Computers don’t make people smart
I just read a NYTimes article describing some studies on the educational impact of home computers. Other people may be surprised to learn that computers at home actually hurt objected education outcomes. I am not surprised. I’ve often pointed out that
- Simply having a computer doesn’t make you smart in any way
- Those computers are laden with terrible software that doesn’t legally allow you to learn unless you buy more overpriced, freedom-restricting (garbage) software
- People don’t use computers to extend their daily lives; they use them as poor imitations of real activity
There’s a fourth possibility, which is at least some of the kids in the populations studied are learning a lot, but they’re not doing very well in school. I was one of these kids. I didn’t do terrible in school, but I always saw school as standing in the way of my education, so I spent as much time outside of school learning as I could. However, the NYTimes author points out that a similar study in Romania found that
The principal positive effect on the students was improved computer skills.
In other words: zilch. “Computer skills” is a euphemism for knowing how to turn on the machine and knowing how to use a mouse: things that were designed with children in mind.
I attend a university where undergraduates are required to have laptops: why? So that they can all learn to use Powerpoint? The only effect this has is that it’s really hard to hear some lectures — sometimes held in rooms without chalkboards — because everyone is clicking away and typing messages on Facebook.
My first point is the most compelling however: this was the big misunderstanding about One Laptop Per Child. The idea is not that we’ll just give some kids some computers and it will make them smart enough to contribute to their societies. No, the idea, as I understood it, was to give children computers that encourage them to learn about engineering and computer science so that they can build up the infrastructure and that one of them will find a workable way to provide potable water to their countrymen. People ended up saying “Oh, but Linux[sic] is hard to use!” That’s not true, and it’s beside the point. You can’t teach people anything with proprietary software, except how to build an antisocial and greed-ridden culture.
What I’d like to see is a study of how introducing Free Software into communities improves their education. For example, compare a school district that uses primarily Free Software versus a community that uses proprietary software. Let’s see the same outcomes in that comparison and see what happens. All you education Ph.D. students out there don’t even have to give me credit for the idea, but you do need to publish your results so that the FSF can use them to promote its educational mission. You’re welcome.