Two recent studies on the effect of home computer access on students’ academic achievement have recently gotten a lot of attention after being discussed by David Brooks and Randall Stross in the New York Times. In Romania, children of families that won a voucher to purchase a computer had lower school grades in Math, English, and Romanian after a year that children of families who did not get the voucher. In North Carolina, children who gained access to a computer also experienced lower test scores in math. The papers were recently discussed in the New York Times In 2008, Paige Ware and I published a paper called Learning, Change, and Power: Competing Discourses of Technology and Literacy. I believe these three competing frameworks are very helpful for considering how to interpret these findings.
I use the term “Learning” (admittedly, not the best term) to refer to those who evaluate uses of technology by students solely from the perspective of the impact on academic achievement, usually as measured by student test scores taken within the first year or two of gaining access. From this point of view, the two studies confirm what many have suspected–that supplying computers to children does not raise their test scores and that there is thus little reason to increase spending on computers in schools. (And, if we do choose to use computers in schools, our only measuring stick for their success should be how they impact standardized test scores.)
I use the term “Change” to refer to those people who value sweeping change in the media of communication for its own sake. From this perspective, everything new that children do, from tweeting to instant messaging to online gaming, is breaking through the old, limited way of doing things and is preparing students for a successful life in the 21st century. Thus test scores don’t matter–only difficult-to-measure new literacies do–and we could probably solve most educational problems if we tore down schools and let kids play online games all day.
From the perspective of “Power,” the ultimate goal of education is not test scores alone, or newness for its own sake, but rather increasing the opportunities of individuals and communities to fully participate in, and contribute to, society in all walks of life, through further study, careers, and civic engagement. From this point of view, test scores matter, because they are reflective of important underlying skills of literacy and numeracy, but they are not the be all and end all. New literacies also matter, but, like traditional literacies, they must be seen in context. From this “Power” perspective, we are not only teaching student to read and write texts, but also to read and write the world.
Taking this perspective into account, we cannot try to keep computers out of children’s hands, because they need to learn how to use digital media well for their lives and their futures. (Indeed, those who are arguing against the educational use of computers are using computers for their own pontificating, and I bet their children are using computers as well). Indeed, since low-income children are less likely to master new technological literacies without outside intervention, we are at risk of growing inequality of we don’t figure out how to best make use of technology in education.
At the same time, though, we will not be empowering youth for the long-term if we simply “give them [laptops] and get out of their way”, as advocated by the initiator of the One Laptop Per Child program in Birmingham, Alabama. With the OLPC’s XO laptops owned and maintained by children and their families, there is growing evidence that they are seldom used in schools, even in model OLPC programs such as that in Uruguay. If they are not being used much in school, any benefits would thus need to come from home use. The problem is that, simply providing computers for use at home, outside of any educational intervention or mentoring, likely means they will be principally used to hang out with friends online or play simple games–and any gaps that exist between low- and high-income youth may be amplified (since high-income youth will likely have more social support from friends, neighbors, and family members to support more advanced uses of technology, see, e.g., Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010).
What then to do? I believe that we need to integrate technology into education with a great deal of attention to the other elements–especially curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, professional development, and infrastructure–that can help make its use effective. We also need careful planning, pilot programs, formative and summative evaluation, and staged implementation to help make programs successful. There is evidence (see this example in Colorado) that, when we do this, we will have success in helping students increase test scores and develop new literacies. All of this means that the path toward a digital education will be slower, but in the long run much more successful. To choose either of the other alternatives–either massively handing out computers to young children without ensuring that other requisite elements are in place, or abandoning a vision of improving schools with technology–is to give up before we start.