Thursday, August 29, 2013

Will a Computer at Home Help My Children in School?

How much do students benefit from having access to a computer at home? Obviously, one can't just compare the test performance of students who have a computer at home with those who don't, because families and households that do provide a computer at home to their students are likely to be different in many ways from families that do not do so. It's possible to make statistical adjustments for these differences, but such adjustments only account for "observable" factors like income, ethnicity, gender, family structure, employment status of parents, and the like. Differences across families that aren't captured in readily-available statistics will remain.

Thus, an alternative approach is a social experiment. Take a substantial number of families who don't have a home computer, and randomly give some of them a home computer. Then compare the results for those with and without a computer. Robert W. Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson report the results of the largest field experiment thus far conducted along these lines in "Experimental Evidence on the
Effects of Home Computers on Academic Achievement among Schoolchildren," recently published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics (5:3, pp. 211–240). (This journal is note freely available on-line, although many readers will have access through library subscriptions or their membership in the American Economic Association.) Here's the conclusion from their abstract: 
"Although computer ownership and use increased substantially, we find no effects on any educational outcomes, including grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance, and disciplinary actions. Our estimates are precise enough to rule out even modestly-sized positive or negative impacts. The estimated null effect is consistent with survey evidence showing no change in homework time or other “intermediate” inputs in education."
And here's a bit more detail on their results. They note: "There are an estimated 15.5 million instructional computers in US public schools, representing one instructional computer for every three schoolchildren. Nearly every instructional classroom in these schools has a computer, averaging 189 computers per school ... [M]any children do not have access to a computer at home. Nearly 9 million children ages 10–17 in the United States (27 percent) do not have computers with Internet connections at home ..."

The sample for this study includes students in grades 6–10 in 15 different middle and high schools in 5 school districts in the Central Valley area of California, during the two school years from 2008-2010. The researchers surveyed students at the beginning of the school year, about whether they had a computer at home. After going through parental consent forms and all the paperwork, they ended up with about 1,100 students, and they gave half of them a computer at the beginning of the year and half a computer at the end of the year. Everyone got a home computer--but the researchers could study the effect of having one a year earlier.

Having a computer at home increased computer use. Students without a computer at home (the "control group") reported using a computer (at school, the library, or a friend's house) about 4.2 hours per week, while students who now had a computer at home (the "treatment group") used a computer 6.7 hours per week. Of that extra computer time , "Children spend an additional 0.8 hours on schoolwork, 0.8 hours per week on games, and 0.6 hours on social networking."

Of course, any individual study is never the final say. Perhaps having access to a home computer for several years, rather than just one year, would improve outcomes. Perhaps in the future, computer-linked pedagogy will improve in a way where having a computer at home makes a demonstrable difference to education outcomes. Perhaps there is some overall benefit from familiarity with computers that pays off in the long run, even if not captured in any of outcomes measured here. It's important to remember that this study is not about use of computers in the classroom or in education overall, just about access to computers at home. My wife and I have three children ranging in age from grades 6 to 10--the same age group as represented in this study--and they have access to computers at home.  The evidence suggests that while this may be more convenient for them in various ways, I shouldn't be expecting it to boost their reading and math scores.

(Full disclosure: The American Economic Journal: Applied Economics is published by the American Economic Association, which also publishes the Journal of Economic Perspectives, where I work as the managing editor.)