Do Home PCs Have a Negative Impact on Student Achievement?

The answer to that question is a big yes if you believe the results of a large study carried out by Professors Malamud of the University of Chicago and his collaborator, Cristian Pop-Eleches of the University of Columbia. This is not the first time that research has pointed to PCs in the home having a negative effect on student academic achievement. I read about the study last month but was prompted to comment on it by Randall Stross' very interesting article in the NY Times this week.

The basic finding of these multiple studies is that student academic achievement declines after the introduction of a PC and broadband connection in their home. Disturbingly, the impact is most pronounced with children living in lower income homes i.e. the very group you would intuitively think would benefit most.

In my opinion, while the effect may be real (The sample sizes are very large and across multiple geographies) the conclusions being drawn are dangerously wrong.

To accept the findings of the study you also have to accept the logical counter conclusion that low income students would be better off academically if they were not distracted by having an Internet connected PC at home. Every fiber of my body tells me that this conclusion cannot be correct.

Having wrestled with this contradiction since reading about the study back in May I have arrived at my own conclusions. The problem with the study findings is bound up in what is being measured i.e. academic achievement.

We live in a society and increasingly face a future where the PC and the Internet have become the basic tools of economic value creation. In the 17th century you needed to know how to join wood or bend iron. Today you need to know how to access and interpret information, how to draw you own conclusions, how to synthesize new ideas and how to communicate those ideas to an increasingly distributed set of collaborators.

In my opinion the conclusions being drawn from this study say far more about foundational problems in our academic system; what is taught and how we assess student’s readiness to enter a 21st century workforce. It is largely the case (Exceptions do exist) that the public K-12 system is still designed to turn out workers for a 19th century industrial economy. We teach kids how to learn facts, be able to follow instruction and to respect authority. If you are lucky enough to come from a middle or upper income family you can of course obtain a much more progressive and technology enabled education in the private sector.

What these studies tell us is that the affected students got worse at doing standardized tests. I would ask so what? We already know that family income level has a profound effect on standardized testing scores which impacts the long term economic potential of children from these environments. The problem isn’t the kids or the PC the problem is an education system which is has an inbuilt biased against them.

That standardized testing has become the single determinant of academic achievement borders on the criminal. When I hire talent for my business I am not interested in their standardized test scores. I want to know if they can think creatively, solve problems, communicate their ideas effectively and are smart enough to know that life is about learning all the time. These studies do not tell us anything about how access to PCs and the Internet might possibly improve or develop these skills. It might just be the case that collaborative problem solving with a network of friends on FaceBook is a far more valuable economic life skill than leraning to remember the who was the 33rd President of the United States.

I really do believe that these studies are dangerous. The danger is that they will become an impediment to programs which are focused on closing a very important digital divide that exists between rich and poor families and between rich and poor nations. I can’t help believing that a similar research project in the 17th century would have found that having a hammer, saw, wood and nails in the home was distracting children from their religious studies. Pause for a second before you conclude that this is a ridiculous analogy.

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