Doubts About Digital

Here’s an important story in the New York Times about the academic benefits of digital tools, with the headline “Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality.” And here is a story in Science Daily with a similar theme under the title “College Undergrads Study Ineffectively on Computers, Study Finds: Students Transfer Bad Study Habits from Paper to Screen.”

Both pieces report the findings of studies indicating that, so far, laptops and other devices fall well short of the promises of digital learning. In the Science Daily story, researchers found that when students use computers, they don’t improve their study habits (and their academic performance). Instead, they transfer bad habits to the new tools. This is an important finding because it casts doubt on one of the central claims made for digitalizing schools and classrooms. People advocate it because they say that the new tools encourage students to do research, compose papers, communicate with peers, and read texts in ways that are more challenging, invigorating, and effective. This report suggests that the lesser habits are more resistant to improvement than the claim assumes. Indeed, it seems to me, digital tools make those bad habits (such as lightly skimming texts that should be read closely, composing sentences and paragraphs too quickly, assembling information without integrating it, etc.) easier to implement. Cutting-and-pasting only accelerates the writing process. Google searches let students bypass the labor of evaluating sources (they think the top results are the best). And so on.

The Times story has a troubling summary at the beginning:

“Economists are trying to measure a home computer’s educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. Taking widely varying routes, they are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts.”

It then reviews several studies that show computers at home and in classrooms produce little or no benefit for the users (in some cases, one sees a decline). One of the studies cited is a 2009 report from the Texas Center for Educational Research on the state’s “Technology Immersion Pilot,” an initiative to surround students in selected middle schools with technology and assess the results. In The Dumbest Generation, I summarized one evaluation that appeared in April 2006, which stated, “There were no statistically significant effects of immersion in the first year on either reading or mathematics achievement.”

Here is what the 2009 report concluded. While there was some improvement in technological literacy and disciplinary problems, “Across four evaluation years, there was no evidence linking Technology Immersion with student self-directed learning or their general satisfaction with schoolwork.”

In math and reading, some positives showed up, but disappointingly so:

“Technology Immersion had no statistically significant effect on TAKS reading achievement for Cohort 2 (eighth graders) or Cohort 3 (seventh graders)—however, for Cohort 1 (ninth graders), there was a marginally significant and positive sustaining effect of Technology Immersion on students’ TAK reading scores.”


“Technology Immersion had a statistically significant effect on TAKS mathematics achievement for Cohort 2 (eighth graders) and Cohort 3 (seventh graders). For Cohort 1 (ninth graders), the sustaining effect of immersion on TAKS mathematics scores was positive but not by a statistically significant margin. After controlling for student and school poverty, estimated yearly TAKS mathematics growth rates.”

Do a cost accounting. With such meager academic results and such high costs for programs like this one, we should temper our enthusiasm for e-learning. Couldn’t we get similar results with less-costly forms of instruction such as after-school tutorials, summer programs, and other people-based initiatives?

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