Perhaps not surprisingly, the lesson from Romania’s voucher experiment is not that computers aren’t useful learning tools, but that their usefulness relies on parents being around to assure they don’t simply become a very tempting distraction from the unpleasantness of trigonometry homework. But this is a crucial insight for those tasked with designing policies to bridge the digital divide. The express intent of Euro 200 was to give a boost to poor kids’ educations. Through programs such as One Laptop per Child, governments around the world have similarly committed to purchasing millions of computers to improve computer access for children. But Malamud and Pop-Eleches’ results suggest that merely providing access may be more of a curse than a blessing. If we really want to help poor kids, whether in Romania, sub-Saharan Africa, or Americas housing projects, we may want to focus on approaches that provide structured, supervised access through after-school programs or subsidies that bring technology into low-income schools. But just giving kids computers? Might as well just ship them PlayStations.
So concludes Ray Fisman in his Slate piece, “Why giving poor kids computers doesn’t improve scholastic performance.” Now Fisman is, no doubt, reducing a lot of complicated issues into a neat short pithy essay, but I agree with him. I’ve long been skeptical of the OLPC project just because they were so focused on the machine and not on the implementation of it. Having spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone followed by several more years getting a master’s in international education I can tell you that it is the on-the-ground-reality that matters. The A-V Centre I worked in in Sierra Leone was full of mildewed equipment — those trained to take care of it and used it were long gone.