Opinion
Classroom Technology Opinion

Home Computers and Student Achievement

By Elisabeth Stock & Ray Fisman — October 11, 2010 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

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
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

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 Spotlight Spotlight on Academic Integrity & AI
This Spotlight will help you examine how teachers are combatting AI cheating, discover how to structure lessons in AI literacy, and more.
Classroom Technology Opinion The Promise and Peril of AI for Education
As GPS did for our sense of direction, AI could erode students’ connection to knowledge.
8 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Classroom Technology What Educators Need to Know About AI’s Impact on Black Students
Four experts weigh the balance between providing access to AI and protecting students from its dangers.
3 min read
Teacher Helping Female Pupil Line Of High School Students Working at Screens In Computer Class
iStock/Getty
Classroom Technology Q&A Google Executive: What AI Can and Can't Do for Teachers
Jennie Magiera, Google's head of education impact, discusses the role AI should have in K-12 education.
8 min read
Close-up stock photograph showing a touchscreen monitor with a woman’s hand looking at responses being asked by an AI chatbot.
E+