Opinion
Classroom Technology Commentary

Home Computers and Student Achievement

By Elisabeth Stock & Ray Fisman — October 11, 2010 6 min read

A spate of recent news stories with attention-grabbing headlines like “Home Computers Hurt Students’ Test Scores” may have many readers reaching the conclusion that a home computer is about as useful an educational aid as a PlayStation.

The media reports cite as evidence two research studies—one conducted in North Carolina by Duke University researchers Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd, and the other conducted in Romania by Ofer Malamud of the University of Chicago and Cristian Pop-Eleches of Columbia University. Each study indicates that home computers have a detrimental effect on student achievement, particularly among students from low-income households.

But before schools and parents dismiss the potential of the home computer as a learning tool, it’s useful to step back and take a clear-eyed look at what these studies actually demonstrate, and what some other studies have to offer on this important topic.

The research in North Carolina and in Romania explored whether the presence of home technology, by itself, makes a difference in students’ achievement. Both studies found that home computers did not produce better students (as measured by better test scores). Yet this conclusion is not surprising: We certainly don’t assume that distributing violins will produce violinists, nor do we expect footballs, by themselves, to produce varsity quarterbacks.

The two of us believe that a far more fruitful area of inquiry would be this: Can a home computer be introduced in such a way that it will support a more effective home-learning environment and, in turn, improve academic achievement?

This is a question that been explored by the Texas Education Agency, through its Technology Immersion Pilot, and the nonprofit group Computers for Youth. Evaluations of programs run by these organizations suggest that home computers can in fact produce better students and improve test scores. But before reviewing those results, it’s worth discussing an even more basic question about student learning.

When we two first met in 2008, Ray had just written an article for Slate about the Romania study in which he, too, was guilty of drawing broad conclusions on the value of home computing. After reading it, Elisabeth, the chief executive officer of Computers for Youth, suggested a meeting. Our discussions focused not on the past failures of unstructured home-computing interventions, but on the potential for technology to complement both classroom education and the efforts of parents to support learning in the home.

Ray reached out to education academics on this topic, and they echoed Elisabeth’s view that children’s learning at home—including their parents’ fostering of self-directed learning—is strongly associated with success at school and college-readiness. Examples of this research include a longitudinal study of 3,100 students that found the home-learning environment to be one of the strongest predictors of reading and math achievement for 10- and 11-year-olds; and a literature review of parental-involvement studies showing that parents’ engagement in their children’s learning at home has an even greater effect on achievement than school itself.

If the home-learning environment has as much impact as schooling, one might reasonably ask why it gets so little attention. In large part, this is because past home-based interventions have had such limited success in raising test scores in a cost-effective way. They have generally been too expensive, too low-impact, or both.

While the importance of the home learning environment remains unquestioned, past innovations in this area haven't managed to budge the needle on student performance.

But the ongoing computer revolution now allows us to deliver cheaper yet more sophisticated home-learning tools than were available even a few years ago, offering a low-cost way for students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom after the school day ends. The advances also allow parents, who may have good intentions but little academic training, the chance to become more involved in the learning process. Given the surge in software innovation, the technology to do this effectively has already arrived—and is improving by the day.

Technology won’t do the job alone, though. For technology in the home to have an impact, it needs to be complemented by the two C’s: content and context. A computer is merely a delivery vehicle for content, such as the amazing breadth of information available on the Web, or the fascinating simulation games that encourage students to apply their math skills to, say, building an amusement park, or let them experience the life of a citizen of another country.

Whether proper content will make a difference for student learning depends on the context: how students, parents, and teachers interact with each other and the technology. Programs that have been successful address content and context through wraparound programming: Students receive the hardware and the educational software they need to learn, and teachers and parents receive the training they need to support that learning.

The Texas Technology Immersion Pilot and the Computers for Youth program are promising case studies for using wraparound programming to fulfill the home’s potential in helping students learn.

The Texas pilot, a public/private partnership, was rolled out in 21 schools across the state. Teachers were given professional development, and both teachers and students received laptop computers that included productivity, communications, and presentation software, plus online instructional resources supporting the state curriculum in core subjects. The results, according to a study by the Texas Center for Educational Research: Half the student cohorts examined showed statistically significant gains in reading and math, with effect sizes of 8 percent of a standard deviation for reading, and 16 percent to 20 percent for math. The math effect sizes were particularly noteworthy, being similar in size to those cited in studies examining Head Start, Teach For America, and improvement programs in teacher quality. The other cohorts also showed gains, albeit not statistically significant ones.

The study also found that the strongest predictor of student’ reading and math scores was the amount of time they used their computers outside of school for homework or for learning games.

Similarly, Computers for Youth, or CFY, has partnered with schools in low-income communities, offering its program to all 6th graders in a school, year after year. Families receive a free computer designed as a home-learning center and participate in an intensive training workshop offered in both English and Spanish. The home-learning center is broadband-ready and includes software that’s been carefully selected to be both engaging and educational. Teachers at partner schools receive training on how to connect classroom learning with what is now a fortified home-learning environment.

CFY has served more than 23,000 families to date in five regions, and extends its efforts via an affiliate network of organizations in more than 20 states. A study of the program, done in partnership with the Educational Testing Service, found a positive and statistically significant impact on the math-test scores of low-income middle school students. In part because of these promising results, the organization was recently awarded $23 million from the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program to bring its program to scale, serving 33,000 additional families over the next two years.

While the importance of the home-learning environment remains unquestioned, past innovations in this area haven’t managed to budge the needle on student performance. Yet the recent experiences of these and other programs, combined with continuing advances in technology, should inspire educators and policymakers to explore anew the promise of leveraging home learning to improve student achievement.

We owe it to ourselves to go beyond simple talking points and long-held assumptions to tackle this area of learning that holds so much promise for helping students reach their full potential, in school and beyond.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week as The Not-So-Simple Debate on Home Computers and Achievement

Events

School & District Management Live Event Education Week Leadership Symposium
Education Week's Premier Leadership Event for K12 School & District Leaders.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Classroom Technology From Our Research Center Most Students Now Have Home Internet Access. But What About the Ones Who Don't?
Here's what school districts, states, and the federal government are doing to improve at-home access to devices and the internet.
8 min read
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advance placement World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays a wifi hot spot that are being handed out to students in Dallas on April 9, 2020. Dallas I.S.D. is handing out the devices along with wifi hotspots to students in need so that they can connect online for their continued education amid the COVID-19 health crisis.
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advanced placement World History teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays one of the Wi-Fi hotspots that were handed out to students in Dallas in April of 2020. The Dallas school district gave the devices to students who needed them to do schoolwork at home during the pandemic.
Tony Gutierrez/AP
Classroom Technology From Our Research Center 'A Year of Tremendous Growth.' How the Pandemic Forced Teachers to Master Technology
Educators nationwide say their ability to use technology for instruction improved significantly during the pandemic.
6 min read
Fifth grade teacher April Whipp welcomes back her students virtually during the first day of school at Moss-Nuckols Elementary School on Aug.13, 2020 in Louisa County, Va.
Fifth grade teacher April Whipp welcomes back her students virtually in August during the first day of school at Moss-Nuckols Elementary School in Louisa County, Va.
Erin Edgerton/The Daily Progress via AP
Classroom Technology Opinion How Teachers and Curriculum Will Shape Ed Tech's Future: A CEO Makes the Case
The increased use of ed tech during the pandemic has teachers examining which tools have earned a permanent place in their practice.
Larry Berger
6 min read
Illustration shows three people--two males and one female. There is a male standing on a laptop holding a large pencil and pointing to the laptop screen and the woman who is also standing on the open laptop is holding a folder and also pointing to the laptop screen. A third person (male) is sitting near the open laptop reading a book.
Irina_Streinikova/iStock/Getty Images Plus
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Whitepaper
5 Strategies for Hybrid Learning Success
This new guide for IT Administrators offers insight into 5 key strategies—from becoming a data-driven district to standardizing tools for...
Content provided by Securly