News Flash: Computers don’t make students better at school

Several stories have crossed my radar over the last week touting the horrifying news that computers might actually make kids worse at reading, writing, and studying.  Mark Bauerlin wrote up something for Chronicle (oh, Chronicle, can you please stop doing this?) about two of the stories and that prompted me to write, because I’m all agitated now.  First, there was the story in the New York Times that looked at two studies that showed that computers in homes, especially in low-income homes, caused(?) lower test scores.  One study actually just looked at broadband expansion and noted that test scores have gone down in North Carolina as broadband has expanded.  In both studies, the implication is that the computer and the broadband expansion are causes of the lower test scores.  Does no one teach the difference between cause and correlation anymore?  There are so many other factors here–income, decreased budgets in schools leading to larger class sizes and a reduction in support services and after-school programs that effect lower-income students especially.  And there are probably a huge number of other factors.  Both studies mention parental supervision, which may be lacking in lower-income homes.  Hmmm, wonder why? Could it be they’re working four jobs to make ends meet?

The other story shows that college students tend to transfer bad non-technologically enhanced study habits to technology-enhanced study habits.  Well, duh.  Did the computers cause this? No.  If you do something badly without a computer, you’ll probably do it badly with a computer.

Can we stop blaming the computer (and the Internet) now?  Yes, just sticking computers into schools or homes or into the hands of college students without any kind of direction or thought is likely to have negative, or at least no positive effect.  Again, duh.  If you really listen to some of the less evangelical (sorry, but some of you are) ed tech people out there, they say this over and over again.  You need to be thoughtful about your pedagogy when using technology.  Kids need to have limits and supervision and be given direction.  And e-learning can be a bad thing if it’s just used to gain efficiencies rather than to improve learning outcomes.  Technology is not magic.  As soon as we stop believing that it is, we might be able to accomplish something with it.

One thing’s for sure, Bauerlin’s conclusion that “we should temper our enthusiasm for e-learning” has a point, but only because his logic is skewed.  E-learning is not the problem.  We are.  People using technology as a panacea instead of as one of many tools for learning are the problem.  Let’s quit blaming the technology and start moving into the 21st century.  If we temper our enthusiasm for technology, where will our next computer scientists, biotechnologist, ecotechnologists, engineers, and even entrepreneurs come from?

One Reply to “News Flash: Computers don’t make students better at school”

  1. Too many people think that computers are some sort of magic and that just giving them to a student will solve all your problems. This is not so. Kids need guidance, training, often external motivation and support. Oh sure there is the odd child who can do it all on their own but they are few and far between.

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