Thursday, August 12, 2010

Doubts About Digital?

Some Cautionary Thoughts

From Mark Bauerlein in the Chronicle:

Here’s an important story in the New York Times about the academic benefits of digital tools, with the headline “Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality.” And here is a story in Science Daily with a similar theme under the title “College Undergrads Study Ineffectively on Computers, Study Finds: Students Transfer Bad Study Habits from Paper to Screen.”

Both pieces report the findings of studies indicating that, so far, laptops and other devices fall well short of the promises of digital learning.

In the Science Daily story, researchers found that when students use computers, they don’t improve their study habits (and their academic performance).

The Times story has a troubling summary at the beginning:

“Economists are trying to measure a home computer’s educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. Taking widely varying routes, they are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts.”

It then reviews several studies that show computers at home and in classrooms produce little or no benefit for the users (in some cases, one sees a decline). One of the studies cited is a 2009 report from the Texas Center for Educational Research on the state’s “Technology Immersion Pilot,” an initiative to surround students in selected middle schools with technology and assess the results. In The Dumbest Generation, I summarized one evaluation that appeared in April 2006, which stated, “There were no statistically significant effects of immersion in the first year on either reading or mathematics achievement."

Do a cost accounting. With such meager academic results and such high costs for programs like this one, we should temper our enthusiasm for e-learning. Couldn’t we get similar results with less-costly forms of instruction such as after-school tutorials, summer programs, and other people-based initiatives?

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University.


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