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International Study Questions Computers’ Aid in Learning

By Andrew Trotter — December 07, 2004 2 min read

Spending on computers in homes and schools is often rationalized as an investment in greater academic achievement, but a recent international analysis waves a caution flag to that view.

“Computers and Student Learning: Bivariate and Multivariate Evidence on the Availability and Use of Computers at Home and at School” is available online from CESifo. ()

The analysis looks at survey data from the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, a test of the achievement of 15-year-old students that is conducted in 32 countries. The countries include 28 of the 30 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the test.

The OECD, based in Paris, includes the United States, Canada, and Mexico, most of the countries in Western Europe, some Eastern European countries, and Japan and South Korea.

Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann, researchers at the University of Munich, analyzed 2000 assessment data for reading literacy and mathematics in detail to control for the effects of family background and school characteristics.

Their report, released last month, says that once other factors are accounted for, the availability of home computers actually has a significant negative relationship to achievement. And the relationship between computers at school and student achievement, while not negative, was statistically insignificant.

“We were quite surprised ourselves,” said Mr. Woessmann, the head of the department of human capital and structural change at the university’s Ifo Institute for Economic Research.

“What you see in official publications of these international tests like the PISA—they give you correlations between computer availability at home and school and student performance that’s usually positive.”

Tracking the Relationship

The factors the researchers sifted out of the data on the use of computers at home included parents’ education levels, migration status of family members, parents’ work status, the number of books at home, and a country’s per-capita wealth.

“The more computers there are in a student’s home, the worse the student’s performance” in both math and reading literacy, the report says.

In schools, the researchers factored in student-to-teacher ratios, national spending on education, availability of instructional materials, instructional and homework time, and the use of exit exams and standardized tests, among other factors.

In schools, students performed worse when they used computers a great deal or very little. Mr. Woessmann suggested that some teachers of low-ability students might decide to avoid computer activities; on the other hand, teachers who use computer activities constantly may be omitting other beneficial activities.

Harold H. Wenglinsky, an education researcher at Hunter College in New York City, has studied the effect of computers on student achievement in the United States. He agreed that other factors in students’ homes and schools can muddy the analysis of the relationship between computers and student achievement.

“In the extreme case of students on the computer all the time, they probably are engaging in nonproductive uses,” Mr. Wenglinsky said. “That’s why it’s so important for parents to monitor their children.”

But he said that some of the findings of Mr. Fuchs and Mr. Woessmann—such as data on the many different way that computers are used in schools—warrant further study to find out which uses are best.

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