When the Laptop Goes to the Head

The announcement in July that India will make available a $35 laptop computer to students made headlines around the world. Human resource development minister Kapil Sibal described it as "part of the national initiative to take forward inclusive education".

At first blush, the devices look impressive--with a touch screen display, and featuring Internet browsers, a PDF reader, video conferencing capabilities, a media player and much more. If the computers work well and are reliable, it will be a nice engineering accomplishment. But to hope that they will make a huge educational difference in the long run would be a mistake.

Boosters of the $35 laptop have fallen prey to the silver-bullet fallacy of technology--the idea that a single tool in enough hands can categorically transform the world. The fallacy is rooted in a misunderstanding of the true obstacles to knowledge attainment and educational achievement.

Much of student achievement has little or nothing to do with technology. It has more to do with innate abilities and habits developed from an early age.

The computer was developed by students and scientists from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in collaboration with the government-run National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology. The announcement upstages the One Laptop Per Child movement out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has hoped to make laptops available for $100 to poor children in developing countries.

"Think of a cheap computer with students of remote colleges," said H.P. Khincha, a professor at IISc, Bangalore. "The government is connecting all colleges with broadband and this computer will be a boon for them. They can download education materials, IIT lectures available for free and many more study materials."

Sounds dreamy. And there is little doubt these cheap computers will come in handy. But don't expect huge jumps in educational achievement. Recent academic research has been pouring cold water on the notion that getting advanced technology in the hands of low-income students dramatically boosts educational attainment.

Ofer Malamud of the University of Chicago is co-author of a study that looked at low-income families in Romania which had received vouchers to buy computers. The results were counter-intuitive to him.

"We found a negative effect on academic achievement," he told technology writer Randall Stross.

But the results did not surprise some of those to whom he presented his results. "As we presented our findings at various seminars," he said, "people in the audience said they weren't surprised, given their own experiences with their school-age children."

Or consider the extension of broadband services to households, another fetish of techno-boosters. If only we can get broadband to those who lack the ability to pay for it, the argument goes, we'll see a jump in academic achievement.

Nice in theory, wrong in reality.

Researchers at Duke University recently studied the effect of bringing broadband Internet service into the homes of low-income Americans. The result? Students' math scores actually dropped and, in some instances, so did students' reading scores.

Indeed, the US has spent billions of dollars on bringing advanced technology into classrooms. The results have been not what the technology enthusiasts had hoped.

For example, education scholar Kirk Johnson looked at the use of computers in the classroom to determine if it helped students read better. Analysing data from the US' most highly regarded educational data set, he found that "students who use computers in the classroom at least once each week do not perform better…than do those who use computers less than once a week."

This is not to suggest that India's cheap laptops will diminish academic performance. But it does suggest we need to have some humility when it comes to expectations.

Much of student achievement has little or nothing to do with technology. It has more to do with innate abilities and habits developed from an early age. A student with a great work ethic but too poor to access high technology, can still outperform a lazy kid with an iPad, cellphone and the ubiquitous Wi-fi.

What we want from advanced technology is that it should enhance educational productivity. But just as often, if these studies are any indication, they enhance procrastination and delay. In this way, technology is no panacea and can actually be a distraction. A student's character is what really counts.

And that's what should worry us about the techno-boosterism. It distracts us from the real obstacles to educational achievement.

Of course, the fact that India has a knowledge and technical base capable of developing a $35 laptop--and another similarly celebrated low-cost product, Tata's Nano automobile--tells us something much more important. India is thriving as a hothouse of incremental entrepreneurial advances that are as important as breakthrough entrepreneurial advances to long-run economic growth. This is an important harbinger of where growth in the 21st century will come from, and one which other nations should take notice of.

Nick Schulz is DeWitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-in-chief of American.com.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/ahlobystov

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