mm413: Computers: Not helpful for poor kids?

MUDGE’s Musings

This nanocorner of the ‘Sphere© has been an enthusiastic observer of Nicholas Negroponte’s idealistic One Laptop Per Child initiative since it started getting close to launch late last year.

By one count, in fact, this would be the 18th such post, a sizable fraction.

But, it seems such a good idea: provide millions of dramatically attractive PCs to governments at a rock bottom price (original target, $100) to be distributed to school children. The hope: in the same way that cell phones have bootstrapped the developing world into the maw of 21st century communications without requiring the arduous and costly laying of trillions of miles of copper wire to every last remote corner of the planet, connect kids in deprived lands to the 21st century via the Internet.

Well, the launch price last November was closer to $200 than $100, but the dollar (not to speak of the price of oil — not just fuel for transportation, but even more valuable, if underappreciated, as the feedstock for the manufacture of plastic, a key component of absolutely every computer of any cost) is not what it was in 2005 when the program was formulated. To bring faithful reader up to speed on this topic, we’ve provided a handy list of those 17 previous entries.

One Laptop Per Child @ L-HC

mm088: Meet the XO
mm089: Amateur mapmaking…
mm099: A $99 Desktop…
mm149: India’s take…
mm153: By a Laptop, Get one…
mm162: Laptop with a Mission
mm170: Technology and Ed …
mm179: OLPC for India after all?
mm189: OLPC cranks up!
mm203: OLPC: News; discouraging word
mm212: Cheap computing…
mm219: OLPC — Harvard speaks
mm232: Li’l green laptops a hit in Peru
mm247: OLPC — reviews are coming in
mm249: OLPC – News, and a review
mm267: XO – A Missionary Position
mm382: One Laptop Per Child…Windows

Some intriguing, if disturbing, research hit the news this past week.


The $100 Distraction Device

Why giving poor kids laptops doesn’t improve their scholastic performance.

By Ray Fisman | Posted Thursday, June 5, 2008, at 7:03 AM ET

More than three decades ago, Commodore introduced the PET, the world’s first personal computer, apparently so-named to take advantage of the ’70s craze for pet rocks. My ever-doting and education-obsessed parents brought home a PET for me and my siblings, hoping to put us at the vanguard of the digital revolution-to-be. The results were mixed at best. Though the machine was entirely unsuited to mindless fun—it had 4 kilobytes of memory and a tiny green display of monochrome ASCII characters—my friends and I found a way to turn this supposedly educational device into a toy. We spent endless hours watching a little green cursor race around the screen in a rudimentary, freestyle version of Pac-Man. Once an early edition of Space Invaders appeared, I think my parents came to regret their attempt to prepare us for the computer age….

So what happens when good fortune delivers vouchers (and hence computers) into the homes of Romanian youths? Obviously a lot more time logged on to a computer—about seven hours more per week for vouchered versus unvouchered kids. Much of this computer time came at the expense of television-watching: Children in families that received a voucher spent 3.5 fewer hours in front of the tube per week. But computer use also crowded out homework (2.3 hours less per week), reading, and sleep. Less schoolwork translated into lower grades at school—vouchered kids’ GPAs were 0.36 grade points lower than their nonvouchered counterparts—and also lower aspirations for higher education. Vouchered kids were 13 percentage points less likely to report an intention to attend college. And, interestingly, vouchered students who were college-bound were not more likely to express interest in majoring in computer science.

So, what your mom and dad always feared turns out to be measurably true. PCs for school children at home are simply another time-wasting excuse to skip homework. And, parents are the key: if they supervise their children (homework first, eat nutritionally, go to sleep at a reasonable hour), those children will do better in school, no matter where in the world they live.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Why giving poor kids computers doesn’t improve scholastic performance. – By Ray Fisman – Slate Magazine

Conversely, if parents take the easy path (all too likely if there are too few breadwinners and too much demand for bread) and treat the PC as an alternative distraction to television, but don’t supervise or contain its use, the quoted research has found that the PC not only yields no improvement, but actually diminishes academic performance.

The playground that is the Internet can teach much, in a structured environment, but without structure, a PC is very often a general purpose game machine.

Now, I have to point out that this research comes from Romania, which as a new member of the European Union is hardly in the same economic boat as India or Peru or sub-Saharan Africa.

I’m thinking that after-school competition for time with television might not be as much a concern in the truly developing world, where lack of reliable electricity supplies might mean that a high-electrical demand television might not even be an option, but a solar/battery powered PC could be a family’s first access to the greater world.

So, I am not ready to break bad on One Laptop Per Child. This grand educational experiment will take some years to reveal its ultimate value. After all, for Eastern Europe, adding a computer to the household is a technological increase of, say, 30% over a home that more than likely sports a television, refrigerator and other electric and electronic artifacts of our modern world.

Adding a computer to a household in Zimbabwe might represent an infinitely large technological increase. Predicting less than infinitely large changes (and hoping for positive ones) would be churlish so early in the contest.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

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