Computers considered harmful

Use a computer, go to fail.

Donald MacLeod, writing in the Guardian, reports on a new study being presented this week.

In a report to be given at the conference of the Royal Economic Society in Nottingham this week, Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann of Munich University say their research shows diminished performance in students with computers. Their findings look conclusive: they are based on the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa) international tests in maths and literacy taken by 100,000 15-year-olds in 32 countries.

The report isn’t a blanket condemnation of computers in education; rather, it suggests that how the computer is used is critical to its effect. From the report’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. But measures of computer use for education and communication at home show a positive conditional relationship with student achievement. The conditional relationship between student achievement and computer and internet use at school has an inverted U-shape, which may reflect either ability bias combined with negative effects of computerized instruction or a low optimal level of computerized instruction.

Unlike computers, books at home proved to be helpful; children from homes with more than 500 books performed better than those without, again with other variables held constant.

I design computers for a living, using them intensively at home and at work, and I don’t find these results surprising in the least.

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