Print this Article

Research Conducted in Central California Districts

Study Gives Computers to Low-Income Students, Finds Limited Impact on Educational Outcomes

May 23, 2013

A new study by researchers Robert Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson of UC Santa Cruz, published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggests that simply putting computers in the hands of low-income students doesn’t necessarily improve educational outcomes.

“Our results indicate that computer ownership alone is unlikely to have much of an impact on short-term schooling outcomes for low-income children,” report Fairlie and Robinson in a new study of a large-scale randomized computer give-away experiment involving a little over 1,100 students in 15 schools (including middle schools and high schools) in California’s Central Valley.

The report concluded that the much discussed “digital divide,” with low-income students having little or no online access at home, while students from more affluent households have high speed connections, is still very much in evidence.

Even today, roughly one out of every four children in the United States does not have acomputer with Internet access at home (NTIA 2011),” the report said. “While this gap in access to home computers seems troubling, there is no theoretical or empirical consensus on whether the home computer is a valuable input in the educational production function and whether these disparities limit academic achievement,” according to the report. “Prior studies show both large positive and negative impacts. We provide direct evidence on this question by performing an experiment in which 1,123 schoolchildren grades 6-10 across 15 different schools and 5 school districts in California were randomly given computers to use at home. By only allowing children without computers to participate, placing no restrictions on what they could do with the computers, and obtaining administrative data with virtually no attrition and measurement error, the experiment was designed to improve the likelihood of detecting effects, either positive or negative.”

“Although the experiment substantially increased computer ownership and usage without causing substitution away from use at school or other locations outside the home, we find no evidence that home computers had an effect (either positive or negative) on any educational outcome, including grades, standardized test scores, or a host of other outcomes. Our estimates
are precise enough to rule out even modestly-sized positive or negative impacts. We do not find effects at notable points in the distribution such as pass rates and meeting proficiency standards, throughout the distribution of post-treatment outcomes, throughout the distribution of pretreatment achievement, or for subgroups pre-identified as potentially more likely to benefit,” the report continued.

“We find that home computers increase total use of computers for schoolwork, but also increase total use of computers for games, social networking and other entertainment, which might offset each other. We also find no evidence of positive effects on additional inputs such as turning assignments in on time, time spent on essays, getting help on assignments, software use, and computer knowledge.”

“On the other hand, we also find no evidence of a displacement of homework time. Game and social networking use might not have been extensive enough, within reasonable levels set by parents or interest by children, to negatively affect homework time, grades and test scores. The potential negative effects of computers for U.S. schoolchildren might also be much lower than the large negative effects on homework time and grades found for Romanian schoolchildren in Malamud and Pop-Eleches (2011), where most households do not have a computer at home, because there is less of a novelty of home computers for low-income schoolchildren in the United States for game use. Computers are also used much more extensively in U.S. schools which might exert more of a positive offsetting effect. Thus, for U.S. schoolchildren, and perhaps schoolchildren from other developed countries, concerns over the negative educational effects of computer use for games, social networking, and other forms of entertainment may be overstated.”

“An important caveat to our results is that there might be other effects of having a computer that are not captured in measurable academic outcomes. For example, computers maybe useful for finding information about colleges, jobs, health and consumer products, and may be important for doing well later in higher education. It might also be useful for communicating with teachers and schools and parental supervision of student performance through student information system software. A better understanding of these potential benefits is important for future research.”

“Nevertheless, our results indicate that computer ownership alone is unlikely to have much of an impact on short-term schooling outcomes for low-income children. Existing and proposed interventions to reduce the remaining digital divide in the United States and other countries, such as large-scale voucher programs, tax breaks for educational purchases of computers, Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), and one-to-one laptop programs, need to be realistic about their potential to reduce the current achievement gap.”

The report was published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research. To read a copy of the complete report (on Fairlie’s webpage), click the link below.

Source:  UC Santa Cruz