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.
Computer technology "is used too much and very unwisely in the younger years, and not wisely enough in the older years," says Oppenheimer. For 15-year-olds, he says, "you'd be foolish not to use the [World Wide] Web" for a research project, but only alongside conventional information-gathering techniques. The big picture goal: help students use high-quality sources.
Against this backdrop, the German study stands out on account of two features: its unusually broad, international sample and its bid to isolate computers as a performance-shaping factor.
Mindful that computers are more common among affluent families, whose children often outperform more disadvantaged ones, the University of Munich researchers controlled for such variables as parents' education and working status.
When those were removed from the equation, having more than one computer at home was no longer associated with top academic performance. In fact, the study says, "The mere availability of computers at home seems to distract students from learning." Computers seem to serve mainly as devices for playing games.
Still, there were a few exceptions: Academic performance rose among those who routinely engaged in writing e-mail or running educational software.
To hear new questions raised about the educational value of technology is music to the ears at the Waldorf schools, an association of 350 schools where students don't touch computers until the 11th grade. There the priority lies with training students to think, says Patrice Maynard, leader for outreach and development, because problem-solving acumen and creativity lead to success and a joyful life.
Yet for educators in Maine, computers represent something far more promising. There they seem to hold the key to the type of skills employers want to see as the state says goodbye to textiles and other antiquated industries. Maine taxpayers are investing $37 million over four years to put laptop computers into the hands of every seventh- and eighth-grader, as well as their 3,000 teachers.
As the debate continues, consensus holds that more research is needed to know exactly where computers make the most difference in an educational process. "There's this sort of bizarre belief that computers cast a spell over students and teachers and schools," says Christopher Dede, professor of learning technologies at the Harvard School of Education. "Can you imagine what would happen if you had the same in business, asking if computers were interfering with performance? It would be a big joke."