Are Underprivileged Students Better Off Without Computers?

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We take it for granted that computers have tremendous potential to transform education. But this potential isn't always going to be realized, especially where support for improving outcomes through technology is lacking. But can access to computers actually hinder education? According to new research that focused on computer adoption among the poor in one Eastern European country, computers at home can actually help to lower the grade point averages of students, distract students from homework, and potentially contribute to behavioral issues.

In a study released in May 2008 and conducted in 2007, The Effect of Computer Use on Child Outcomes (PDF), researchers Cristian Pop-Eleches at Columbia University and Ofer Malamud at the University of Chicago followed up on a 2005 government program in Romania aimed at low-income families that provided vouchers worth 200 Euros (the "Euro 200" program, administered through Romania's Ministry of Education) to be used for the purchase of a personal computer for public school students. The results showed that the program achieved its goals in some ways. That is, the program led to increased computer ownership among voucher winners and a commensurate increase in computer usage. In fact, with 94 percent of those receiving vouchers actually using them to purchase computers, according to the researchers, the program accounted for 4.4 percent of total computer sales in the country during 2005. The program has been further expanded in more recent years.

However, according to the researchers, at best the program resulted in no outcomes benefit to the students at whom the project was targeted; at worst, possibly as a result of students spending less time on homework and more time on non-school-related computer activities, it appears to have led to a decrease in grades among students whose families purchased a computer under the voucher program in the 2005-2006 school year.

According to the research: "We find that children who won a voucher spent significantly less time watching television and [significantly less time] doing homework. Moreover, the effect on homework appears to have had real consequences for school performance. We find evidence indicating that children who won a voucher had lower school grades. Parents reported that these children had a significantly lower expectation of going to college. Finally, we also find suggestive evidence that winning a voucher is associated with negative behavioral outcomes."

Not exactly a glowing endorsement for pumping more funds into computer subsidies for the poor.

This may seem a cruel and counter-intuitive twist at a time when the governments of developing nations and non-governmental groups (such as One Laptop per Child) are pouring resources into large-scale initiatives to bring computers to underprivileged youth around the world. But the technology itself may not be the problem.

U Chicago's Malamud told me, "In our paper, we make the point that, since computers represent such a versatile technology, the risk and benefits are highly dependent on how children actually use the computer. In a home setting, the effect of computer use likely depends on the available software and the degree of parental supervision. Parents can help direct computer use towards more productive activities and constrain children from spending too much time playing games (something that is captured by our 'rules' variable)."

These are points education technology advocates have made in the past when research has shown negligible (and, rarely, negative) results when examining the impact of technology on student outcomes. That is, direction, training, support, solid implementation, and, of course, an underlying foundation to apply technology tools to a given task are often prerequisites to gaining any kind of significant learning outcomes benefit through the deployment of technology.

In the case of the Romanian program, subsidies were provided for the purchase of home computers. The Ministry of Education did provide access to educational software. However, there was little, if anything, it could do to enforce, guide, or support the use of the computers for educational purposes.

Malamud explained via e-mail: "Regarding the possible lack of support or lack of a coherent plan for those who received computers, I think that the nature of home computers puts a limit on what the Romanian Ministry of Education could have done. They offered free educational software and subsidized the actual hardware--the implementation of the program was very successful. But they obviously could not control how these computers would be used. Perhaps computers would have been more effective if they had been offered in a structured setting at school. But it bears pointing out that the evidence on the effect of school computers on educational outcomes is also quite mixed."

According to the researchers, few children installed educational software on their computers, and fewer still reported actually using that educational software. (Incidentally, the definition of "educational software" in the study was applied broadly, not limited just to the software provided by the Ministry of Education.)

But Malamud and Pop-Eleches did, in fact, find a correlation between outcomes and the presence of a stay at home parent in families that received the vouchers.

According to the research, "For five out of our six outcome variables, the interaction between winner and having a mother at home is large and with the opposite sign of the main effect. Moreover, these interactions are statistically significant for homework hours per week, GPA and the behavior grade. In other words, the presence of a stay-at-home mom substantially mitigates the negative effects of winning a computer voucher on these outcomes."

"We don't want to argue against the introduction of technology in poor countries," Malamud said. "But we are saying that it is important to be cognizant of the risks associated with computer use. The possibility that home computer use might displace more valuable developmental activities is a real concern. Policymakers need to be aware of these issues as they try to bridge the digital divide both across and within countries. Providing parents with the necessary skills/tools to supervise and monitor their children's computer activities would probably be extremely helpful in alleviating these risks."

The researchers concluded that the role of the parent in "shaping the impact of home computer use on child and adolescent outcomes" is an important factor that needs to be addressed in programs aimed at bringing technology to underprivileged youth.

"Thus, our findings suggest caution regarding the broader impact of home computers on child outcomes. They also raise questions about the usefulness of recent large-scale efforts to increase computer access for disadvantaged children around the world without paying sufficient attention to how parental oversight affects a child's computer use."

Malamud said he and Pop-Eleches are "exploring the possibility" of further research on the Euro 200 program. The complete current report can be found here.

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About the author: David Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's online education technology publications, including THE Journal and Campus Technology. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Executive Producer David Nagel heads up the editorial department for 1105 Media's education publications — which include two daily sites, a variety of newsletters and two monthly digital magazines covering technology in both K-12 and higher education.

A 21-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/profile/view?id=10390192 or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education). A selection of David Nagel's articles can be found on this site.


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