I’ve been saying it for a while: students learn better with qualified, caring teachers and quality teaching materials than anything else, and One-Laptop-Per-Child is an expensive distraction from real education.
I think everyone who has been educated knows this instinctively. We can all point to a mentor (a teacher, a parent, a caring friend) who guided us, encouraged us, and cared enough about us to help us learn what is worth learning and what is not worth learning.
Giving a child a laptop does neither of these things. Some argue that simply having access to information will be the child’s ticket to a bright future, but now that the results are in, we can finally stop beating this dead horse.
You will always find exceptions: highly motivated students will learn no matter what you do to them, and giving them access to a computer will certainly give them an opportunity to get the information they want faster; but for the majority of students, giving them a computer will do little good, and will often do much harm, to their education.
The Internet is not a discriminator of information, and this is its chief problem. A classically-based education, as an example, imposes a hierarchy on knowledge. It says, “These things are more important than those things.” And when I say “it” I really mean a classically trained teacher guiding a student through a classical curriculum.
The Internet can’t do that for you by itself. You still need a guide, a mentor of some kind to help you know what’s worth learning. Autodidacts learn this early on and quickly learn which voices in life they want to trust (generally by way of books and other reading material), but the rest of us simply don’t know where to go.
And while we’re on the topic of online learning, did you hear of the recent meta-study by the US Department of Education? Everybody in the tech world is feeling validated, but they shouldn’t. It claims:
The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.
Read the study and notice that it’s a meta-study, largely sampling the results of self-selecting, uncontrolled learning experiements. Highly-motivated students, the kind who opt to take online courses, will always perform better than unmotivated students, no matter what medium they’re using.
The abstract concludes:
Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se. An unexpected finding was the small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K–12 students. In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).
So don’t take this as a validation for K-12 computer learning. Additional studies over OLPC and K-12 computer learning aren’t encouraging:
Under the auspices of the No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Department of Education and Mathematica Policy Research recently completed a rigorous, two-year test of reading and math software (using programs that had at least some nonexperimental evidence that they “worked”) in dozens of school districts nationwide. With one minor exception, the studies found that children using the software scored no better than peers who did not have access to the software.
Economists Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches studied a program in Romania that distributed discount vouchers for the purchase of home computers to low-income families. When they compared the families that used the vouchers to acquire computers with families that were just above the income cut-off to receive the vouchers, they found that computers had a negative effect on students’ grades and educational goals.
(Leigh) Linden (an economist at Columbia University) also led one of the few experimental studies to show a positive impact from the use of computers — a project in India that provided computers and education software to schools and randomly assigned some schools to use the software during school hours and others to encourage computer use after hours. This study found that using computers during school hours-—essentially substituting computers for teachers—actually hurt learning, while using them after hours as a supplement to traditional classroom teaching had dramatic positive effects on the weakest students. Even this outcome doesn’t really support the OLPC mission, though; the software evaluated is very much in the “drill and practice” model that Negroponte has explicitly derided.
I won’t spoil all the fun of this article, but there are far, far better and less expensive ways to improve education than giving a child a laptop. In developing countries the list includes deworming children, providing tutors, and creating more private schools.
In the United States, computers in classrooms and schools should be removed and with the money not spent on technology, hire additional teachers or give the existing teachers a raise. I’m certain we’d get more of what we’re really looking for.