kidstabletsResearchers have found that inexpensive tablet computers loaded with learning software can greatly help young children in economically disadvantaged communities learn to read. This seems like a bit of a no-brainer to me, given how long educational software has been around—they wouldn’t keep using it if it didn’t work!—but I suppose it’s useful to quantify how well it works.

Researchers presented the results of the first three trials of the study in Britain at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Learning at Scale conference. They tried the tablets and software in rural Ethiopian villages with no schools or written culture, a suburban South African school with a high student-to-teacher ratio, and a US school in a low-income rural area. Students in all three studies showed significant improvements.

The tablets used in the studies were inexpensive Android tablets, locked down to provide access only to approved educational software. The children, ranging in age from 4 to 11, were not given any instruction on how to use the tablets ahead of time.

While the results may seem fairly obvious, I think the most important thing to consider is that, given how inexpensive tablets have gotten over the years, this is a solution that may finally be within the grasp of even the least affluent schools. Plenty of sub-$100 Android tablets are available, and so is the $50 Amazon Fire. Why should schools spend several hundred bucks a pop on iPads if they can eke out a significant educational benefit with a lower budget? Of course, the study didn’t compare how well kids learned on cheap tablets to how well they learned on expensive ones, but if they were able to learn that well on cheap ones, could expensive ones really merit the extra cost?


  1. Temper your enthusiasm Chris. Education has its own placebo effect. The people running these studies often have a positive impact that has nothing to do with what’s being tested.

    Small scale studies often don’t scale. Those studies are often done by dedicated people who know what they’re doing and want it to succeed. Kids respond to their motivation more than anything else.

    But when that scheme is turned into the typical summer program at a school of education it morphs into something different. The motivation isn’t there. The understanding isn’t there. Lacking that, it fails to deliver results.
    Years ago, I had a friend who went back to school after a divorce to become a teacher. I watched what the ed school at the University of Washington did to her and was disgusted. She might have made a good teacher. They turned her iinto something dreadful. She became a puppet that would follow the latest education fads without thinking, fads that made those education professors who wrote the textbooks lots of money. A puppet that would show up each summer for the ed school’s lucrative summer programs.

    She knew little about the subjects she taught. For her summer training, I tried to get her to take real courses, such as music courses in the School of Music. She’d had her confidence and independence so destroyed by her ed school training, that she could not do that. She had to stay inside the ed school’s undemanding ‘safe space.’

    The state of Washinton paid for summer training programs. She told me about when she expressed her fears about being able to manage her first summer training, a fellow teacher told her that she need not worry, that simply “breathing” would get her through those ed school courses.

    Avoiding effort and thinking seemed to be a key component at her suburban Seattle public school. If the students aren’t motivated, it was to a great extent because their teachers weren’t. If the students learned little, it was because their teachers, with the ed school credentials, knew almost nothing about what they were teaching. You can’t impart what you don’t have.
    Things did not used to be that way. A few months ago I listened to Anne of Green Gables, set in rural Canada about 1900. There teaching was held in such high esteem, she and some of her classmates stayed an extra hour after school each day to prepare for the stiff entrance exam for teaching school. Among other things, she needed to get a good grasp of Latin.

    Today, if you can breathe, you can get into and graduate from ed school. Even worse, I heard it from a member of the school board in one large city that the demands placed on those who want to become principles are nil. Anyone with an ed degree can apply for principal training. Anyone who applies gets accepted. Anyone admitted graduates. The result is a lot of incompetent principals who make life hard for motivated teachers and students.

    That’s why you’ll hear occasional news stories about a school’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy being imposed in ridiculous ways. These principals are too stupid to distinguish between a small knife accidentally left in a students car from a family picnic the previous weekend and a mentally deranged student who might go on a killing spree. Zero tolerance really means ‘too stupid to understand what’s happening.’ Burying a school in free tablets won’t fix that.
    Try to push any program, good or ill, through the average school and it’s likely to come to naught. Try to do it in inner-city schools filled with kids from dysfunctional families, and the results will be even worse.

    In 1990, I spent the summer in D.C. in a neighborhood that was on the border between gentrification and high crime. One block in one direction were expensive homes. A few blocks in the other was one of the few places to buy food. It had been robbed so often, the clerk worked behind bulletproof glass.

    It was summer and miserably hot. When I went to the nearest library, I was typically the only person there. The place was cool and comfortable. The shelves overflowed with books. And yet there was just me to read them. The opportunity to read was there in abundance. But those who lived around it simply did not value reading.

    It’s not the poverty. It’s the culture. A bit over a century ago, Jews arrived in NYC from Eastern Europe so poor they literally could go no further. The ship over had taken every penny that had. A generation latter, major east coast universities were contriving ‘diversity’ quotas to keep the children of those immigrants from overwhelming their campuses. Those Jews may have been poor, but they valued education and that made the difference.

    Except at the margins, no gadget can correct for a dysfunctional culture. And yes, a larger culture can harm a subculture. Welfare means no father to keep a growing boy in line. High crime rates destroy any incentitive to save or buy something useful like a laptop. It’d just be stolen. Why prepare for a job when few of those who know work at one. You can go on and on.

    And its not racism. You can find growing numbers of white neighborhoods just as dysfunctional and for the same reasons. Charles Murray documents that well in his Coming Apart.

    There’s a reason why there’s so much resistance to fixing those disincentives. Certain groups of politicians, typical liberal big city Democrats, benefit from keeping the poor forever poor and making them obsessed with being victims rather than achievers. That’s why Detroit, which has elected nothing but liberal Democrats since the early sixties is a hell hole.

    Tablets are not the answer because a lack of them isn’t the problem. To say that it’s a dysfunctional culture is only half right. The real problem is a larger culture that keeps that culture—both black and white—dysfunctional by encouraging dependence and victimization.

    In 1965 Daniel Moynihan warned that the black community was in trouble due to illegitimay rates around 25%. He came under brutal attack from the left. You can about it here:

    Now that illegitimacy rate is 70%. If you want to know why, for instance, black teen boys clash with the police and do stupid things? The main reason is that there’s no dad in the house teaching that boy how to behave. Do your really think a 15-year-old boy is going to listen to a mom on welfare who spends all her time watching TV? He needs that dad to keep him in line and to give him hell if he doesn’t study and make good grades. He needs to know that, if he doesn’t prepare and get a good job, no woman will look twice at him.

    [Gets down off his soapbox and walks away, muttering to himself.]

    –Mike Perry

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