does giving out laptops help or hinder the digital divide?

computer use relative to subsidized lunch program participation status

Interested in the actual educational effects of giving laptops to students? Some interesting conclusions from a paper by Jacob Vigdor entitled Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement (pdf). The study is a North Carolina-wide look at who has access to broadband, home computers and what the test score correlations are with these facts, if any. A few notable pullquotes.

[T]he 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.

[T]he introduction of high-speed internet service is associated with significantly lower math and reading test scores. Moreover, broadband internet is associated with wider racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. One interpretation of these findings is that home computer technology is put to more productive use in households with more effective parental monitoring.

Students who own a computer but never use it for schoolwork have math test scores nearly indistinguishable from those without a home computer, while scoring slightly better than reading. Students reporting almost daily use of their home computer for schoolwork score significantly worse than students with no computer at home.

Students who gain access to a home computer between 5th and 8th grade tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math test scores. There is little evidence that more intensive computer use for schoolwork offsets these negative effects.

Surprised? I was, a little [dweinberger]

12 thoughts on “does giving out laptops help or hinder the digital divide?

  1. So what do you think about the One Laptop per Child campaign?

  2. that is interesting, and could be used to restrict access even? sort of “you’ll shoot your eye out kid” argument… more to it i am sure when you chop it up by parental supervisision etc.. but what about novelty factor, like after the new computer is getting old. will read the whole thing.

  3. Interesting, I’m going to share this with my coworkers – and then sit down and read it as the topic fascinates me. This excerpt, though, begs a question:

    “There is little evidence that more intensive computer use for schoolwork offsets these negative effects.”

    I can’t help but wonder if students with learning disorders, who use assistive software on their computers, were included in this study.

  4. I personally know and like the people who run the OLPC project.

    That said, I have an OLPC and I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s just because I have experience with other operating systems, I think it’s actually not that simple to use. It’s feature rich, but the usability factor to me is weird and I can’t get beyond it. I love the project and I think it blazed important ground by tossing down the gauntlet that other people have picked up to create small cheap PCs, but I don’t think we’re seeing the massive buy-in from other countries that they were thinking they’d see and so I’m not sure — by my own admission because I haven’t been following closely enough — what the status of it is.

    For anyone who has to wedge themselves into the Western business model, not being able to grok windows will be a problem and yet that’s a crappy reason to give Microsoft more money that they don’t deserve. I’m just not sure the OLPC os a genuine option response to that for many people.

  5. I saw Ethan Zuckerman speak at NELA2008, and one point he made regarding OLPC is that, while the kids who got them loved them, the teachers hated them. He implied that the laptops were rushed into the schools (with good intentions), but the teachers were never trained how to teach to a room full of kids with laptops. Missing that potential might explain why getting a laptop wouldn’t necessarily equate to doing better in school. How about this: give a man a fish, and he is fed; teach a man to fish, and he sits relaxing in a boat all day; train a man to manage a fishing fleet, and his entire village is fed.

  6. I’m not surprised. I teach linear algebra and freshman calculus at a big university. The thing students lack is numeracy. They lack basic number theory that you learn when you play around with numbers using your pencil and paper. You don’t get that from reading on a computer or using a math learning program. When you’re forced to figure things out because it’s just you and your homework, and no helping pink bunny to give you “hints,” you really get somewhere.

    I’m not saying that everyone learns that way, but if you don’t get something, and you ask a human being to help you, the human can gauge what you don’t understand better than a computer can. In math, that’s critical.

    Surfing on the internet is also a huge distraction. That said, I wonder what scores are like in the science and social studies categories. I wonder if having access to all the resources on the web helps those areas.

  7. Agree with PS – I’m not surprised. The only real area I would see any math learning program/software helping is in basic math fact drill (multiplication tables, etc.).

    I think the temptation to surf is a HUGE distraction. The students reporting almost daily use of their computers for schoolwork are probably doing more surfing than schoolwork.

    I’m speaking from experience. While my son was in middle and high school, I was a library circulation clerk/school educational assistant/sometimes a third job in retail or whatever, and he was eligible for free or reduced lunch. I installed some software on our shared computer to kick him off the Internet at certain times.

  8. Some schools/math teachers are working to develop some numeracy. My 1st grader, who is in an accelerated program, has weekly “math extended response” worksheets. Not only does she have to figure it out, she has to explain it. This week’s was “X has 15 cookies, Y has 9, how many does X need to give Y so they have the same number?” My kid had the answer (3) in seconds. It took a ridiculous amount of time for her to be able to draw a picture, write a number sentence (equation), explain the steps and (her challenge) labeling the answer. But the process of thinking the steps through and articulating them is what will give the numeracy.

    In contrast, my older who did not have these exercises, still uses her fingers and has little sense of the relationships between numbers … and would like everything to be resolved with a calculator or website.

  9. I wonder if it’s really more a matter of correlation rather than causality. Can you tell I just read Freakonomics?

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