Ever since fears erupted about a decade ago that the world could be divided into digital haves and have-nots, policymakers and do-gooders have assumed quite correctly that this digital divide needs to be bridged. The most obvious first step was to give children from poor families access to computers, in school and at home. From that followed ambitious programmes as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which is funded by some of the world’s best firms such as Google. Some visionaries even dream of an education system where the teacher is replaced by a computer programme.
Does this plug-and-study idea really work in poor neighbourhoods? Not necessarily, it seems.
True, the initial findings were encouraging. Many studies showed that poor kids improved their exam scores when they had access to computers. But more recent studies cast some doubts on the assumption that the academic performance of children from poor families improves with access to computers. In other words, plonking a computer in front of a kid does not necessarily do the trick.
In one recent study in Gujarat, Leigh Linden, an economist with Columbia University, and the MIT Jameel Poverty Action Lab evaluated how academic performance changed when computers were introduced in classrooms. The data was collected from schools in the slums of Ahmedabad and some other towns and villages in Gujarat that are run by Gyan Shala, an NGO. Children in these schools get one hour of computer time each day. The role of the teacher is restricted to switching on the computers and allocating them to different batches of children.
Linden found that a lot depends on how the computers are used — as complements or substitutes for the teacher and the regular curriculum. The programme of computerized learning does not work too well when it is used to substitute the teacher in the normal school day. Math scores actually dropped in schools that took this path. The “out-of-school” alternative — when students sat at the computers either before or after school — showed better, though modest, improvements in academic performance. Here, the learning software is a complement rather than a substitute for the usual curriculum. Further, Linden says the worst students benefited the most in this case.
The Gujarat study shows that merely providing computers in schools is not much of an answer. A lot depends on how they are used, when they are used, and who uses them.
Another study from across the world has an even more sobering lesson. Economists Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches turned their eyes on what happens when poor children in Romania get computers at home. As part of a programme, called Euro 200, some poor Romanian families were given euro 200 to buy computers for their children. Other families with similar income levels did not get this subsidy because of budget constraints. The two economists compared what happened in the two groups of families which were alike in almost every other respect.
There is much to be learnt: Kids with computers saw less television, but they also had less time for their homework. Grades dropped. “The lesson from Romania’s voucher experiment is not that computers aren’t useful learning tools, but that their usefulness relies on parents being around to assure they don’t simply become a very tempting distraction from the unpleasantness of trigonometry homework. But this is a crucial insight for those tasked with designing policies to bridge the digital divide,” writes Ray Fisman, in a June article for online magazine Slate, where Malamud and Pop-Eleches’ research was cited.
Does this mean that computers have no role in classrooms? Does this mean that the age-old talk and chalk teaching routine is irreplaceable? There is no need to draw such dark conclusions. (And these are dark conclusions, since schools do need reform. Peter Drucker once pointed out that our schools are the only social institutions around us that have not changed at all since the Industrial Revolution. Everything else — from governments to workplaces to families — has been radically transformed.)
The more limited point is that it’s not just an issue of lavish funding and putting computers in classrooms. The OLPC mission statement reflects this belief: “To eliminate poverty and create world peace by providing education to the poorest and most remote children on the planet by making them more active in their own learning, through collaborative and creative activities, connected to the Internet, with their own laptop, as a human right and cost free to them.”
In the Gujarat study, Linden draws attention to several more cost-effective ways to improve the academic performance of children from poor families — cash incentives for teachers, scholarships for girls and access to textbooks. And good libraries, too. Computers are part of the answer — but perhaps not the most important part.
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