearly one in four children don’t have access to a computer at home, a fact that has led some to raise alarms about the “digital divide.” But new study suggests that simply having a computer in the household might not do much for kids educationally.

“Our results indicate that computer ownership alone is unlikely to have much of an impact on short-term schooling outcomes for low-income children,” report Robert W. Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson of UC-Santa Cruz. 

Gregory Ferenstein of the website Tech Crunch comments:

“On the one hand, it’s good news that doomsday predictions for computer-less children have been exaggerated. However, giving out computers was one of the easier solutions to closing the poverty educational outcome gap, and now we have to go back to the drawing board.

‘We find that even though the experiment had a large effect on computer ownership and total hours of computer use, there is no evidence of an effect on a host of educational outcomes, including grades, standardized test scores, credits earned, attendance, and disciplinary actions,’ explains the new report, contradicting previous evidence that children without Internet had a severe disadvantage on exams.

Based on the (reasonable) fear that lack of computer access was hurting poor students, California gave out computers to 1,123 students in grades 6-10 attending 15 schools across the diverse central California area. Most importantly, the data-savvy administrators randomly selected half the students as participants, so that we wouldn’t have to worry about whether those who took up the offer were unusually motivated.

Fairlie and Robinson found that computer use among the children went up, but so did their access to less-than-educational games. ‘We find that home computers increase total use of computers for schoolwork, but also increase total use of computers for games, social networking and other entertainment, which might offset each other,’ surmise the researchers.

Of course, having computers may have non-educational benefits. Basic computer literacy certainly helps in a knowledge economy. But the real problem is that many poor kids never even get a shot at information technology jobs, and the rich-poor gap is only getting worse. The SAT gap has grown 40 percent and college completion has skyrocketed 50 percent since the 1980s.” (Read more here.)

As is the case in classrooms, too, simply providing technology is not a panacea. I wonder what would have happened if the children in this study and their families were provided with training on how to use the computers for educational purposes? Of course, even that extra step would only go a little way toward closing the gap between rich and poor that Ferenstein rightly highlights.

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3 Responses to “Just Having A Computer Doesn’t Do Much For Poor Children”

  1. Susan says:

    What poor children need is more and earlier language, in the form of parental time and attention, face-to-face contact, and appropriate books. Poor children also need contact with adults who have some idea what the important ideas are –current events, not celebrity news, basic history and science, not popular culture or fashion or sports. Having a computer gives access to a world of information only if the user knows what to look for and how to evaluate what is found. Getting parents to read, both for themselves and with their children, is more valuable.

  2. Doug Holton says:

    It’s a hobbled horse race comparison and a trivial treatment, see pages 2 & 3 of this newletter from Bob Tinker of the Concord Consortium: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Fconcord.org%2Fsites%2Fdefault%2Ffiles%2Fnewsletters%2F2007%2Fspring%2Fat-concord-spring-2007.pdf

    Students received no training, and teachers didn’t receive training on how to integrate these computers into their instruction (nor could they if only half their students had access). Also, did the students even have Internet access? Did they have space and personal time to use the computers? I don’t know, but I do agree that simply dumping computers on people doesn’t fix the issues of education – the One Laptop Per Child effort had that problem, too.

  3. HarryTechIT says:

    Here’s my point of view: Owning a computer will not have any significant impact on children, rich or poor, unless these children know how to use the power of the computer to gain the benefits such technology can offer.

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