Studies on Harmful Effects of Home Computer on School Performance Miss a Key Point - Context Matters
7.22.10 | The New York Times recently discussed a couple of new studies, one of which was by Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd, Duke University professors of public policy. They examined the arrival of broadband service in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005 and its negative effect on middle school test scores during that period.
The negative effect on test scores was not universal but, as Randall Stross summarized, “was largely confined to lower-income households, in which, the authors hypothesized, parental supervision might be spottier, giving students greater opportunity to use the computer for entertainment unrelated to homework and reducing the amount of time spent studying.”
The core of Vigdor and Ladd’s argument (which Vigdor discusses here) is that “access” to a computer alone does not improve but rather hinders academic gains by low-income students. The essential problem with this argument is the assumption that just providing a student access to computer – without necessary supports such as mentors, peers and activities that create an environment for the computer to be used as a learning aid – would have a positive impact on learning.
Does providing a child access to a pencil and paper – without support for learning to write – turn that child into a writer? As with all learning tools, the utility of the computer is only realized when a child is supported in using it as a learning aid.
When students’ use of computers as learning aids has been scaffolded, students have been shown to use technology to extend their knowledge, create media products that demonstrate understanding of academic content, and engage in real-time chats and collaborative projects with peers in the same room or halfway around the world. These students are not held back by the traditional boundaries of geography and time—boundaries that for urban youth often limit access to learning resources.
So the question we should be asking isn’t whether a student has access to a computer, but rather: What is the learning environment that contextualizes students’ use of computers? Students have differentiated access to such environments.
According to Annette Lareau, author of “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life” (2003), a middle- and/or upper-middle class student’s access to rich learning experiences often doesn’t end when the school day is over. It extends to afterschool programming and dinnertime conversation. However, for students from lower-class backgrounds, they often don’t have access to the same extended learning experiences. When the rare opportunity arises for access to a personal computer, they must create their own learning opportunities.
According to Mimi Ito et al. in “Living and Learning with New Media” (2008), this undirected use will result in students spending the majority of their time in friendship-driven activities and social communities such as Facebook and YouTube. However, Ito’s groundbreaking work provides a window into the potential power of youth to use computers to extend learning through passion-driven activities.
The Digital Youth Network, of which I am the founder, has spent the past five years focused on developing the infrastructure and human capital to create inviting learning environments that engage urban youth. These environments support students in building their digital media literacies in ways that are meaningful for connection to peers, but also serve as a vehicle for enhancing their academic knowledge.
Supported by the MacArthur Foundation, our work at DYN has been studied by Brigid Barron, associate professor of education at Stanford University. Barron’s forthcoming report shows that when provided with a well-designed learning environment that uses technology as an assist to connect learning opportunities across home, school, afterschool and online spaces, the digital media participation gap for urban youth could be eliminated.
Barron’s study followed a cohort of 54 students from 6th to 8th grade who participated in varying degrees in the Digital Youth Network program. At the beginning of 6th grade and at the end of 8th grade, she administered a survey to compare the cohort to students at a Silicon Valley middle school – students whose parents worked in the technology industry and were from an economically homogeneous community. (At the beginning of 6th grade, the Silicon Valley sample totaled 95 students, and at the end of 8th grade the sample was 358 students.)
At the beginning of the 6th-grade year, 96 percent of the DYN cohort had fewer digital media experiences than the Silicon Valley sample. But by the end of 8th grade, DYN students possessed broader breadth of experience in digital media production, more depth of engagement in more areas of digital media production, and more confidence in their abilities and interest in technology than the Silicon Valley cohort.
In essence, DYN youth were more digitally literate than their Silicon Valley peers – thanks to their participation in a well-designed learning environment that didn’t just hand them a computer but used those computers to connect their learning opportunities.
Nichole Pinkard is a visiting associate professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the founder of Digital Youth Network and co-creator of Remix World, a social learning platform that connects youth’s learning opportunities in school, home, and beyond.
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