Could computers help poor children learn better?

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Jul 16, 2008

In a Slate article, Ray Fisman writes about “why giving poor kids laptops doesn’t improve their scholastic performance.” The title of the article is “The $100 Distraction Device”, a thinly veiled slap at the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, originally known as the $100 Laptop.

The article does ultimately reach a subtler conclusion. Merely having computers doesn’t necessarily improve academic performance. For the readers of Disrupting Class, you’ll already know that we agree. Far more important is how computers are used and implemented into people’s lives.

The article builds on personal anecdote as well as new research by economists Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches, who had access to a great situation from a research standpoint from the Euro 200 program that gave poor families vouchers for computers in Romania.

Fisman also recounts the billions that the federal government spends on helping to equip schools with computers. The result from this, as our book and Larry Cuban has documented, is not much improvement. The union study that I blogged about earlier reaches the same conclusion.

Fisman concludes that if children have computers on which they just play games to the detriment of work, they will perform poorly in school. If they do academic work with them, of course they might have different results. Marc Prensky and others might take issue with this, as they see tremendous educational value in some video games.

The bigger point is merely giving computers to people or cramming them into classrooms will just waste more money and not help poorer students. Merely handing out the OLPC across the developing world won’t help.

But as readers of our book and this blog know, there are many ways computers can have tremendous impact if used correctly. If the OLPC program is used not as an ends, but instead as a means, it could have exciting results to produce a disruptive outcome that leapfrogs the U.S., similar to how so many developing countries leapfrogged the U.S. in cell-phone adoption. To do this, the OLPC must be used as a portal to connect students to engaging learning opportunities through enriching interactive software. If done correctly, we might see that although computers don’t help poor kids, computer-based learning does.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.