Educational Benefits From Computers In Schools

The use of new information and communication technology (ICT) in schools can have a positive effect on pupils'' performance, according to research by Dr Olmo Silva and colleagues from the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP), published in the July 2007 issue of the Economic Journal.

The study shows that recent large increases in ICT funding in the UK have improved educational performance in primary schools – and the positive impact of this ICT investment is most evident in the teaching of English. What''s more, schools have invested not just in more ICT equipment but also – through teacher training – in better quality ICT use.

Economists have typically been sceptical about the idea that computers can improve educational outcomes. This has not stopped the UK government seeing ICT investment in schools as ''crucial to our drive to raise standards'' (former secretary of state for education Ruth Kelly) and envisaging ICT being widely used across the whole
curriculum in all state schools.

The positive rhetoric has been backed up by considerable public investment. Between 1998 and 2002, ICT expenditure almost doubled in English secondary schools – from an average of £40,100 to just under £75,300 per school, or 3% of overall expenditure – and more than trebled in primary schools – from £3,600 in 1998 to £12,900 in 2002, or 2% of overall expenditure. Most of this dramatic acceleration took place from 2000 and the upward trend continued in 2003 and 2004.

So has the big increase in ICT investment made a difference to educational standards? To answer this question, the research makes use of a 2001 policy change that modified the rules for ICT investment in different regions of England. Before 2001, funding was allocated from central government to local education authorities (LEAs) through a bidding process, aiming to direct money towards LEAs with innovative and interesting proposals for the use of ICT funds.

From 2001 onwards, allocations were instead made according to a formula based on school and pupil numbers in LEAs with an adjustment for population density. The change in the allocation mechanism created ''winners'' and ''losers'' among LEAs: areas that had benefited a lot under the old system stood to lose from the transition to a
formula-based system, and vice versa.

The CEP researchers argue (and provide evidence) that money was reshuffled across LEAs in a ''random'' way – that is, in a way unrelated to unobservable LEA characteristics that may give rise to a spurious relationship between ICT funding and test scores. They then use the changes in the ICT funding accruing to LEAs to estimate the effects of ICT expenditure on educational standards. This approach identifies the effect of being a winner or a loser in the new system of ICT allocation.

The researchers estimate the effect of changes in ICT funding per pupil on changes in achievements in English, Mathematics and Science at the end of primary education. They find a positive relationship between ICT funding per pupil and performance in English: a doubling of ICT funding per pupil in schools leads to a 2 percentage point
increase in the proportion of pupils achieving level 4 or above at age 11.

Changes in ICT funding of this magnitude really did happen for primary schools over this period, and the impact on performance in English is notable given that the average growth rate of pupils'' scores in this subject was around 7% between 1999 and 2003. But it is important to note that this causal effect of ICT is not an average effect for all
schools in England. Rather, it is the causal effect of large changes in ICT investment for LEAs that were substantially affected by the rule change – the winners. For Mathematics, the impact of ICT on test scores is very close to zero. But there is a positive relationship between ICT and achievements in Science: in this case, a doubling of ICT funding per pupil leads to an increase of 1.6 percentage points in the proportion of pupils achieving level 4 or above.

So, unlike previous economic studies, this research finds evidence of a positive causal impact of ICT investment on educational performance in primary schools. This is most evident in the teaching of English, which also has high use of ICT for teaching purposes. There is also a positive impact for Science, though not for Mathematics. How
can this evidence be reconciled with previous research that finds no effect?

The estimates identify the impact of being a winner or a loser under the new system. After the policy change, the average growth rate of ICT funds among LEAs mostly benefiting from the reform was roughly 60%. This contrasts with a much smaller change of 20% for LEAs that lost more from the introduction of the formula-based system.
Intuitively, it is the comparison between these two groups that drives the study's identification of the impact of ICT on educational outcomes: it mainly captures the impact of large changes in ICT investment on primary school performance.

LEAs benefiting most from the policy change were LEAs with lower overall expenditure per pupil but better educational standards (as measured by exam pass rates and truancy rates). This suggests that resources were redirected to areas that were in a better position to use them efficiently. Furthermore, new technology was already in place in English schools since the mid-1990s, and money redirected after the policy change was mainly spent in updating resources and teachers'' skills.

So it appears to be the joint effect of large increases in ICT funding – and a fertile background for making efficient use of it – that led to the positive effects of ICT expenditure on educational performance.

''New Technology in Schools: Is There a Payoff?'' by Stephen Machin, Sandra McNally and Olmo Silva is published in the July 2007 issue of the Economic Journal.