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Do Computers Improve Learning?

Poor school districts often complain that they're unable to buy as many computers as their richer counterparts. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise. From an article in the current issue of the Economist:

In the current Economic Journal, Joshua Angrist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Victor Lavy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem look at a scheme which put computers into many of Israel's primary and middle schools in the mid-1990s. Dr Angrist and Dr Lavy compare the test scores for maths and Hebrew achieved by children in the fourth and eighth grades (ie, aged about nine and 13) in schools with and without computers. They also asked the classes' teachers how they used various teaching materials, such as Xeroxed worksheets and, of course, computer programs.

The researchers found that the Israeli scheme had much less effect on teaching methods in middle schools than in elementary schools. It also found no evidence that the use of computers improved children's test scores. In fact, it found the reverse. In the case of the maths scores of fourth-graders, there was a consistently negative relationship between computer use and test scores.

Having helped out with computers at my childrens' elementary school some years ago, I find this believable. Computers in schools are too often used as high-cost substitutes for other learning methods. Instead of practicing typing on a $100 typewriter, use a $1,500 computer and call it keyboarding. Instead of using the card catalog, use Google.

When computers are used for things that only computers can do -- high-quality educational programs, such as the legendary Rocky's Boots -- then I think they can be useful in schools. But I'm willing to bet it's a rare school computer that is consistently used for such tasks.

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