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Does access to technology at home have a negative effect on students' learning?

It's all rather confusing! A while back, the wonderful Rachel Dingle shared a piece of research with me that made me go...hmmmm. The research, as she said, indicates that "there are no discernible differences between students who have access to technology at home and those who don't". The abstract reads:

Computers are an important part of modern education, yet many schoolchildren lack access to a computer at home. We test whether this impedes educational achievement by conducting the largest-ever field experiment that randomly provides free home computers to students. Although computer ownership and use increased substantially, we find no effects on any educational outcomes, including grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance and disciplinary actions. Our estimates are precise enough to rule out even modestly-sized positive or negative impacts. The estimated null effect is consistent with survey evidence showing no change in homework time or other "intermediate" inputs in education (Fairlie, & Robinson, 2013, Experimental Evidence on the Effects of Home Computers on Academic ...)

This was a null finding. In other words, while there was no positive effect, there was no negative effect on completion of homework, for example, or on academic achievement, which is something indicated in other studies. For example, Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches (using a regression discontinuity design writing to estimate the effect of home computers on child and adolescent outcomes) write in Home Computer Use and the Development of Human Capital that:

We collected survey data from households who participated in a unique government program in Romania which allocated vouchers for the purchase of a home computer to low-income children based on a simple ranking of family income. We show that children in households who received a voucher were substantially more likely to own and use a computer than their counterparts who did not receive a voucher. Our main results indicate that that home computer use has both positive and negative effects on the development of human capital. Children who won a voucher had significantly lower school grades in Math, English and Romanian but significantly higher scores in a test of computer skills and in self-reported measures of computer fluency. There is also evidence that winning a voucher increased cognitive ability, as measured by Ravenís Progressive Matrices. We do not find much evidence for an effect on non-cognitive outcomes. Finally, the presence of parental rules regarding computer use and homework appear to mitigate the effects of computer ownership, suggesting that parental monitoring and supervision may be important mediating factors (2010, p. 1)

Taken at face value, these results are at best disheartening. However, I started to ponder - as we know a computer by itself does little for enhancing learning experiences. The learner has to have reasonably well digital literacy / digital citizenship skills; they have to have to be developing metacognitive skills; and they need to have a sense of investment in their own learning. So, now we are back to thinking about curriculum design, and how eLearning is integrated into curricula.

There is little surprise that access to a computer at home is not efficacious in and of itself. Rather, this is just one very small piece of a large and complex puzzle that leads back to how we learn and teach. What do you reckon?



Image: 'Jenn Camped Out at My Desk' Found on

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Comment by Monika Kern on June 25, 2013 at 21:40
I am intrigued, will have to research this some more. I thoroughly respect Ruth Dingle's work so it pains me to say that my initial gut feeling is to question the findings (though it is obviously not her research). Some people have said open classrooms don't work - but the reason could be that they are teaching from inside the box hence not making use of the opportunities they ate provided with. I would love to see what was assessed and how. What did the teaching look like? How was the device used at home? Was there an obvious difference between students who have had access for a prolonged period of time to the ones who recently acquire the device?
Sugata Mitra seems to think that the absence of a teacher and teaching would be beneficial to a child's learning provided they had internet access - how does fit with above research?
I better go and set up my wonderwall on linoit...

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