June 10, 2008

Technology and Poverty: Answering a Skeptic

Five kids who, apparently, don't deserve a computer.*

On June 5th, Ray Fisman wrote a shocking piece on Slate stating that giving poor kids computers is a “$100 distraction,” and proclaiming in his subheading that, “giving poor kids laptops doesn’t improve their scholastic performance.” Umm…what? Laying aside that, domestically, many of the nonprofits that donate computers also train low-income residents to rebuild them, being able to navigate a computer is arguably more foundational for future generations than any other skill short of reading.

As with any language, allowing access early means increased proficiency and an increased ability to understand the deeper concepts of how the technology works. Since computer software will continue to take new forms, a base knowledge of computers will, in the long run, ensure that poor households in developing countries (and in our case, states) have the ability to stay up to date. That means inundating households with computers (and, more importantly, internet access) as quickly as possible. I don’t care what anyone is using his or her computer for—if they’re using it at all they have an important skill they didn’t have before.

But since we are talking about what the computer is being used for, how is Mr. Fisman measuring “scholastic performance?” The terminology doesn’t appear in the articles he cites, but I get the impression he’s probably referring the overall GPA of the Romanian students, of which he says the average of those given a computer is .36 lower than those without computers. Considering that their GPA is based out of 10 instead out of 4 like ours, that fraction isn’t statistically significant even if we grant that it’s accurate. Moreover, the essay he cites goes on to say that kids using the computer are spending roughly 3 hours less per week on homework. I’m not putting too fine a point on it, but if a person is spending less time studying to get almost the same grades as their computer-lacking peers, that person is, I would say, at an advantage.

Outside of that, the magic that Mr. Fisman misses is in the number in Malumud and Pop-Eleches’ paper that he doesn’t give a citation to. Keeping in mind that these computers are not hooked up to the internet, and that the educational software given to these families was, by significant accounts, boring, a full 20% of students reported that they used the software more than once a week, and 40% had used the software at least once. That means one out of five low-income students actually used the computer of their own volition to further their education very regularly. I don’t know who Mr. Fisman’s trying to fool, but that’s a wonderful top of the bell curve. The other four out of five can misuse a computer if they want (though I doubt they actually are)—the one in five is a very good return by any counts. I don’t think a Playstation can proclaim that number, even on a good day.

Mr. Fisman, after a discussion of how having a computer in Romania caused the student’s scores to go down, asks where the parents are. His point is that if Romanian parents would keep tabs on their kids, maybe they wouldn’t play games. Something tells me that the parents were right there with the children, unaware of the difference between an educational program and a game. Considering that this line is often blurry to parents who are tech savvy, I can imagine if you have never owned a computer before the difference could be even harder to spot. I also think that Mr. Fisman’s postulation that this is an argument against giving computers completely misses the point. The more access students have to computers now, even if they are using them for the “evil” of games (we all shudder at the thought of a poor child actually having fun), they will be better equipped to monitor their own children someday when—if we’re lucky—those kids also get computers.

*photo courtesy of Wayan Vota.

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