kitchen table math, the sequel: stop the madness

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

stop the madness

Terrific article on educational technology in the business section of the Sunday Times:
MIDDLE SCHOOL students are champion time-wasters. And the personal computer may be the ultimate time-wasting appliance. Put the two together at home, without hovering supervision, and logic suggests that you won’t witness a miraculous educational transformation.

Still, wherever there is a low-income household unboxing the family’s very first personal computer, there is an automatic inclination to think of the machine in its most idealized form, as the Great Equalizer. In developing countries, computers are outfitted with grand educational hopes, like those that animate the One Laptop Per Child initiative, which was examined in this space in April. The same is true of computers that go to poor households in the United States.

Economists are trying to measure a home computer’s educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. Taking widely varying routes, they are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts.

Ofer Malamud, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago, is the co-author of a study that investigated educational outcomes after low-income families received vouchers to help them buy computers.

“We found a negative effect on academic achievement,” he said. “I was surprised, but as we presented our findings at various seminars, people in the audience said they weren’t surprised, given their own experiences with their school-age children.”

Why is it parents know these things and schools don't?

My own district now has a plan in place to wire the entire high school (& middle school? - I've forgotten) for internet access. I didn't pay close attention to the various presentations and pitches on the subject, but the idea seems to be that kids will never, ever get onto porn sites at school because we'll be buying some kind of super-duper firewall that cannot be beaten. Plus we'll have, as I recall, a central Screen of some sort that allows a central Employee of some sort to monitor every single site every single person in the building(s) is currently logged onto. ( this a full-time employee? With tenure? And step increases?)

We "need" this new technology because high school students need to bring their laptops to school to do online research during school hours.

The school will deal with the problem of students surfing the web in class by not allowing students to use their laptops in class. At least, I think that's the idea.

But of course some of the 504C kids have accommodations that specifically allow them to use a laptop to take notes, so how does the school prevent those kids from surfing the internet during class?

digital divide redux
In the United States, Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd, professors of public policy at Duke University, reported similar findings. Their National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “Scaling the Digital Divide,” published last month, looks at the arrival of broadband service in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005 and its effect on middle school test scores during that period. Students posted significantly lower math test scores after the first broadband service provider showed up in their neighborhood, and significantly lower reading scores as well when the number of broadband providers passed four.

The Duke paper reports that the negative effect on test scores was not universal, but was largely confined to lower-income households...

technology immersion redux

The state of Texas recently completed a four-year experiment in “technology immersion.” The project spent $20 million in federal money on laptops distributed to 21 middle schools whose students were permitted to take the machines home. Another 21 schools that did not receive funds for laptops were designated as control schools.


At the conclusion, a report prepared by the Texas Center for Educational Research tried to make the case that test scores in some academic subjects improved slightly at participating schools over those of the control schools. But the differences were mixed and included lower scores for writing among the students at schools “immersed” in technology. 


Catherine Maloney, director of the Texas center, said the schools did their best to mandate that the computers would be used strictly for educational purposes. Most schools configured the machines to block e-mail, chat, games and Web sites reached by searching on objectionable key words. The key-word blocks worked fine for English-language sites but not for Spanish ones. “Kids were adept at getting around the blocks,” she said.

How disappointing to read in the Texas study that “there was no evidence linking technology immersion with student self-directed learning or their general satisfaction with schoolwork.”

When devising ways to beat school policing software, students showed an exemplary capacity for self-directed learning. Too bad that capacity didn’t expand in academic directions, too.
Technology immersion has nothing to do with self-directed learning. Seriously.


Bostonian said...

The study compares "low-income" and "higher-income" students. Intelligence is positively correlated income, and it is largely inherited. Smart people tend to have smart kids, and the smart parents research how their children's learning can be enhanced by the internet, for example visiting blogs like this to learn sites like the Khan Academy. Smart children are more likely than dull children to be interested in using the web to learn new things. Thus the personal computer increases the dreaded "achievement gap".

One obvious policy implication is NOT to subsidize broadband Internet for everyone, as the Obama administration has proposed.

Anonymous said...

In reply to Bostonian, I think there are more obvious reasons for the low-income correlation: low income families are less likely to have a parent at home supervising after school, and (low-income) families where this is a first computer are likely to have parents who are less computer-savvy, and therefore less likely to notice and do something about chronic time wasting computer behavior.


LynnG said...

Thanks, LSquared, those are good points.

Also -- higher income kids tend to have less free time to surf. Speaking anecdotally, most elementary through middle school families around here have their kids in camps, sports, and other activities that reduce the amount of time the kids have to just sit around and waste time on youtube and hulu.

SteveH said...

Duh! Did they really need to do a study? Instead of looking at the questions on the tests and working backwards, they apply good ol' guess and check. Is this the critical thinking they hope kids will learn in school?

palisadesk said...

Perhaps in many areas this is a valid criticism, but I can see potential for valuable learning for students in remote and underserviced areas.

I recently heard an upbeat radio documentary on the One Laptop Per Child project in Uruguay (outside of Montevideo, many rural children live in areas with no electricity and go to school on horseback). I found the documentary here:
Uruguay project
Here's a print story about it:

It resonated with me because it would have made a huge difference if such resources had been available to me when I taught for a year in a very remote community where we had no books, no TV even (there were VCRs)and trying to teach many concepts or interest children in the world was nearly impossible.