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Computers and student learning

That's the title of a recent paper by Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Wossmann of the University of Munich. Here's the news item from the Telegraph that directed me to it:

The less pupils use computers at school and at home, the better they do in international tests of literacy and maths, the largest study of its kind says today.

The findings raise questions over the Government's decision, announced by Gordon Brown in the Budget last week, to spend another £1.5 billion on school computers, in addition to the £2.5 billion it has already spent.

Mr Brown said: "The teaching and educational revolution is no longer blackboards and chalk, it is computers and electronic whiteboards."

However, the study, published by the Royal Economic Society, said: "Despite numerous claims by politicians and software vendors to the contrary, the evidence so far suggests that computer use in schools does not seem to contribute substantially to students' learning of basic skills such as maths or reading."

Here is part of the paper's abstract:

We estimate the relationship between students' educational achievement and the availability and use of computers at home and at school in the international student-level PISA database. Bivariate analyses show a positive correlation between student achievement and the availability of computers both at home and at schools. However, once we control extensively for family background and school characteristics, the relationship gets negative for home computers and insignificant for school computers. Thus, the mere availability of computers at home seems to distract students from effective learning.

This could be driven by a "U.S. effect" (we underperform in education, and have lots of computers per capita), but I buy the result. Several years ago I promised my sons computers if they did well in school. They did, so I bought two computers.

The boys use them intensively - as music libraries, radios, and instant messaging devices (fortunately, they haven't caught the blog bug). I'm constantly imploring them to turn off their machines and pick up a book. The UK government's billions are likely to become - like my thousands - a wasted investment in education.

I could not find the paper at the Royal Economic Society's home page, but it is available in working paper form at SSRN.