Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement

Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd
National Bureau of Economic Research
June 2010

In this groundbreaking study, Vigdor and Ladd looked at five years of administrative data (2000-05) denoting home computer access among half-a-million North Carolina middle schoolers. They also looked at state test scores in reading and math for students with and without home computers—as noted in the administrative data—and with or without high-speed internet access in their neighborhood—as recorded by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Having a computer had a small positive impact on reading and math scores (which echoes previous research); internet access had none. But other factors associated with computer ownership—such as overall family wealth and position—may be enough to explain the impact. So, here’s where it gets interesting. They also compared the scores of individual students before and after they got a computer, and before and after their neighborhood got broadband. These results are more surprising: Gaining access to a computer had a small but negative effect in both reading and math and gaining access to high-speed internet had a slightly larger negative effect on math, and no effect on reading. These impacts were more pronounced for black, male, and/or low-income students. In other words, it seems like computer and broadband access may widen, rather than narrow, the achievement gap. And that the introduction of computer and/or internet access crowds out time allocated to studying generally and/or using the computer for studying, without, for example, complementary effective parental monitoring. Though research in this area is in its infancy, this study flies in the face of a widespread belief that expanding home computer and/or internet access is an unequivocally positive policy move. Get it for a small fee here.

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