Technology and Education: The Power of the Personal Computer

By Pelham, B.; Crabtree, S. et al. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Technology and Education: The Power of the Personal Computer


Pelham, B., Crabtree, S., Nyiri, Z., Harvard International Review


In most cases, the assumption that wealthy countries tend to have better education systems than poorer countries is correct. However, the association between national wealth and educational achievement scores is far from perfect. The United States, for example, ranks near the top of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in GDP per capita, but it typically ranks closer to the middle of the pack in academic assessments.

Studies have shown that factors other than the wealth of a country also matter for educational attainment; for instance, the degree to which the state prioritizes education and the level of the country's income inequality both have significant effects on education. Our report, on the other hand, illustrates the educational advantage bestowed by access to computers. The evidence indicates that the level of computer propagation in a country is strongly associated with its students' scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized international test.

The Problem: How to Educate a Planet

Education researchers, government officials, and the international development community often have different ideas about the best approach to improving educational attainment across the globe. Two prominent contemporary approaches to improving education in developing countries are the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) longstanding goal of establishing universal primary education (UPE) and Nicholas Negroponte's more recent and equally controversial One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program. These programs represent two very different approaches to improving education. The UPE approach is traditional and straightforward; its goal is to place more youth into classrooms. The other approach--giving students special laptops--is high-tech and experimental.

Among educators, comparing UPE and OLPC has sparked intense debate over the fundamental efficacy of their two distinct approaches to education. Critics of the UPE program have argued that its goal is unrealistic and inefficient; they propose that adolescent and adult education is a more cost-effective way of improving functional education in developing countries. Advocates of UPE counter that many of today's prospering "middle income" countries, such as China, Chile, Singapore, and Uruguay, were once poor countries that made strong commitments to universal primary education. In other words, nothing else has yet been proven as effective as UPE, and it is the necessary standard against which other approaches must measure.

The OLPC program also has many critics. They argue, for example, that building schools and libraries should be a bigger priority than providing computers. Negroponte and other advocates of the OLPC program have countered that the XO-1 machine, the centerpiece of the OLPC program, is specifically designed to operate effectively even in places where there are no classrooms. For example, the XO-1's screen is clearly visible even in bright sunlight, and the XO-1 is roughly 25 times more energy efficient than traditional laptops. Other critics have argued that despite OLPC's best intentions, the laptops will end up on the black market while poor children continue to go without pencils or paper. It appears to be too early to assess the gravity of this second problem.

Policymakers trying to assess the relative value of programs such as UPE and the OLPC need to understand the social, physical, and economic forces that fuel educational attainment. Designing better educational systems requires identifying the variables associated with exemplary educational performance.

Predictors of Educational Attainment

In 2006, the OECD administered the third PISA assessment across 57 countries that spanned the range of different levels of socioeconomic development. PISA scores are based on tests of reading, mathematics, and science, with emphasis on both abstract knowledge and real-world application. …

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