The Reality of ICT in the Classroom Doesn’t Live Up to the Potential
The National Bureau of Economic Research recently began circulating the results of what is being termed the largest study yet of what happens to academic performance when you give a kid a computer. The news is not good. The study, conducted by Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, examined extensive data on all middle school students in North Carolina public schools between 2000 and 2005. Those years, as the researchers point out, were a time when home computer use and broadband access were both expanding rapidly.
The study found that giving students home PCs led to small but significant declines in academic performance as measured by math and reading test scores. In addition, the researchers reported, the “introduction of high-speed internet service is similarly associated with significantly lower math and reading test scores in the middle grades.” Worse yet, “the introduction of broadband internet is associated with widening racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.” Vigdor and Ladd’s sobering conclusion: “For school administrators interested in maximizing achievement test scores, or reducing racial and socioeconomic disparities in test scores, all evidence suggests that a program of broadening home computer access would be counterproductive.”
Given the excitement that surrounds efforts to close the “digital divide” by subsidizing computer purchases for disadvantaged students and schools, these findings may seem surprising. But they shouldn’t be. An earlier study that examined the effects of giving Romanian students access to computers resulted in similar findings. It discovered that while home computers may improve students’ computer skills, the devices appear to result in an erosion of math and reading skills.
Educators often take an idealized view of new information technologies. They focus on the potential of the technologies to improve academic performance, weaving enticingly optimistic scenarios of how the tools will be used. But the reality of the way the technologies come to be used rarely matches the idealized view. Kids do not, for example, see computers, mobile phones, and the Internet as essentially educational tools. They see them as tools for entertainment and communication. As Vigdor and Ladd suggest, the computer becomes an instrument of distraction, interrupting study rather than deepening it.
Earlier research into the educational consequences of hypertext and multimedia pointed to similar conclusions. Thirty years ago, when personal computers were first coming into schools, it was often assumed that taking in information on screens, with lots of textual links between documents and supporting audio and video presentations, would lead to deeper comprehension and stronger learning than was provided by traditional textbooks. In reality, hyperlinks and multimedia were found to divide students’ attention, leading to reduced comprehension and learning. To put it into psychological terms, computer use often leads to “cognitive overload,” impeding the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory and hence short-circuiting the development of rich conceptual knowledge and critical thinking skills.
It is interesting and revealing to compare the impact of giving students access to computers and the Internet with the impact of giving them access to printed books. One recent study, published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, revealed a strong connection between the number of books in a student’s home and the number of years of education the student completes. “What’s surprising,” wrote the Chronicle of Higher Education in reporting on the research, “is just how strong the correlation is between a child’s academic achievement and the number of books his or her parents own. It’s even more important than whether the parents went to college or hold white-collar jobs. Books matter. A lot.”
Of course computers and the Internet have an important role to play in education, not least because computer skills are increasingly important to economic opportunity and achievement. But it is a mistake to assume that modern technology is an educational panacea, particularly when it comes to helping poor kids close gaps in learning and achievement. Investing precious dollars in teachers, books, and classrooms—in the traditional foundations of education—may well produce greater returns than investing them in computer hardware and software.
Nicholas Carr is the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google.