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Learning Gains From Computers Still Elusive, Study Says

Efforts to close the "digital divide" and boost student achievement by supplying students with home laptops have been getting a lot of attention in recent years. What's still unclear, though, is whether that sort of thing could make a difference.

In an effort to get a handle on that question, researchers Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd studied statewide data on North Carolina students from 2000 and 2005—a period of time when computer access expanded noticeably and many areas of the state were just getting access to high-speed internet service. The study focused on students enrolled in 5th through 8th grades.

The researchers were able to figure out which students had computers at home because North Carolina students fill out surveys asking them about computer use and ownership in tandem with the state exams they take every year. To determine whether areas had internet access, the researchers relied on zip code data and Federal Communications Communication reports on the rollout of Internet services.

The news was not good, though: The researchers found that students who gain access to a home computer between 5th and 8th grade tend to experience a slight—yet persistent—decline in reading and math scores. With regard to the introduction of Internet access, the researchers found that the technology had a more negative impact on some students than others—possibly because parents of those students exercised less control of their activities on the Internet.

"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," the study concludes.

One caveat the researchers offer, though, is that this study does not look beyond test scores. For instance, computer-literacy could pave the way to better job opportunities for some students. We'll never know from this report.

You also need to know that this is another one of those working papers from the National Bureau of Economic Research. By the way, a commenter recently asked me why I report these findings since they don't come from a peer-reviewed journal. My thinking is that people in the trenches need to know what the research says now, not a year from now when academic journals get around to publishing it. And NBER working papers are the next best thing. They're more of a finished product, anyway, than many of the the presentations that researchers make in conferences. So, if a study has interesting findings and seems to incorporate reasonable research methods, I let you know about it. I figure you are smart enough, in the end, to sort it all out for yourself.


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