For all the schools and parents who have together invested billions to give children a learning edge through the latest computer technology, a mammoth new study by German researchers brings some sobering news: Too much exposure to computers might spell trouble for the developing mind.
From a sample of 175,000 15-year-old students in 31 countries, researchers at the University of Munich announced in November that performance in math and reading had suffered significantly among students who have more than one computer at home. And while students seemed to benefit from limited use of computers at school, those who used them several times per week at school saw their academic performance decline significantly as well.
"It seems if you overuse computers and trade them for other [types of] teaching, it actually harms the student," says lead researcher Ludger Woessmann in a telephone interview from Munich. "At least we should be cautious in stating that increasing [access to] computers in the home and school will improve students' math and reading performance."
With the rise of computers in classrooms, has come a glut of conflicting conclusions about the actual value computers bring to timeless tasks of teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. For some in education, these results indicate how thoroughly this field of research has come to resemble that of the conventional wisdom about weight loss, which seems to shift with the tide. Yet others see hopeful signs of a maturing debate, where blind faith in the educational benefits of technology is giving way to greater appreciation for an understanding when computers are useful and when they're not.
"You could argue that's the big issue here: People need guidance in how to use [computers in education]," says Dr. Marcia Linn, professor of education and director of the Technology Enhanced Learning in Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley.
In surveying the gamut of research for his 2003 book "The Flickering Mind" (Random House), journalist Todd Oppenheimer [Editor's note: The original version misstated Oppenheimer's first name.] found most studies have overstated either the benefits or the drawbacks computers pose in education. The most thorough studies have found computers to have little effect either way, he said, although some guiding principles are beginning to emerge.