Between 2008 and 2010, the state of California gave out computers to more than 1,100 sixth to tenth grade students across central California. The idea was to test an ongoing concern in 21st century education: kids without computers at home lack access to online educational resources, and as a result fall behind their more connected classmates. Furthermore, because home computer access is frequently tied to socioeconomic status, this discrepancy adds to the existing educational gap between rich and poor students.
It didn’t work. TechCrunch has reported on the conclusion of California’s experiment, and it turns out that free computers do not make underprivileged students do better in school — all because of Facebook.
Well, Facebook and all of the other distracting websites, videos, and games that the internet has to offer. While the study points out that access to home computers did increase total computer use for schoolwork, this benefit was “offset” by increased use of time on games, social networking and other entertainment. Furthermore, the researchers (Robert Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson, both of professors at UC Santa Cruz) found that even with increased computer use, “there is no evidence of an effect on a host of educational outcomes, including grades, standardized test scores, credit earned, attendance, and disciplinary actions.”
The study’s focus was solely on the direct educational benefits of home computer access, and thus did not address the benefits of basic computer literacy–a requirement for the emerging, nearly all-digital economy. However, basic computer literacy is hardly something to celebrate when the performance gap between rich and poor students has never been higher. While technology evangelists were hoping that access to computers might help correct that discrepancy, that has not been the case. In the end, technology provides no answer for the old culprits of family and environment: at the end of the day, parents who don’t motivate their children to learn or having to remain in environments where learning is impossible are far too detrimental to childhood learning for a computer to fix.
While there may yet be a technology solution to the learning gap, it seems that raw access is not it.