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The Reality of ICT in the Classroom Doesn’t Live Up to the Potential

Nick Carr

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.


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27 Responses to “The Reality of ICT in the Classroom Doesn’t Live Up to the Potential”

  1. One hardly need single out computers to observe that improving educational outcomes via the use of technology is a long, continuous history of failure. Practically every popular technological innovation of the past hundred years was heralded as a boon to education and without exception they’ve all come up short. Telephone, phonograph, motion pictures, radio, airplanes and television have all been tried and they’ve all failed to make much of a dent in education. It would seem that a history like that demands inspection yet the question of education’s seeming invulnerability to technological advancement hardly ever comes up and when it does the explanations that are proffered, when they’re not obviously self-serving, are laughable. So, sorry to hijack your piece, and without much hope of actually kicking off a discussion of the inherent resistance of education to technological innovation, I posit that there’s nothing wrong with ICT in education that isn’t wrong with television, radio or motion pictures.

    • Thank you for your insightful opening reply. At the first headline of this larger piece I wanted it to be straw man and easily criticized. I was starting from Mr. Carr’s early publications like “IT doesn’t matter” (ungated link) . After swallowing my impulses and reading this article, Nick Carr is presenting a reasonable synthesis of a number of studies that have released important results in recent months. To your comment: I think that though legitimate education-oriented aspects almost never come with the initial threshold of technology, they do dawdle into the classroom eventually when the perfect corner of context appears to foster it, not always fully recognized immediately. I barely need to mention Wikipedia. Video demonstrations are now a vital part of the exploratory learning process. We are just now, suddenly, starting to really culturally appreciate ebooks in the US with the right enabling form factor. The argument for long-term paper book investment in distant classrooms is getting weaker by the month as the ebook market blooms–especially when you consider the huge overhead involved in publishing and shipping to classrooms abroad. Regardless of the prior existence of one of these tricky corners that fosters actual clear educational uses, Video and ebooks won’t spread as quickly as they might just left alone so I think we’re still justified in thinking about keeping ICT moving toward the potential that Carr refers to in his title.

  2. This appears to be a quite decent study which the authors have grossly overinterpreted. But without a link to the paper, or even its title, how can we tell? Fortunately, Google is our friend.

    Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement
    Jacob L. Vigdor, Helen F. Ladd
    NBER Working Paper No. 16078
    Issued in June 2010

    But what’s this?

    Online access to NBER Working Papers denied, you have no subscription
    You may purchase this paper on-line in .pdf format from SSRN.com ($5) for electronic delivery.

    This appears to be an indication that giving government access to computers also has issues, and that we need the Open Access Bill to require that government research be published electronically at no charge, in order to maximize value rather than revenue. But all is not lost. We can at least read the abstract at no charge.

    “Does differential access to computer technology at home compound the educational disparities between rich and poor? Would a program of government provision of computers to early secondary school students reduce these disparities? We use administrative data on North Carolina public school students to corroborate earlier surveys that document broad racial and socioeconomic gaps in home computer access and use. Using within-student variation in home computer access, and across-ZIP code variation in the timing of the introduction of high-speed internet service, we also demonstrate that the introduction of home computer technology is associated with modest but statistically significant and persistent negative impacts on student math and reading test scores. Further evidence suggests that providing universal access to home computers and high-speed internet access would broaden, rather than narrow, math and reading achievement gaps.”

    Now, why do I say that this is overinterpreted? Because there is only one controlled variable, and you can’t draw conclusions about any of the other possibilities. Give the kids computers and no schoolwork to do on them, and it distracts from schoolwork. Wow.

    But what if

    Every child had a computer running the same education software?

    Textbooks were rewritten to make use of computer capabilities for teaching, learning, schoolwork, and homework?

    Teachers were trained to use these resources?

    What then? We don’t know anything about those factors from this study, but we do from others, showing some of the conditions required in order to get sometimes astonishing positive results. You can find some of them at http://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Education_Team/Evaluation_Studies

  3. robvanson

    Interesting study. It does support the Romanian study. Let me concentrate on Math. They find a small, but consistent negative correlation between access to computers/Internet and math test achievement. This means that having access to a computer will reduce the ability to score high on a standard math test. School math is completely alien to a child’s daily life. No child will EVER encounter a sin(x) or cube x^3 function in her daily life. If we look at the tests, we can be sure that none of the questions in the standard Math tests have any chance of popping up in a conversation, TV or Radio broadcast, or any book a child might encounter. Moreover, none of their relatives or friends are likely to even understand these questions, let alone know the answer. The standard tests are also quite remote from what is taught in university in, say physics and mathematics. I understood that a child that would, for a hobby, study, say, general relativity, quantum mechanics, or the latest P!=NP proof, would likely do bad in the standard math test (I exaggerate, I know ;-). See: A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart http://www.maa.org/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf Therefore, the success of taking a standard math test are completely and utterly determined by the amount of time the children spend studying for the test. Which means that anything that makes a student spend less time making homework and studying for the test would reduce the grades. As there really is nothing on-line or in a computer that could help you pass the standard math tests, any time spend on a computer and not studying for the test would reduce grades in the math test. So the studies quoted do show that having something else to do reduces the time children spend on class math homework. So if your goal is good grades for the math test, make sure your children have nothing else to do instead. Like, TV, computer games, books, or friends. The reasoning for reading ability is left as an exercise for the reader. ““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.”” What is surprising is that the Chronicle did not factor in what the amount of books in a household tell us about the parents. It would matter if the study had estimated the number of books READ by the child, from home or from the library. Still, I think that here the attitude of the parents towards school are confounded with their possession of books. And we already know that the ideas of the parents on school achievements are the most important factor determining future school success of a child.

    • They find a small, but consistent negative correlation between access to computers/Internet and math test achievement. This means that having access to a computer will reduce the ability to score high on a standard math test. This is really interesting … exactly my opinion as well … would you be able to point me to some studies or research that proved the above … does ICT help in any school subject? not the use of ICT for research or information, but does using computers makes you better in school?

      • robvanson

        "They find a small…"

        This remark was meant as a summary of the study mentioned above, but also of the studies in Romania and North Carolina discussed earlier:

        "Frameworks for Interpreting the Romania and North Carolina Home Computer Use Studies" /educational-ict-at-home/

        About my ideas of evaluating ICT4E, they are summed up pretty good in the story of the "Horse riders" in another comment to the current article.

        See also my earlier contributions:
        "ICT in Education Assessments are Biased and Inaccurate" /assessing-ict4e-evaluati


        "Stop Wasting Children with ICT4E Assessments" /assessing-ict4e-evaluati


    • I realize this reply comes much later than the post and I haven't read all the comments yet, but I had to stop and reply. I've read two posts that say the correlation found in the study "means" having access will reduce test scores. This is simply a common misunderstanding of the statistical term "correlation". Correlation does not mean causation. Ask a statistician! It's often stated in statistical textbooks. It means there is a correlation just like having a large population is correlated with higher ER admissions. That doesn't mean that living in a big city will cause you to get admitted to an emergency room. Just like the post further down that states that having books in the house doesn't cause children to be better in school. Those books are a result of parent's views and priorities. Giving a child a computer with no training or guidance as to its educational and life-skill benefits does not cause lower test scores. It is a result of being given a new distraction. Look beyond correlations to find causation. They are not the same.

  4. Eileen Honan

    This comment is in direct response to the findings of studies that somehow manage to find a correlation between the results on standardized testing and a students’ use of digital technologies. Imagine a nation of horse riders with a clearly defined set of riding capabilities. In one short decade the motor car is invented and within that same decade many children become highly competent drivers extending the boundaries of their travel as well as developing highly new leisure pursuits (like stock car racing and hot rodding) At the end of the decade government ministers want to assess the true impact of automobiles on the nation’s capability. They do it by putting everyone back on the horses and checking their dressage, jumping and trotting as before. (Heppell, 1994: 154) Heppell, S. (1994). Multimedia and learning: Normal children, normal lives and real change. In J. Underwood (Ed.) Computer-based learning: Potential into practice, London: David Fulton. (pp. 152-161)

  5. There’s an important issue that seems absent from this discussion of research on the academic impact of home computers – what happens when wraparound programming is included with that introduction?

    For example an evaluation of the Texas Technology Immersion Pilot(1), which served more than 7,000 students and included educational software and teacher training, found positive impacts among low-income students' test scores in reading and math – for math, two of the cohorts scores rose by 16 percent and 20 percent of a standard deviation, respectively. This is a sizable impact particularly when compared with the relatively small changes cited in the Duke study.

    We’ve seen similar results in our programs at Computers for Youth (CFY) (2) – a nonprofit organization that helps low-income students do better in school by improving their learning environment at home. CFY marries home computers with targeted educational content and training both for families and for teachers. (part I of II)

    (1) texas study: http://www.tcer.org/research/etxtip/documents/y4_
    (2) CFY impact: http://www.cfy.org/impact-on-families.php

  6. (part II of II) …Even the authors of the Romania study(3) state that wraparound programming may be beneficial and cite two studies that support this point. In sum, an expanded review of the research shows that broadening home computer access in conjunction with effective wraparound programming can be highly productive and should be pursued aggressively.

    (3) Romania study: http://harrisschool.uchicago.edu/about/publicatio

  7. Hello, great article.

  8. Pursued aggressively! (to use ICT tools in deprived settings)

    First should be persuaded aggressively: a few pilot-projects in different settings to test or a ICT device is improving learning standards and how this can be made sustainable. Needed first is clear evidence that this ICT really improves learning here (supported by independent research). The expertise has to be developed to implement it safely and create the conditions to guarantee that this piece of ICT this time will live up to its' potential – even in poor infrastructures.

    Having all this secured, the ICT-community has the full right to pursued aggressively governments of a low-income country to invest their limited budgets in this ICT. For more see http://visualteach.blogspot.com/2010/06/worlds-of… and http://visualteach.blogspot.com/2010/05/worst-pra

    • robvanson

      "Needed first is clear evidence that this ICT really improves learning here (supported by independent research). "

      We had that discussion extensively on this site earlier. I still stand by my opinion that most of these ICT4E evaluations are worthless.

      See also my earlier contributions:
      "ICT in Education Assessments are Biased and Inaccurate" /assessing-ict4e-evaluati


      "Stop Wasting Children with ICT4E Assessments" /assessing-ict4e-evaluati


  9. Ian Thomson

    Thanks for the references Elizabeth,

    I had resolved not to get involved in this seemingly silly debate It is a classic example of the Internet Shallows from the related thread.

    There are many examples of ICT projects that have worked well in improving educational outcomes, or started poorly and then improved with very valuable lessons learnt. And of course there are many more that have not learnt the lessons and "failed" (The failure being one of failing to learn)

    The debate is not about the failure of technology, it is the failure to implement


  10. At risk of being put in a box before my comments are read, I want to say upfront that I agree with Ian/Elizabeth egarding the viewpoints that suffocate, rather than ventilate, this important debate.

    Perhaps coming from a country and region where ICT is the only real hope for change inalmost all aspects of our lives helps cut through the sophistry. In Africa, the hope for a lierate, competitiv geneneration lies in the massive proliferation of ICT4E – we simply cannot build the schools fast enough, nor afford to build the millionsof classrooms requred for nearly 600m Africansbelow the age of 20; recruit, train or even pay the army of teachers required for instructor-led learning (as opposed to blended learning); nor accelerate through analogue means the rate of adoption, breadth or depth of learning that would make our continent a meaningful part of the 21st and other centuries to come.

    If you are still with me so far, you get the context for my comments belw which i will enumerate admittedly based on my version of "truth and commonsense":

  11. 1) parachuting computers and other education technology tools into schools or homes WILL result in declining performance for the simple reason that the computer becomes just one more taskmaster or toy to be accomodated in a system that is already not working as we would wish
    2) to my knowledge, mankind is yet to develop a learning system that is devoid of guided interaction – even student-centric models need to be teacher-led in order to be effective
    3) just like we do not necessarily read MORE because we have access to the world's library (the WWW), access to a computer at home cannot correlate to MORE learning because our children can
    4) education is an ecosystem but it is also an extremely differentiated and individualised one too so its transformation will not come about without a concerted change effort carrying ALL stakeholders along. The concept of information ecologies recognises that ICT is especially disruptive, with upsides and well as downsides mitigated by careful planning, flexibility and agility in strategizing (not fixed strategy)
    …….contd. below

  12. 5) as a corrollary to (4) above, no one-size-fits-all approach or model works so it should not surprise anyone that there are tales of failure galore. Making ICT4E work is work, continuous often thankless work which is less spectacular than open heart surgery but goes beyond the latter to encompass open brain surgery!
    Let me summarise (I have lots more to say as usual): the dabate was about the "surprisingly" poor returns on investments in ICT4E – " 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." From a such a great writer and thinker, it is a surprising conclusion. Surely this is more about an AND, than it is an EITHER/OR! C'mon guys, let's do this thing!

    PS. Anyone read Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson and Michael B. Horn?

  13. Edward Jhon

    With HCL ISD coming up with their innovative platform MyCloud, Nicholas G. Carr (aka Nick), the author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google, anticipates more such innovations out of intense competition. View HCL Technologies' VP – Marketing Anubhav Saxena asking him about the development of an economic progress model for the suppliers of Cloud Computing. "Cloud is going to turn a lot of basic infrastructure into a raw commodity," nodded Nick while replying to Anubhav. http://bit.ly/kKjWJF

  14. Since this article, there ARE new, better technologies that do adapt to individual students and break the now old fashioned "PDF style eBook" model. One such eText that does this for the media-rich field of music is "Fundamentals for the Aspiring Musician" (link below) which has it's own new pedagogically-designed eText interface and addresses all the linear/non-linear learning issues in Nick Carr's fine books. What the education field needs now is more innovative and pedagogically (as opposed to commercially) designed tools that focus student's attention rather than distract.



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