The Other Idiot Box, Part II

One of our ANU RSSS visitors, Jacob Vigdor, has an opinion piece in today’s Australian about the (negative) impact of home computer use on test scores. He writes:

Why should we believe, though, that the true effects are negative? The basic problem is that the modern computer is much more than a tool for productivity. It is also a tool for entertainment. Expecting a 12-year-old to use a computer for productivity only, and not for diversion, is as unreasonable as expecting him or her to watch only educational programs on television, or to use the telephone solely for emergencies. We, the rational adults, know that the productive use is best in the long run. The teenage brain, however, is wired to ignore the long run. The prefrontal cortex, that portion of gray matter devoted to evaluating the long-range consequences of present actions, is not fully open for business until age 25 or so.

This simple neurological fact helps make sense of the results of my study (which is co-authored with two of my Duke colleagues, Charles Clotfelter and Helen Ladd). To infer the impact of computer ownership on basic academic skills, we tracked survey information provided by students in North Carolina public schools as they progress from age nine to 14. About one in every 10 students, among the hundreds of thousands in our sample, report having no computer in their home when they are young, but acquire one as they age. We compared the reading and maths test score performance of these acquirers, relative to their peers, before and after the computer arrived in their household. We performed a similar before-and-after comparison to gauge the impact of the introduction of broadband service in each student’s postcode. Our strategy of using before-and-after comparisons helps us avoid the mistakes of earlier studies, which confuse computer ownership with the other benefits of wealth.

Across the board, we estimated negative impacts. Not catastrophically negative, but clearly inconsistent with the view that students use home computers and the internet primarily to further their studies. Interestingly, the results were also consistent with earlier research on the subject of computer use in classrooms, which has also struggled to find any positive impact.

How ought a conscientious parent (and taxpayer) react to this news? Don’t throw out junior’s computer just yet. Realise, however, that from an adolescent’s perspective, a computer is a toy that also happens to have some school-related uses, rather than the other way round. If left to his or her own devices, your child will most likely find novel and interesting ways to waste time with a computer. The solution is not so much to remove the computer as to avoid leaving junior to his or her own devices.

From a policy perspective, subsidising computer access, without stipulating the adult supervision that needs to go with it, is not a recipe for academic success. As in so many cases, the proper recipe includes a healthy portion of adult instruction and monitoring. My research indicates that you can’t rely on every parent to provide this critical ingredient.

2 thoughts on “The Other Idiot Box, Part II”

  1. again i point out (and this is a point so trite that it barely seems worth mentioning) that the point of teaching kids how to use computers effectively and efficiently isn’t a means to an end (higher scores on standardised tests), it’s an end in itself. Computer literacy – not just knowing how to turn it on and punch words in slowly with two-fingers, but knowing how to efficiently and effectively use a computer – is a core skill of many, many modern workplaces.
    the question isn’t “does more computer use (at home/school) lead to better test scores?”. The question is “is an education which doesn’t involve heavy use of computers meaningful?”.


  2. Computers are just tools. Tools go out of use with changes in technology – anybody remember how important mainframes were in the workplace?

    I’d rather schools teach children how to think for themselves than using Google to find out what somebody else thinks.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: