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My “Take” On Recent Study Saying Home Computer Usage Can Lead To Lower Test Scores

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Last week, a study was released leading to headlines like “Children With Home Computers Likely to Have Lower Test Scores.”

I haven’t seen much conversation about it among ed tech bloggers (though I might just not be reading the blogs that are writing about it), but it certainly has been raised in some education-related blogs that I respect but don’t necessarily focus on ed tech.

According to its abstract, the study:

…demonstrate[s] that the introduction of home computer technology is associated with modest but statistically significant and persistent
negative impacts on student math and reading test scores. 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.

As regular readers know, I am definitely not a “true believer” in technology always having a positive effect on learning. And research that I’ve done with my own students has reinforced that skepticism.

At the same time, however, I believe that home computer usage can be used — selectively and strategically — and definitely benefit student achievement.

Before I elaborate on the “how’s,” though, I’d like to spend a little time specifically talking about the study. The abstract is available for free, but it only costs $5 to purchase it online, which I did. It’s a typically dense academic study, with lots of statistics. This next paragraph is my summary of it, and I’m very open to being told that any parts are inaccurate:

It uses a sampling of 150,000 students. They were all 5th-8th graders in North Carolina, and the study was cut-off in 2005. The computers were not provided by the schools — rather, it was based on families purchasing them on their own. It determined that low-income parents were less likely to monitor their child’s computer usage, resulting in their using it more for gaming and other non-educational activities. Interestingly, it found that if the family had a computer by the time the child was in fifth-grade, their test scores would increase in future years. Only if low-income families would get a computer between 5th and 8th grade would the test scores decrease.

Most of this makes sense to me, which is why I’ve always had questions about programs that give home computers to households with minimal training or accountability. Our school’s family literacy project of providing computers and home internet access to immigrant families results in huge academic gains because it combines training for parents and students and weekly monitoring and accountability. Without training or accountability, it doesn’t seem to me that schools should put much effort into getting technology into the hands of students at home.

And there are many other ways the idea of training and accountability can be implemented. I spend time showing students plenty of potentially engaging ways they can use the Internet at home to gain extra credit (since a sizable number don’t have it at home I really can’t require it as an assignment and, instead, they have other ways to get extra credit), and many do so. Though I’m not that familiar with one-to-one laptop programs, I assume the training and accountability are integral to their operation — at least, in the ones that work.

Of course, students, parents, and teachers need to receive training to make all this work.

What’s your “take” on the study, and on what I’ve written about it?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

2 Comments

  1. Definitely the use of tecnology can either help or distract the students; i.e. it can push academic achievements up or deteriorate them. The key point overhere is the orientation received by children form both the school and the parents. If it is all done appropriately there won’t be any problem but plenty of advantages will be provided instead

  2. I’m with you, Larry–I think all kinds of magical powers have been ascribed to technologies, and this revering of machines as force for intellectual improvement has been going on forever. Schools will buy “stuff” far more readily than they’ll hire a new person (although they’re stuck with useless stuff when it’s not used or becomes obsolete–and people either adapt or get released).

    I am always amazed by the excitement generated by a new technology or “free” tool. The results of this study seem so unsurprising and mundane to me–why would anyone have thought otherwise? Did we expect children to become more intellectually curious every time a new television set was purchased? Or more enlightened consumers of music when they acquired an MP3 player. The kinds of curiosity, evaluation and knowledge-connecting skills that make machines useful come from human interaction.

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