“Providing computer training in a more structured, monitored environment might avoid some issues,” he said, adding: “More than 90 percent of families with kids have computers in the home, and they aren’t going anywhere. The real policy question thus isn’t about how to keep computers out of homes, but about informing parents, teachers, and the IT industry about the risks, and potentially devising techniques to mitigate harm.”

It would appear the study’s real lesson, then, is that efforts to close the digital divide also should include parental education and other interventions to change students’ habits. In fact, other studies from respectable and well-established groups have come to the same conclusion.

For example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s most recent report, “Are the New Millennium Learners Making the Grade?” finds that, in general, computer access at home is associated with better school performance in science among 15-year-olds, which is consistent with Vigdor and Ladd’s findings in their across-students comparisons.

However, OECD’s report also found that when the socio-economic status of students is taken into account, computer access exacerbates the effect of socio-economic status on performance in science.

According to Francesc Pedró, senior policy analyst at OECD’s Center for Educational Research and Innovation, computer access widens the performance gap because the computer amplifies the effect of socio-economic background on families and peers.

“This is yet another instance of the Matthew effect: those who have, get more; those who don’t have, get less,” Pedró said. “The increasing importance of social Web 2.0 applications … is likely to increase this Matthew effect, because of the pressure of peers. In my view, the issue at stake is not access to technology—the so-called first digital divide, which still is an issue in some OECD countries as it is in some U.S. states [and] districts—but the uses and values attached to that technology. Educational expectations, and family and peer pressure, are very good predictors of these uses and values.”

OECD’s study concludes that among young people in OECD countries, the first digital divide seems to be disappearing. However, a second divide is emerging, which is “related to the educational benefits young people obtain from computer use depending on their economic, cultural, and social capital.”

According to OECD’s study, computer use can make a difference in educational performance only if the student has the appropriate set of competences, skills, and attitudes. Without these, no matter how intense the student’s use of a computer, the expected benefits will not be realized.

“We couldn’t agree more with [Vigdor and Ladd’s] conclusion that granting home access to technology can have a detrimental effect on the performance of students with a low socio-economic status, if not coupled with dedicated educational interventions or programs,” Pedró said.

He added: “Computers and broadband are multi-purpose tools. If the goal of massive distribution is to improve school performance, granting access to equipment and broadband connections is not enough: It should be paired with educational software, providing activities linked to the actual school work of the student, and under the supervision of professional educators.”

Yet, that wasn’t the conclusion conveyed by some media reports.

A story by the Raleigh News & Observer, headlined “Home computers hurt middle-school students’ test scores,” contained the lead: “You may want to stop and reconsider whether you think a home computer will help your child with reading and math.” And the subhead in a story by the United Kingdom’s Register read: “Digital divide efforts counter-productive, say profs.”

A recent New York Times article, titled “Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality,” states that after examining a few studies on the digital divide, including Duke University’s study, “little or no educational benefit is found” when computers are introduced in student homes. “Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts.”

“These wild-camp claims have to stop,” said Keith Krueger, chief executive of the Consortium for School Networking. “Reading what these media outlets are publishing just goes to show you that you really have to read the original report yourself.”

He continued, “The damage this is doing to those who have advocated for a 24/7 learning environment, and for all kids to be connected, whether or not they come from low-income families, is discouraging.”

Links:

“Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement”

Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

“Are the New Millennium Learners Making the Grade?”

Consortium for School Networking

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the One-to-one computing: The last piece of the puzzle resource center. Educational technology once meant taking a weekly trip to a PC-filled computer lab, or using a classroom projector or PowerPoint for a presentation. But today, technology is as ubiquitous in schools as it is everywhere else. Modern students are digital natives–they’ve grown up with constant access to laptops, cell phones, the internet, mp3 players, and other tech tools for both homework and social use. Go to:

One-to-one computing: The last piece of the puzzle