Do computers help with children's education?

Debate is raging over whether computers and Internet access are harmful or beneficial to children's education, with two surveys providing contradictory results.

Debate is raging over whether computers and Internet access are harmful or beneficial to children's education, with two surveys providing contradictory results.

Telstra BigPond yesterday published a survey showing a large proportion of parents believed Internet access was important to their children's future, while the United Kingdom's Royal Economic Society released a study this week saying "computers in the classroom have no discernible positive effect upon children's educational performance, while computers at home could actually be detrimental".

The Telstra survey -- across almost 600 families in metropolitan and regional Australia -- revealed 92 percent of parents "strongly believe the Internet will play an increasingly important role in their child's future education". In addition, 86 percent of family households have children at home using the Internet for research and education, while 73 percent of school children spend more time doing research at home because the Internet is available.

However, when Telstra put the proposition to parents that their child's performance at school had improved thanks to Internet access at home, only 38 percent of parents agreed or strongly agreed, with 45 percent expressing a neutral response. The figure did heighten in rural areas, with 85 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing.

The UK study said: "It appears that computers at home are not exactly used for running educational software, mining the Internet for useful data or composing better homework assignments, all things that would have a positive impact on performance, but rather for playing games, chatting, and otherwise providing entertainment."

However, BigPond managing director Justin Milne said the Telstra study indicated the Internet was no longer viewed as primarily an entertainment option.

The competing study was conducted by Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann, who work for the Ifo Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich, Germany. The two researchers re-examined a huge amount of data from a 2000 study organised by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). That study claimed to provide data on around 315,000 students in 43 countries around the globe and focused on the principal industrialised countries.

Fuchs and Woessmann's study pointed out that while "e-mail use, Web site accessibility and educational software all have something going for them, both at home and school," educational outcomes are more dependent on what you do with the computer, not its mere availability.

"The mere availability of computers does not translate into higher student performance -- at least not beyond a certain frequency of use," said the researchers, who added that students using computers either a small amount or frequently secured no performance advantages, while moderate use seemed to help students achieve better educational performance.