Computing is becoming ubiquitous in education, College students need to have a computer and many K-12 schools are starting to hand them out to students as well. While there are obvious advantages to universal computer access, a new study suggests there may be downsides as well.
Researchers from Duke analyzed math and reading scores from students across N. Carolina in 5th through 8th grades and compared those scores between students who had a computer in their house, and those that didn’t (free copy here). They had a large enough sample size to pick up smaller effects, and they found a rather surprising result. Students that had computers in their home did slightly, but significantly, worse on standardized tests than those that didn’t. They found a similar effect with access to high-speed internet. They were able to follow individual kids in this study, and when a kid got high-speed internet at home, their test scores went down. There’s been a lot of talk about the digital divide and how wealthier families provide their kids with computer experience that poorer kids don’t get. This study suggests that simply handing out computers is going to make the digital divide worse, rather than better.
One big caveat to this research, which the authors acknowledge, is that they are only using standardized test scores. So they would not see any effects of computer and internet access on things that aren’t measured by standard math and reading tests. There are a lot of such skills, starting with just being able to use a computer itself which is a pretty big deal these days. I think programs such as the Maine Learning Technology Initiative are primarily trying to improve tech-related skills, and thinking skills, rather than basic reading and arithmetic. Our simulated environmental science labs, for instance, get students pretty engaged, almost like a game, and I bet a few students flip those open again at home. They probably don’t improve reading scores, but they likely improve graphing, ability to design experiments, general computer use skills, and other higher-order skills. So this is yet another argument that new forms of testing are needed to pick up skills which are hard to measure on multiple choice exams.
These results also pushed my thoughts in a different direction, though. There’s been some chatter recently about professors that ban the use of laptop computers in their classes. When I originally read these articles I thought it was a bit overboard—college students are adults, they ought to decide for themselves if having their laptops out help them in class (or if the professor is boring and they want a distraction). But maybe those professors banning laptops in class have a valid educational point.