Many schools provide their students with personal computers, aiming to bridge the digital divide between high- and low-income families. However, the latest research suggests that access to a computer at home does not improve results at school.
Computers and digital methods have for some years been slowly but surely making inroads into the classroom. Many schools in the United States purchase all sorts of computers and tablet devices in order to ensure that all students have access to the new information and communication technologies at school; and many are adopting ‘blended learning’ methods, combining traditional teaching with use of ICT materials. However, a number of teachers are worried about what is called the ‘digital divide’: nine million students between the ages of 10 and 17 have no computer at home. Some studies suggest that these disparities result in educational inequalities between the children of the more and the less affluent families. Now a paper published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)* makes the opposite case, i.e. that having access to a computer at home has no impact on academic achievement.
Estimated ‘null effect’
To help level the inequalities between students, some schools have launched programs to ensure every student has a computer at home, the idea being that having home access to a computer will enable students to continue their studies in the home and look up information for their classwork, while also helping to improve their basic digital and cognitive skills. But these programs are expensive to run – for example giving fifty-five million state school students personal computers costs the State of California billions of dollars. So the NBER carried out a year-long experiment on students there. NBER provided 1,123 students in fifteen Californian schools with computers for one year, but without any training or special instructions on how to use them. At the end of the school year, the investigators found that: “although computer ownership and use increased substantially, we find no effects (either positive or negative) on any educational outcomes.” The report claims that the estimates were precise enough to “rule out even modestly-sized positive or negative impacts.”
Need for subsidies called into question
The paper takes into account several ‘educational outcomes’, including grades, test scores, credits earned, class attendance and disciplinary actions. The experiment indicated that none of these quantifiable outcomes were influenced by not having a computer in the home. The paper therefore concludes that not having a computer a home does not constitute a handicap vis-à-vis other students. At the same time, although students in the experiment who were using a computer at home spent more time overall on computers at school and home combined – i.e. spending time not only on schoolwork but also on non-school activities such as video games and social networking – this did not have a proven negative impact on their academic success either. In short, the authors of the NBER paper conclude that “existing and proposed interventions to reduce the remaining digital divide in the United States (…) need to be realistic about their potential to reduce the current achievement gap.”
*Experimental Evidence on the Effects of Home Computers on Academic Achievement among Schoolchildren: Robert W. Fairlie, Jonathan Robinson (NBER Working Paper No. 19060,
issued May 2013)