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.

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3 Responses to The Other Idiot Box, Part II

  1. Kevin Cox says:

    It is surprising that the effect is not even worse than measured. Any new technology takes time to learn to use efficiently. This is worse – as the authors suggest – if the young people are not given instructions on how best to make use of the technology and if “assignments” and student assessment are still geared to older technologies.

  2. conrad says:

    I love the way economists are now getting into brain hyperbole. You should watch out — If people start liking it too much, you’ll be forced to do useless fMRI studies to get your stuff published in good journals eventually.

  3. Patrick says:

    The obvious response is to imagine someone not familar with computers trying to pass uni or get a job or indeed do much.

    File this under: Kids will be kids, and: There’s more to life (and even school) than marks.

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