just dumping computers in schools might not help

In The Use and Misuse of Computers in Education: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Colombia, by Felipe Barrera-Osorio and Leigh L. Linden, the authors examine a program that

aims to integrate computers, donated by the private sector, into the teaching of language in public schools. The authors conduct a two-year randomized evaluation of the program using a sample of 97 schools and 5,201 children. Overall, the program seems to have had little effect on students’ test scores and other outcomes. These results are consistent across grade levels, subjects, and gender. The main reason for these results seems to be the failure to incorporate the computers into the educational process. Although the program increased the number of computers in the treatment schools and provided training to the teachers on how to use the computers in their classrooms, surveys of both teachers and students suggest that teachers did not incorporate the computers into their curriculum.

Two thoughts on this:

  1. This reminds us – and I’d say “as if we needed reminding” except that we do – that you cannot just dump inputs into schools and expect changes.  If inputs don’t get used well, they don’t matter.  Even though this seems like a no-brainer, many development programs are very narrow: build a school or give some books or ….  Same problem, I’m afraid.
  2. That said, a quick look at the tables suggests to me that the authors may be confusing a noisy result with a narrowly bound zero result.  In other words, there seem to be differences in outcomes between kids who got computers and those who didn’t, but there is so much variation in both groups that we cannot be sure.  What this really means is that we don’t know if there is an effect, that there might be a heterogeneous effect, or there might not.  (Either way, clearly this program wasn’t a raging success.)

There is also some evidence from India (I haven’t evaluated the quality) that if you just let kids play with the computers, they’ll learn some stuff.  (One question is, Do they learn things that will help them?)

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