Skills for the 21st Century

Cognitive and Literacy Skills for Success in a Fast-Paced Technological Age

Again – Increased Access Does NOT Equal Increased Skills

Posted by durencls on June 25, 2010

Back from vacation and catching up on e-mails, tweets, and blog posts – Whew! This Web 2.0 stuff is tiring!  🙂

From my backlog of e-mail, here is more evidence that simply increasing access to equipment/software/internet does not necessarily lead to an increase in necessary technology skills (or even thinking skills).

Children With Home Computers Likely to Have Lower Test Scores, Study Finds

ScienceDaily (June 19, 2010) — Around the country and throughout the world, politicians and education activists have sought to eliminate the “digital divide” by guaranteeing universal access to home computers, and in some cases to high-speed Internet service.

However, according to a new study by scholars at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, these efforts would actually widen the achievement gap in math and reading scores. Students in grades five through eight, particularly those from disadvantaged families, tend to post lower scores once these technologies arrive in their home.

Vigdor and Ladd concluded that home computers are put to more productive use in households where parental monitoring is more effective. In disadvantaged households, parents are less likely to monitor children’s computer use and guide children in using computers for educational purposes. [emphasis added]

I found this highly intriguing, but knowing that articles don’t always tell the whole or unbiased picture, I found and skimmed the original report:

Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement by Charles T. Clotfelter, Helen F. Ladd and Jacob L. Vigdor, Duke University, July 29, 2008. 

Here we find that the researchers had access to administrative data for ALL NC 5th-8th grade students from 2000-2005 – over 500,000 student surveys/observations per year – WOW! This allowed both cross-student and within-student analysis over a three year period.  The authors specifically note that the period studied is BEFORE the Facebook/Twitter phenomenon, but during a period of significant growth in computer and internet access. Within this document we find these statements [emphasis added]:

  • Relative to students with no computer at home, those who use a home computer for schoolwork once or twice per month score between 4 and 5 percent of a standard deviation higher on both reading and math tests.
  • Students who own a computer but never use it for schoolwork [regardless of ov erall computer usage pattern] have math test scores nearly indistinguishable from those without a home computer.
  • Students reporting almost daily use of their home computer for schoolwork score significantly worse than students with no computer at home.
  • transitioning from no home computer access to any of these use categories [rarely, monthly, weekly or daily use] is associated with a statistically significant decline in both reading and math test scores.
  • students who transition from having no home computer to having one and using it for schoolwork almost every day post relative test score declines on the order of 4% of a standard deviation in both reading and math. …the most plausible explanation is that students who transition into the highest computer use category are using their computers for much more than just schoolwork, and these non-productive uses are actually crowding out productive study time.
  • Results for both reading and math indicate that the negative effect of computer ownership on both math and reading holds fairly steady over the first three years.

The researchers conclude:

Our preferred specifications indicate that 5th through 8th grade students [from 2000-2005] generally perform best on math and reading tests when they do not have access to a computer at home. Conditional on owning a computer, the “optimal” rate of use is infrequent, twice a month or less. For the average student, introducing home internet service does not produce additional benefits. For school administrators interested in maximizing achievement test scores, or reducing racial and socioeconomic disparities in test scores, all evidence suggests that a program of broadening home computer access would be counterproductive[emphasis added]

So – programs to simply ADD hardware, software, and internet access to homes (or schools) are likely to have a NEGATIVE effect on traditional academic performance, unless partnered with efforts to ensure productive use of those tools as relates to those academic areas.  Just putting them AT a computer does not mean they will learn more. They still need those crucial Thinking Skills in order to use the computer for learning effectively. According to this study, this means not ONLY training teachers in effective uses of computers in the classroom, but ALSO training parents on productive uses of computers IN THE HOME.

Hmmmm… so what does this mean for children with parents who have low-literacy skills?  While the researchers did not focus their analysis on this factor, it was included in the research data they presented. Examining the tables and graphs presented we find that:

  • Parents with less than a HS diploma were FAR less likely to HAVE a computer in their homes (or internet access) during this time period – 60% had computers as compared to 85% on average and as much as 90% overall by 2005.
  • Of homes with a computer where parents had less than a HS diploma, student computer usage rates of ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ were 8% higher than homes where parents had at least a HS diploma or associate’s degree.
  • The decline in math and reading scores associated with the introduction of a computer into the home were highest for homes where parents had less than a high school degree – higher by far than declines noted for race or economic factors (free lunch participation).

In fact, the researchers do make the following statements about parent influence on computer usage:

The evidence is consistent with the view that internet service, and technology more broadly, is put to more productive use in households with more effective parental monitoring of child behavior. Survey behavior indicates that students very commonly use the internet, and computers more generally, both to work on school-related projects and for personal entertainment. In households with insufficient [parental] monitoring, unproductive uses may not only crowd out productive computer time, but may also crowd out offline studying.

Disadvantaged students may also receive less instruction in how to use a computer, either because their schools have poorer resources, because their parents have less technical expertise, or because their parents are simply less available.   [emphasis added]

 So low-literate parents seem to need skills in effective and productive use of computers for learning in order to isupport and increase their child’s performance in traditional academic areas. Which means that they TOO need those critical ‘meta-skills’ we’ve been touting on this blog! [I love it when empirical research backs up our theories/arguments! ]

In the conclusion of their paper, researchers Vigdor and Ladd do acknowledge that additional computer access/training may have other, more positive purposes/value:

Of course, administrators may have other goals aside from improving math and reading test scores. Computer literate students may enjoy improved job opportunities later in life, or may be poised to take better advantage of online resources once their internal mechanisms for behavioral regulation have fully developed. Evaluations of the Texas Technology Immersion Project have shown improvements in student proficiency with technology and student discipline (Shapley et al., 2007). It is not clear, however, whether computer literacy actually leads to better employment outcomes (Krueger, 1993; DiNardo and Pischke 1997), ** and also not clear whether access to home computers in the early secondary school years is critical to later computer literacy.

Not really a rousing endorsement, huh?  Essentially, the researchers are clearly biased against education systems spending money on “increasing computer access in the home” and feel those funds could be better spent elsewhere.  I’d point out, however, that just dumping hardware/internet in the home, without comprehensive training and support to parents (including basic literacy training) was, like so many “access” efforts, likely doomed to fail from the start.

I do find, however, that this paper adds to the research showing the importance of parental literacy skills in K-12 student performance and success.  Teach the parent, reach the child!

**OK, I find this statement laughable – especially since they are citing research that is OVER 10 years old at the time their paper was published.

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One Response to “Again – Increased Access Does NOT Equal Increased Skills”

  1. The study you use as reference is fine, what I believe is that computer at home can be as any other furniture or appliance or electronic as is TV or any other technology. What hardly it is mentioned, is that new learning process through computers system need a new methodology of teaching such, for example practitioner of math education (we) should find or develop a kind of pedagogy or andragogy to help learners to learn math using technology, isn’t?
    Thank you
    Ana Ingstrom, M.Sc., M.A,

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