Computers Widen Achievement Gap in Schools

A new study of home computer use in the United States has thrown the cat amongst the pigeons on programs to provide students with computers for use at home. It found that greater access to computers and high speed internet reduces reading and mathematics achievement and increases racial and socio-economic achievement gaps.

On this evidence, programs for broadening home computer access are counter-productive in terms of improving student achievement. This flies in the face of the widespread belief that expanding home computer and/or internet access is an unequivocally positive policy move.

As in Australia, many US states and school districts have adopted programs providing laptop computers to middle and high school students to reduce the digital divide. Considerable investments have been made even though there is very little evidence of a positive relationship between student computer access and academic outcomes.

The new study corroborates the existence of sizable socio-economic gaps in home computer access in the US. However, the introduction of home computer technology and high speed internet is associated with modest but statistically significant and persistent negative impacts on student test scores for reading and mathematics, particularly for lower income students. The new technologies are also associated with significantly wider racial and socio-economic achievement gaps in reading and mathematics.

The reason is that students mostly use increased access to computers to socialize and play games. The study found that increased availability of high speed internet is actually associated with less frequent self-reported computer use for homework as compared to no availability. Broadband internet access appears to crowd out productive computer use and offline studying by introducing new options for recreational use by students and other family members – and this was before Facebook and Twitter took hold.

The study concluded that home computers are put to more productive use in households where parental monitoring is more effective. In disadvantaged households, parents are less likely to monitor children’s computer use and guide children in using computers for educational purposes.

The study, published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, used data on computer use and test scores for over half-a-million North Carolina middle school students (grades 5 to 8) to assess the impact of greater home computer access and use. It used responses to computer-use questions included on North Carolina’s mandated end-of-grade tests on how frequently students use a home computer for schoolwork, watch TV or read for pleasure.

The study covers the years 2000 to 2005, a time when home computers and high-speed internet access expanded dramatically in North Carolina. The data allowed the researchers to compare the same children’s reading and math scores before and after they acquired a home computer, to compare those scores to those of peers who had a home computer by fifth grade and to test scores of students who never acquire a home computer.

A qualification of the study is that it does not claim to measure all the potential impacts of home computer and internet access. While it found no evidence that access improves reading and mathematics scores, it is possible that computer and internet access improves other important skills not directly measured by these standardized tests. These skills range from the ability to use basic office software to advanced programming or hardware maintenance skills. They are skills that may be highly valued in the labour market.

Trevor Cobbold

Publication details:
Jacob Vigdor & Helen Ladd 2010. Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement. Working Paper No. 16078, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Mass., June.

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