Do Children Benefit From Internet Access?

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Opening Statement:

In Peru, providing laptops and free internet access to school children led to improved computer and internet proficiency. However, no significant impact on math and reading achievement, cognitive skills, self-esteem, teacher perceptions, or school grades were observed.

Introduction:

While access to the internet has rapidly increased worldwide in recent decades, many disparities remain. Internet access is nearly ubiquitous in wealthy developed countries; in fact over 95% of 15 year old students in developed nations across Europe, North America, and Asia have reliable home internet. Students in developing nations are much less likely to have internet access, with less than half of 15 year olds in countries such as Algeria, Peru, and Vietnam having a home connection.

Many resources are being invested in an attempt to bridge this digital access gap and technology’s effects on children in wealthier nations has been rigorously explored. However, there is a lack of research on how increased technology access affects children in developing nations. This disparity in understanding is problematic, as poorer children have fewer resources to complement or substitute for technology; therefore, results from studies in developed nations may not hold true generally.

Internet access can potentially affect skills ranging from academic achievement to cognitive development. Children who lack educational materials may be able to use internet access to access educational websites such as Khan Academy and advance their learning. E-books and other reading materials such as newspapers, blogs, and online encyclopedias can lead to an expanded perspective and satiate curiosity. On the other hand, internet access may instead undermine children’s learning if they are tempted to spend time on leisure activities such as playing online games instead of furthering their academic endeavors.

To explore how these hypothesized effects of technology play out in reality, a study examining the effects of free laptops and internet access on young students was conducted in Lima, Peru by researchers Ofer Malamud (Northwestern University), Santiago Cueto (GRADE), Julian Cristia (Inter-American Development Bank), and Diether W. Buermann (Inter-American Development Bank). Students between third and fifth grade in low performing public schools were randomly selected to receive either 1) a laptop with high speed internet access, 2) a laptop without internet access, or 3) no laptop or internet access. Numerous cognitive and social outcomes were then measured and compared between the groups of children over a period of two years.

Key Results:

  1. Providing internet to school children increased internet literacy by 30%.
  2. Providing internet to school children had no significant effects on a broad set of cognitive skills, such as a verbal fluency test, executive functioning, working memory,  and spatial reasoning.
  3. Self-esteem of students offered free laptops and/or internet access was not significantly affected as measured by a self-reported questionnaire.
  4. Teachers reported that children who had received laptops and/or internet access were equally likely to exert effort at school compared with students who had not. There were no differences in grades obtained from administrative school records or in teacher perceptions of children’s sociability.

Evaluation:

In June and July of 2011 XO laptops (child-friendly designed laptops) were provided for home use to a random sample of children enrolled in grades 3 to 5 in low-achieving public primary schools in Lima, Peru. Of the 540 children who received these laptops, 350 children were randomly selected to receive free high-speed internet access. The laptops had 32 previously installed applications that were selected by the Ministry of Education of Peru for its national program, and training and manuals on how to use them as well as other educational sites were offered to the students.

To evaluate the impacts of these interventions, a follow up survey was conducted approximately 17 months after the laptops were initially distributed. An additional follow-up survey in March 2013 was done to check for longer-run impacts. All three groups of children in the experiment were compared, enabling researchers to estimate the impact of internet access both separately from, and together with, the impact of the laptops themselves.

Results:

After five months, children in all the treatment groups of the experiment were tested on internet literacy (how to conduct oneself online and knowledge of what tools on the internet can be used for) and digital skills (an ability to use and apply technology in specific situations). Children given laptops with and without internet access had substantial improvements in digital skills after 5 months and scored 30% higher on a test of internet literacy than their peers who were not offered these technologies.

These increases in digital skills and digital literacy were not accompanied by significant impact on academic achievement. There were no significant effects on a broad set of cognitive skills, as measured by the various exams such as the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test, a verbal fluency test, a test of executive functioning, a coding test, a working memory test and a test of spatial reasoning.

Self-esteem was also not significantly affected as measured by a self-reported questionnaire.Teachers reported that children who had received laptops and/or internet access were equally likely to exert effort at school compared with students who had not. There were no differences in grades obtained from administrative school records or in teacher perceptions of children’s sociability.

The significant improvement in digital skills and internet literacy and null impact on cognitive and social skills may be explained by how children spent time on their computers. Data from computer and internet logs of student use showed that more time was spent on entertainment than learning. This deviance from the intended use of laptops was in spite of the training, tutorials, and manuals provided to urge students into using their laptops for educational purposes.

Policy Lessons:

The results of this study are very context-dependent, but still offer guidance for future policy. It does seem that offering free laptops and internet to students improves internet literacy and digital skills. However, in this study there was no observed effect of laptops with or without internet access on the cognitive and social ability of students in developing countries. These results may be explained by the finding that students spent more time on entertainment than educational activities with their laptops. Leisurely online activities help students practice using a computer, but do not necessarily provide a benefit to learning.

If laptops are desired to benefit children's education, a method to ensure that they are being used as intended may be useful. One option is educating parents on the potential benefits of laptops and familiarizing families with online learning resources. If families can provide support and guidance to students on how to use laptops for educational purposes, the impact of laptops on children's education may increase.

Original Research:

Malamud, Ofer, et al. “Do Children Benefit from Internet Access? Experimental Evidence from Peru.” 2018.

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