In my email inbox today (abstract, emphasis mine):
This paper uses a regression discontinuity design to estimate the effect of home computers on child and adolescent outcomes. We collected survey data from households who participated in a unique government program in Romania which allocated vouchers for the purchase of a home computer to low-income children based on a simple ranking of family income. We show that children in households who received a voucher were substantially more likely to own and use a computer than their counterparts who did not receive a voucher. Our main results indicate that that home computer use has both positive and negative effects on the development of human capital. Children who won a voucher had significantly lower school grades in Math, English and Romanian but significantly higher scores in a test of computer skills and in self-reported measures of computer fluency. There is also evidence that winning a voucher increased cognitive ability, as measured by Raven's Progressive Matrices. We do not find much evidence for an effect on non-cognitive outcomes. Finally, the presence of parental rules regarding computer use and homework appear to mitigate the effects of computer ownership, suggesting that parental monitoring and supervision may be important mediating factors.
What this means is that just giving computers to kids at home is not a sure-fire way of improving educational outcomes – parental guidance is a necessary adjunct. This goes against the conventional wisdom that just having a computer in the home make kids smarter, by allowing them to be more computer literate. This paper affirms that computer literacy rises, but at the potential cost of reducing the impact of education in other fields of study.
The reason why I’m bringing this up together with policy design, is this report a couple of weeks back (extract):
RAUB: One million laptop computers will be given out free to poor students of secondary schools throughout the country to increase broadband penetration in the country.
Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) chairman Tan Sri Khalid Ramli said the Government was targetting a penetration level of 50% by the end of the year.
“At the moment, the country has achieved 36% broadband penetration,” he said after attending the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day celebration in the Tersang 3 Felda scheme near here yesterday.
The reason for pushing for broadband penetration is because research indicates that higher broadband penetration can improve economic growth. But the degree of causality and the transmission mechanisms between higher broadband penetration and economic growth really needs to be looked at, before a policy is set to shoot for targets.
It’s no use just giving out free laptops and broadband access to poor kids, if the actual mechanism by which higher broadband penetration improves the economy is through reducing communication costs and lowering barriers between businesses, or between businesses and consumers. And its an even worse policy if it backfires and reduces educational outcomes for the young.
Going for increased broadband penetration (and hence, a hoped for increase in national output) by just giving away laptops, is a triumph of form over substance – unless there are backup mechanisms to ensure that the policy goals are actually met. I don’t see that here.
Ofer Malamud, Cristian Pop-Eleches, “Home Computer Use and the Development of Human Capital”, NBER Working Paper No. 15814, March 2010