Study of the Week: Computers in the Home

A quickie today. It is fair to say that technology plays an enormous role in our educational discourse. Indeed, “technology will solve our educational problems” is a central part of the solutionism that dominates ed talk. From “teach a kid to code” to “who needs highly trained teachers when there’s Khan Academy?,” the idea that digital technology holds the key to the future of schooling is ubiquitous and unavoidable.

This is strange given that educational technology has done almost nothing but fail. Study after study has found no impact on education metrics from technology.

(Now, let me say upfront: this blog post is not intended as a literature review for the vast body of work on the educational impacts of technology. It is instead using a large and indicative study to discuss a broader research trend. If you would like for me to write a real literature review, my PayPal is available at the right.)

Consider having a personal computer in the home. Many would assume that this would give kids an advantage in school. After all, they could play educational software, surf the Web, get help on their homework remotely…. And yet that appears to not be the case. Published in 2013, this week’s study comes from the National Bureau of Educational Research. Written by Robert W. Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson of UC Santa Cruz, the study finds in fact that a personal computer in the home simply makes no difference to student outcomes – not good, not bad, nothing.

The study is large (= 1,123) and high quality. In particular, it offers the rare advantage of being a genuine controlled randomized experiment. That is, the researchers identified research subjects who, at baseline, did not own computers, assigned them randomly to control (no computer) and test (given a computer). This is really not common in educational research. Typically, you’d have to do an observational/correlational study. That is, you’d try to identify research subjects, find which of them already have computers and which didn’t, and look for differences in the groups. These studies are often very useful and the best we have to go on given the nature of the questions we are likely to ask. You can’t, for example, assign poverty as a condition to some kids and not to others. (And, obviously, it would be unethical if you could.) But experiments, where researchers actually cause the difference between experimental and control groups – some methodologists say that there must be, in some sense, a physical intervention to manipulate independent variables – are the gold standard because they are the studies where we can most carefully assess cause and effect. Giving one set of kids computers certainly qualifies as a physical intervention.

And the results are clear: it just doesn’t matter. Grades, test scores, absenteeism and more… no impact. The study is generally accessible to a general audience, save for some discussion of their statistical controls, and I encourage you to peruse it on your own.

In its irrelevance for academic outcomes, owning a personal computer joins a whole host of other educational interventions via digital technology that have washed out completely. But hope springs eternal. I couldn’t help but laugh at this interview of Marc Andreessen in Vox, as it’s so indicative of how this conversation works. Andreessen makes outsized claims about the future impacts of technology. Timothy Lee points out that these claims have never come true in the past. Andreessen simply asserts that this will change, and Lee dutifully writes it down. That is the basic trend, always: the repeated failures of technology to make actually meaningful impacts on student outcomes will always be hand waved away; progress is always coming, next year, or the year after that, or the next. Meanwhile, we had the internet in my classrooms in my junior high school in 1995. Maybe it’s time to stop waiting for technology to save us.

But then again, there are iPads to sell….

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