Business-like, isn't he?



Columbia Journal

    Computers may not hurt kids’ grades, despite Sun reports

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Columbia Journal May 2005

    Front page news, according to April 13th’s Vancouver Sun: “Computers may hurt kids’ grades”.

    The story: giving laptops to school kids may be popular, but overdoing computer use can “undermine academic achievement”. Sarah Schmidt’s news story reports on a yearlong study of a “technology-rich” mid- to upper-class Ohio school that provided laptops to 237 grade 7 and 8 students in 2003.

    With wireless Internet access throughout the school, kids spent an average of three hours per day with their computers. According to the report, students who spent less than that time with computers saw an average 0.124 gain on their grade-point average, while kids who spent more than the average time with their computers saw their grade-point averages drop 0.078.

    As well, Schmidt’s story continued, the research by Michigan State University’s Jing Lei and Yong Zhao noted that the software tools most used by students (a Web browser for Internet research, Microsoft Word for note taking and word processing, and Microsoft PowerPoint for presentations) “did not lead to any increase in marks”.

    By contrast, students with higher marks were more likely to do computer activities such as math software, science probes, website creation, and computer programming.

    OK. What does all this really mean? Does this really suggest that parents and teachers should pull kids away from their computer screens because too much computer time “may hurt kids’ grades”?

    Like too many newspaper reports of scientific research, the Sun’s article (and particularly its headline) oversimplifies.

    Let’s look at the news report’s claims one at a time:

    •    Kids who spend more time doing schoolwork at their computers get lower grades. Maybe. But as a parent and teacher I’ve noticed that many kids who have to spend a long time doing their homework assignments (with or without computers) get lower grades. Life ain’t fair: smart kids can often get an ‘A’ in less time then it takes many other (“slower”) kids to scrape by with a ‘C’.

    •    Web browsing, word processing, etc don’t lead to higher grades. When hardly anyone had access to computers or the Internet, a nicely printed, word-processed document filled with information was worth bonus marks. But now, according to a Vancouver elementary principal, “Researching using the Internet and creating Power Point presentations, as mentioned in the article, are frankly too universal (allowing the good, the bad, and the ugly). By analogy, I doubt if "learning to handwrite" or "learning to use an encyclopaedia" would be correlated positively with increased achievement --- the data would just be a ‘wash’.”

    •    Students with higher marks used less-popular software. Yet again, I can’t say I’m surprised. The kids who get higher marks tend to be looking for the chance to do more, whether in the arts, in science and math, and with computers. Those kids jump at the chance to enrich their education, and computer programming, building websites, or doing math and science enrichment activities will appeal to many of them.

    There is a sub-text behind the Sun’s story that is probably accurate. Computers at home and at school aren’t a magic wand that will make learning happen or make little Johnny or Janie start bringing home a report card filled with ‘A’s. That home computer will probably get some use researching, writing, and printing out schoolwork, it will probably be used far more often for game playing or instant messaging. And all too often, schools get computers without fully thinking out how they’re going to be used.

    Individual parents and teachers will differ in opinions of how much time (if any) children should spend in front of computer (and TV) screens.

    Like any other tool, computers can be used to help create a masterpiece or to speed up our everyday work. But learning to work effectively with any tool requires training, practice, and planning. And it still takes a skilled artist or craftsperson to create a masterpiece.

    But we won’t learn that on Page 1 of the Sun.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at