College Guide


May 24, 2013 8:30 PM Giving Computers to Poor Kids Doesn’t Fix Anything

By Daniel Luzer

How important are computers to learning? Many education reform advocates, in particular Bill Gates, argue that one way to improve education is to give poor students free computers. Rich kids, after all, appear to have an edge in school because they regularly use computers at home. Computers for poor kids would bridge the so called digital divide, the gap between students who have access to information technologies and those who don’t, and ramp up the learning gains of the disadvantaged.

Well no. This doesn’t work. The initiative is a waste of money. Matthew Yglesias at Slate summarizes this paper by Robert Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson. The researchers provided computers to randomly selected California children from households without computers. What happened? Yglesias:

The short answer is nothing.
The slightly longer answer is that the kids reported an almost 50 percent increase in time spent using a computer, with the time divided between doing homework, playing games, and social network. But there was no improvement in academic achievement or attendance or anything else. There wasn’t even an improvement in computer skills. At the same time, there was no negative impact either. The access to extra computer games didn’t reduce total time spent on homework or lead to any declines in anything. They broke it down by a few demographic subgroups and didn’t find anything there either. It’s just a huge nada. Nothing happening.

Why is this? It’s not demonstrated in the study but Yglesias posits that it may be that “the ways in which high-income families help their kids in school don’t relate to durable goods purchases and may be things like social capital or direct parental involvement.”

That’s certainly a plausible explanation. Another possibility, however, is that computers just don’t have much to do with education achievement, for rich or poor kids.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • RSA on May 24, 2013 9:55 PM:

    Another possibility, however, is that computers just donít have much to do with education achievement, for rich or poor kids.

    I'll quote from the article: Since the goal of the study was to evaluate the effects of home computers alone instead of a broader technology policy intervention, no training or other assistance was provided.

    A reasonable analogy is that of providing pencil and paper or a calculator to students, without other intervention. Would we expect improvement in education? I'm not entirely surprised by the results.

  • emjayay on May 26, 2013 2:40 AM:

    RSA, did you pay five bucks for the paper? Sounds interesting, but not five bucks interesting. Anyway, unless their teachers were giving them assignments that required more internet research than they are given time for at school, of course free laptops alone would make no difference. Reading, writing, critical thinking, studying, interaction with educated people, doing math and geometry etc. are how you learn. Computers aren't particularly relevant. I believe in other examples the poor kids just played games.

    What poor kids (this does not apply to poor immigrant kids in general, particularly Asians) lack has nothing to do with technology. Other studies have shown that poor kids get a fraction of the interactions with adults that middle/upperclass kids get, and what interactions they get are proportionally much more negative. That's the problem.

    Ignorant abusive parents bring up ignorant abusive kids. They don't develop intellectually, they have negative mindsets and psych problems, and they don't know how to enjoy the world and listen and enjoy positive interactaction.

    I've had the opportunity to observe working class Asian parents and they are mostly great. Their kids grow up in Brooklyn and turn out like nice kids in Minnesota.

  • Philip J. Reed on May 27, 2013 6:46 PM:

    The good news is that there is anecdotal evidence, at least in my little research silo, that the Gates Foundation is coming around to an understanding that technology access alone doesn't help much without investing in personnel to train and guide.

  • RSA on May 28, 2013 7:51 AM:

    Right, emjayay, not five bucks interesting for me either, but my university library has a subscription to the NBER collection.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on May 29, 2013 4:44 PM:

    Having spent the last 10 years in the settings of private universities populated with many rich kids, who all seem to have the latest and most sparkly of tech gadgetry, I can say that I have had some of the most mind-numbing conversations with so-called tech-savvy "Millennials" who are blithely unaware that the first hit from a Google search may not be the most useful and that everything on Wikipedia isn't necessarily correct. A computer is only as useful as the idiot handling it. It's not going to imbue someone with a certain level of intellect he never had in the first place.

    While I like to think of myself as intellectually curious, I do have my gadgetry--laptop, smartphone, Ipod, Kindle, desktop workstation. But most of what I do with these little gizmos involves the written language rather than pictures, moving pixels or abbreviated slang followed by hash tags. But this is only because I enjoy intellectually stimulating type things--in electronic or hard copy format.

    However, should I give any of these items to either of my nephews, they will immediately be turned into Angry Birds gaming devices.