Slate: Giving laptops to poor schoolkids is pointless


Slate's Ray Fisman launches a bomb at the expensive holy cow of free school laptops. "Giving poor kids laptops doesn't improve their scholastic performance" is the cry, summarizing research from economists Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches. The conclusion? Kids just play games on them.

The two researchers surveyed households that applied to Euro 200, a voucher distribution program in Romania designed to help poor households defray the cost of buying a computer for their children. It turns out that kids in households lucky enough to get computer vouchers spent a lot less time watching TV–but that's where the good news ends. "Vouchered" kids also spent less time doing homework, got lower grades, and reported lower educational aspirations than the "unvouchered" kids.

The $100 Distraction Device [Slate]

Published by Rob Beschizza

Follow Rob @beschizza on Twitter.

Join the Conversation


  1. I agree Mr. Beschizza,, the point isn’t to make them do homework on the laptops, it’s just to get them learning how to manipulate a computer. I fooled around with an old unix 3B2 machine when I was young. I didn’t know a darn thing about it, getting the old 300 baud modem in it ended up being a month long project, and I never did anything “constructive” with the machine I sure learned a lot of Unix (and modem command string things) that have helped me elsewhere though.

    Put it another way, I used to think I was “special”, because I can type 80WPM+. Not many people in my generation could do that. Now anytime I see a kid on a keyboard, they’re pounding out the strokes as fast, or almost as fast as that. It’s because they’ve been around computers their whole lives, and it’s just commonplace now. But not if you don’t have a computer to learn on in the first place!

  2. I completely agree as well. I have met people living in poor areas that had no idea how to set up a free email account. Even if they aren’t doing doing homework, they are learning how to use a tool they will need to know about to do almost any well paid job. I wonder if the author of this article can adjust his screen resolution or tell if his computer is compatible with a certain game.

    Perhaps the money would be a little better spent on computer labs and classes, but there is some familiarity that one can only get by having a device in an unstructured situation without real fear that they face punishment for making mistakes and screwing things up.

  3. I don’t think your parents were dumbasses. Maybe you can’t imagine what it would be like to have parents who are completely backwards and ignorant, or what it’s like to be stupid yourself.

  4. I’ve learned a spectacular amount of the practical knowledge I use everyday while writing games (trig, databases, AI, physics, orbital dynamics, graphics engine configuration and use) or obtaining hentai (video image transcoding, all sort of transfer protocols). Playing is one of the best ways to learn.

    Most of the XO laptop critics are class puritans. They believe the poor should only receive subsistence food and water, and should never be allowed near games, TV or even tools. The same types will then argue that Paris Hilton should be able to do anything she wants, due to her wonderful contributions to market productivity.

  5. The problem I have with the author’s argument is his assumption that computers are anything less than a necessity to be part of the modern world. They’ve become so ubiquitous to those in developed countries that people have forgotten just how transformative they can be to someone just experiencing their power.

    I’m a librarian and I’ve helped poor and elderly set-up e-mail and use basic computer functions like word-processing and image printing. It’s life-altering. Suddenly people in their 80’s can communicate with family and friends for free and print pictures, read news and become more involved.

    Young people embrace all that and feel freed up to experiment and break the machine to rebuild it. I’ve seen a kids eyes go wide when they created a tumblr post for the first time, or posted a video they shot to the web.

    Computers are toys for us because we are spoiled with an embarrassments of them. For people in developing nations they are tools to access and understand and CHANGE their world.

  6. Back then, when I hit the dead end of the Atari 2600 I asked my parents for the 800xl, that’s when -apart from playing- I really dug into the stuff: player missile graphics, logic and loop structures, arrays, etc. I was one of the first students ever to deliver a report made in a computer (using Atari Writer and printed in crude dot matrix).
    At the university those BASIC programs helped me with FORTRAN, COBOL and RPG.
    At my first job we had SCO Unix, while everybody programmed in 4GL nobody could compile in C. I learned about that while setting up NetHack.
    When the Internet came I already had a couple of years worth “surfing” the BBS…
    The tool’s value is what you make of it.

  7. Plus, the XOs come with an OS (Sugar) and applications that are designed for interactive learning (according to educational Constructivist theory) — all of which should help avoid the Romanian disaster of just giving kids “normal” computers and looking at the results. A lot of variables are different, here.

  8. Right. And anyone who has played a game on a computer knows that it can be a learning experience. However, these computers aren’t just being given to kids… they are being incorporated into the classroom curriculum.

    What more, I can’t help but to agree with Rob that having an opportunity to play freely with computers growing up has allowed me to become what I am today. From my current job, to my interest and degree in film making, to my hobbyistic websites like Celebrating Sagan and One Album in 120 Seconds.

    The bottom line is that computers are going to continue playing an increased roll in the day to day lives of people all across the planet… and the sooner that kids in the developing world have access to computers the sooner they can participate in the global economy and dialogue online.

  9. Gee, and there was me thinking that the plural of anecdote WASN’T data… The guy you’re reminiscing against has an empirical study to cite. You have fond childhood memories…

  10. This discussion has been going on for quite awhile in the field of education. Not just poor but the use of computers in the classroom. I think the context of this debate is whether giving kids a computer is going to help them learn in school.

    As many of you pointed out there are plenty of good reasons why computers are good things to learn with so I won’t debate that as I agree with you.

    There is a faulty assumption by some educators/administrators that computers are a silver bullet and will get kids grades and test scores higher. To that extend the author is probably correct. Without careful instruction and parental reinforcement the grades are not going to be magically better just because there is a computer.

    The discussion makes for a hot topic and will get attention but I think the real issue is to determine how best to use computers as an educational aid with a direct correlation to increased grades and test scores.

  11. The latest toys used to be…let’s see…cassette tapes, and before that film strips. They’ve not improved things much in the U.S., so unless the whole educational infrastructure comes up to meet these kids, they’ll not get a huge amount out of it.

    The unintended consequence of a bazillion kids with cheap laptops may well be the expansion of child labor in the information market. Certainly many of the tech assistance lines aren’t much better, and think how much spam a hungry kid can kick out.

  12. Do they pre-load these bad boys with “The Oregon Trail”?

    “You died of typhoid fever, pwn3d.”

  13. The OLPC music ‘game’ is great — you can loop and sequence, and if you want, put together your own instrument with a circuit diagram. And listen to your own voice with an oscilloscope!! I doubt it would catch every kid, but the apps are well-designed for ‘make you smarter’ play. I’ve seen kids well drawn in.

    The idiocy that just *leaped* out of the Slate article is that the authors’ parents ‘protected’ him from programming the machine. From my lights, they enforced its use for clerking and data-entry, and he’s (class) lucky that 22 years of school turned him into a professional writer.

    My parents had quite another response when my brother and I wrote games; something like “That’s crazy, kids! …Hey, can you make the characters bounce?” We became professional programmers and mathematicians.

  14. “This discussion has been going on for quite awhile in the field of education. Not just poor but the use of computers in the classroom. I think the context of this debate is whether giving kids a computer is going to help them learn in school.”

    And that’s assuming that school (in the Western sense, and in the state it’s in today) is even the best path for these kids. Or anyone, for that matter. Why not let kids discover knowledge on their own, using these computers and their own creativity? Saying that these computers are only there to fuel the motor of modern American fact-memorizing education is discrediting the computer’s inherent ability to bring out the bright in children.

  15. Well, neither Slate nor BBG exactly has the whole story right. Sorry Rob, but there are unlikely to be enough jobs for tech bloggers in the developing world to make much of a dent in global poverty, not to mention all the factors aside from getting unfettered computer access that allowed you to find yourself in the fortunate position you are now in. Fisman is wrong too, but not exactly for all the reasons these posts seem to think. The study he’s discussing shows a negative correlation between school performance and computer ownership, but other studies show positive correlations between access to information and communication technologies and a household’s economic well-being, which in turn generally leads to better outcomes for the succeeding generation. Then again, at the same time, it’s really just too early to know what the long-term effect of giving poor Romanian (or Nigerian, or Brazilian) kids computers of their own will do. Some argue it’s essential but with worldwide internet penetration hovering around 20%, obviously it’s not truly necessary to have a computer to survive or even do a little better than mere survival. From a public policy standpoint, there are probably better ways to use educational dollars than Euro 200 or OLPC (not that the effects of such projects are strictly limited to education), but that’s a different story altogether.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *