Technology can have a detrimental effect on student performance if not coupled with educational programs. Copyright: Nevit Dilmen.

Technology can have a detrimental effect on student performance if not coupled with educational programs. Copyright: Nevit Dilmen.

Two researchers at Duke University have published a draft study that raises questions about the academic value of giving students home computers and broadband internet access. Their study has led to a flurry of media coverage, with some reports trumpeting the study’s findings as evidence that efforts to close the digital divide are counterproductive. But is that what their research really says?

The study, “Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement,” is the work of researchers Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. It was published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research as a working paper that was not peer-reviewed.

The study examined the reading and math test scores of more than 500,000 North Carolina public school students in grades five through eight from 2000-05. It sought to determine if differential access to computer technology at home compounds the educational disparities among students from various socio-economic backgrounds, and whether government provision of computers to middle school students would reduce those disparities.

The researchers found that students who had home computers for all five years of the period examined had better test scores overall than students who did not have home computers during this time. But the scores of students who reported getting a computer during this period showed a moderate decline in their first three years of home computer access. This effect was most pronounced for students who received free or reduced-price lunches and/or who were black.

“The introduction of home computer technology is associated with modest but statistically significant and persistent negative impacts on student math and reading test scores,” the researchers write in the abstract to their report. “Further evidence suggests that providing universal access to home computers and high-speed internet access would broaden, rather than narrow, math and reading achievement gaps.”

The researchers attribute the lower test scores to a lack of parental supervision and time management skills—that is, they theorize that students from lower-income households (those whose parents are less likely to be educated, and who either cannot or do not monitor their children’s use of computers at home) are more prone to use their computers for games or other non-educational uses than for homework.

However, the researchers make it clear that this is only a hypothesis.

“It is a hypothesis—an explanation that is consistent with the evidence,” said Vigdor in an interview with eSchool News. “It’s the most plausible explanation we can think of for the differential impacts noted [in our study].”

The study used a method called within-student comparison, which examined individual children before and after they obtained a computer in their household. Researchers took note of elements such as how long students reported having access to a home computer, students’ gender and ethnicity, whether they took part in the National School Lunch Program, and their scores on a state exam testing reading and math skills.

The researchers used a state database of reading and math test scores for all grade levels. For each student, researchers observed test performance as many as four times.

“This was critical to the analysis, as we are comparing the performance of the same children before and after they receive a home computer and/or broadband service in their ZIP code,” Vigdor said.

When public school students in North Carolina take the state’s required end-of-grade tests in math and reading, they fill out a brief questionnaire regarding their time use outside of school. The questionnaire asks about time spent on homework, time spent reading for leisure, time spent watching television, and the frequency of home computer use for schoolwork.

It’s this last question, asked of nearly one million students in fifth through eighth grade between 2000 and 2005, that served as the basis for the researchers’ analysis, as one of the possible responses is “I do not have a computer at home.” The researchers were able to hone in on the data for students whose answer to this question changed during the period studied.

The researchers also analyzed the test scores of students across various socio-economic groups according to whether there was broadband access available in their ZIP code, and they found similar minor but statistically significant negative effects on the test scores of students whose ZIP codes attained broadband access during the period studied—effects that were more pronounced among low-income and black students.

It’s important to note that the researchers had no way of correlating for sure whether students whose families owned computers also had broadband access during the period; instead, the researchers relied only on the availability of broadband service in the students’ communities.

It’s also important to note that Vigdor and Ladd did not base their analysis on observations of school laptop programs or other school-based efforts to close the digital divide. In these more structured programs, where teachers are assigning computer-based homework and parents receive computer training as well—often signing a contract promising to monitor their children’s computer activity at home—it’s entirely possible that researchers would see different results. And that’s something Vigdor acknowledges, too.

“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