The Venezuelan government has been spending millions on little laptops for children in public schools. The computers, known as Canaimitas, use open software, come with a Linux-based operating system, and allow the user to browse the Web.
But according to the latest research, they are an enormous waste of money.
The paper tells a devastating story: results from a randomized experiment in rural Peru show that the mass spread of computers did nothing for enrollment nor Math and Language tests. General cognitive skills were positively affected. The students also reported increased use of the computer both at school and at home, but there is little evidence they made a difference on educational achievement.
The money quote:
“First, the time allocated to activities directly related to school does not seem to have changed. The program did not affect attendance or time allocated to doing homework. Second, it has been suggested that the introduction of computers increases motivation, but our results suggest otherwise. Third, there is no evidence the program influenced reading habits. This is perhaps surprising given that the program substantially affected the availability of books to students. The laptops came loaded with 200 books, and only 26 percent of students in the control group had more than five books in their homes. Finally, the program did not seem to have affected the quality of instruction in class. Information from computer logs indicates that a substantial share of laptop use was directed to activities that might have little effect on educational outcomes (word processing, calculator, games, music and recording sound and video). A parallel qualitative evaluation of the program suggests that the introduction of computers produced, at best, modest changes in pedagogical practices (Villarán, 2010). This may be explained by the lack of software in the laptops directly linked to Math and Language and the absence of clear instructions to teachers about which activities to use for specific curricular goals.
On the positive side, the results indicate some benefits on cognitive skills. In the three measured dimensions, students in the treatment group surpass those in the control group by between 0.09 and 0.13 standard deviations though the difference is only statistically significant at the 10 percent level for the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test (p-value 0.055). Still, the effects are quantitatively large. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the estimated impact on the verbal fluency measure represents the progression expected in six months for a child.”
The inability of our public sphere to ask basic questions about how we spend money earmarked for education brings me to another newsworthy item from last week: the appointment of Prof. Rafael Reif as President of MIT.
In case you didn’t know, the new President of MIT is Venezuelan, educated at the Universidad de Carabobo. He went on to get his Ph.D. in Engineering from Stanford University, and has had an apparently brilliant career.
So while we take pride from our very own “local boy does good” story, stop and ask yourselves: is it fair that the Venezuelan state, by virtue of paying for his entire undergraduate education, planted the seeds for this brilliant scientist?
Schools in remote areas of Venezuela may lack the basic supplies, but our Universities, then and now, give free education to people who can obviously afford to pay something. Many of these people go on to have brilliant careers overseas.
In essence, the Venezuelan state subsidized the education of the MIT’s new President, just like it does to many doctors, dentists, and other professionals. Is that a wise way to spend our money?
This is not a knock on Prof. Reif himself, or on any of the beneficiaries of this system, many of whom are our readers. But the question remains – should public money be spent on people who need education the most, or on people who can afford to pay their own way?
How many more First-world University Presidents will we have to subsidize until we reach the right answer?
(HT on the Canaima research: Omar)