Monday, July 20, 2009

A computer will help your child get ahead. Well...

The centrepiece of Kevin Rudd's education revolution may not only be useless, it may actually be worse than that, according to a visiting United States researcher.

In the leadup to the 2007 election Mr Rudd undertook to spend 2.3 billion rewarding parents who installed or spent money on home computers.

"When it comes to investing the nation’s future I can’t think of a better, more important way than to provide an education tax refund which helps mums and dads help their kids engage in a digital economy," he said.

"If you’re a kid today, let’s face it, if you’re not wired at home and if you don’t have access to laptops and computers and software, you start to fall behind."

He later said his decisions would be "evidence-based"...

Professor Jacob Vigdor, from Duke University has conducted what's probably the worlds biggest study on the the effect of gaining a home computer on maths and reading scores. He finds "statistically significant" evidence it sends them backwards.

"In total, children in homes with computers tend to do better than those in homes without, there's no doubt about that." Professor Vigdor told The Age. "But there could be other reasons. Those homes also have a lot of other things other homes don't have, and often have more educated parents."

"I wanted to examine the performance of individual students before and after their home gained a computer."

Of necessity this meant examining the performance of students from less well-off homes. The better-off homes already had computers. But Professor Vigdor does not think this was an important limitation.

"These are the children that laptop and home computer policies are meant to help," he told an Australian National University seminar.

When Year 3 to Year 8 students in North Carolina take end-of-year tests they are also asked a number of other questions including whether they have a computer at home and what they use it for.

Using five years of answers to compare the average performance of each student before and after their home acquired a computer Professor Vigdor found it made their results "significantly worse" in both reading and mathematics.

"The bad effects fade somewhat over time, but even after 5 years they are still negative," he said.

He found similar results for the penetration of broadband (using postcode data) and even similar results for the amount of time the students reported using the computer for homework.

"The point is that playing games, using email and social networking sites and homework - they are all easier if you have a computer," he said.

"I am not saying go out and burn all the computers. If you want to buy junior a computer with your own dollars, that's fine. If you make this decision that junior's momentary pleasure is worth a small loss in knowledge - go ahead."

"But it's another thing when we talk about spending public dollars. The justification for these polices when they are proposed is not to allow students to have a good time, it's to improve the way they perform at school. It's expensive, and it's not working."

Other studies had found that even computers in schools did little to improve outcomes.

"They should be able to help, but good old fahsioned non-computerised instruction appears to have some advantages. Perhaps we haven't figured out how to get computers as good," said Professor Vigdor.

But the evidence isn't all bleak for the Prime Minister. He can take heart from a different study published on the weekend in the Economics of Education Review. In it University of Technology Sydney academic Mario Fiorini finds that for younger children, aged 5 to 7, time spent on the computer actually improves cognitive skills - partly by cutting the time they spend watching television and playing video games.

Published in today's SMH and Age