One Game Machine Per Child

by on March 29, 2010 at 7:28 am in Data Source, Economics, Games | Permalink

Ofer Malamud and
Cristian Pop-Eleches look at the effects of a program that gave poor households a voucher to purchase a computer.  (The program was Romanian but the results may hold lessons for similar programs around the world.)  Households with incomes directly below a cutoff level were given a voucher while households with incomes directly above the cutoff were not.  Thus, households which were very similar were treated differently and this lets the authors use a regression discontinuity design that makes their results credible as representing a causal effect.  The results of a regression discontinuity design are also very easy to explain with figures. 

The income cutoff is shown by the red line.  Beginning at the top left we see that households with incomes just below the cutoff were much more likely to have a computer than households with incomes just above the cutoff – thus the voucher program has a big effect on computer ownership.  The top right figure shows similarly that the voucher program increased computer usage since computers were used much more often in households with incomes just below the cutoff than in the non-eligible-for-voucher households with incomes just above the cutoff. 


Now take at look at the figures below.  The one on the left shows that the voucher program significantly increased the time spent playing computer games.  The one on the right which looks at the effect of the voucher program on the use of computers for homework – well, the punch line is clear. 


Not surprisingly, with all that game playing going on, the authors find that the voucher program actually resulted in a decline in grades although there was also some evidence for an increase in computer proficiency and perhaps some improvement in a cognitive test.

Hat tip to David Youngberg at the SeetheInvisibleHand.

1 jk March 29, 2010 at 8:03 pm

The OLPC helped introduce porn to Africa:

One could only guess what would be the source of the highest bandwith usage on these free/subsidized broadband schemes for lower income households.

2 Anonymous March 29, 2010 at 9:05 pm

The results here are presented with one giant, naive assumption: it is necessary or even possible to use the computer for homework.

Is a student going to use a PC to compute his multiplication tables? Probably not, since it’s much faster to do it in one’s head.

How about typical science homework – read through the chapter and match the new vocabulary to the definition on a worksheet? The computer has no relevance here, either.

My guess is that a literature class would ask the student to read from a plain old paperback book instead of an electronic copy. The computer might come in handy for typing up a book report, but if the student is in a low-income area where his peers don’t have computers, they all might be used to (or required to) submit hand-written essays.

In short, observing that voucher recipients aren’t using the PCs for homework shouldn’t be any surprise, really, since if the students normally wouldn’t be in possession of a computer, why would we assume that educators are giving them work that would require the use of one?

3 David March 30, 2010 at 12:55 am

I was a student of Henrico County Public Schools when they rolled out the iBook program, four years before the infamous stampede at the RIR complex (see here:

The main thing you really needed a computer for in school was writing papers, which by the time I had gotten to middle school were no longer to be written by hand. There is a fair amount of research you can do online, particularly if you have access to such resources as JSTOR. Teachers were pretty good about telling students they could not cite Wikipedia, and I found the web to be useful for primary sources for things like full texts of speeches, etc.

Henrico’s program really allowed for more distractions than anything. The original suspicion of the iBooks was that they would lead to widespread porn consumption, but this was not often the case; rather, students would use them more for games. During the first semester of the program you could load anything on them, and my personal favorite was SNES9X, a Super Nintendo emulator. They got tighter about the controls during the second semester of the program, but that was easy to get around simply by entering your password a few extra times and disabling the wireless connection, so your computer couldn’t be monitored. Many honors students were suspended for tampering with the controls. Eventually, the gaming switched over to undetected flash games.

I don’t know what I found more amazing – that Henrico County had lower per-student expenditures than the city of Richmond with the iBook program, or how clear it was that spending money on technology doesn’t necessarily improve education.

4 April 2, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Bob Calder’s response is typical of the way nerds will rush to attack the suggestion that their favorite time wasting appliance offers a low cost/benefit ratio in education.

No one believes that tool acquisition results in “effective adoption”, that is surely the point of skepticism of initiatives like OLPC, which present people with a disarmingly simple (but wrong) idea and leave the heavy lifting as a problem for someone else. Going by history the problem is usually left unsolved, much as was done with television in the classroom, film projectors in the classroom, and slideshows in the classroom. However it is a great way to piss money down the drain and increase nerd self-esteem (although most nerds aren’t actually very handy with the appliance they spend most of their time hovering over).

There is no reason to believe that computers are any use at all in education, other than in programming classes. Most education consists of lecture, question/answer, and testing. While computers could have some use in the third category (as long as you are willing to be vigilant about testing) they are pretty much useless for the first two unless you are semi-autistic and prefer to avoid human contact.

5 Office Broadband September 24, 2010 at 7:07 am

This is something that completely differs from person to person and their interests. People those who have Internet at their home and have a inquisitive nature have been found to have the knowledge that would even put their teachers to shame. This is the power of Internet you can know about anything withing a few clicks. About computers, games and Internet I would prefer saying that it is like a coin with two sides.

6 CrazyMuddy February 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Actually owning a computer in the future won’t be a problem, but as I see things nowadays, my attention shifts to Virtualization Security. This will be an important part of the future computer world.

7 Mark March 5, 2011 at 12:14 pm

It’s interesting to see that the households who received the computers noticed a decline in overall grades in education – it’s not suprising that playing games increased in this area though, I mean who wouldn’t play games when they get a computer which they have never had before, and perhaps some of their friends do have one – it’s easy to play a range of online games whether they be browser games, slot games, or downloadable games with friends and family, and in the eyes of most, playing games is much more fun than using computers for their intended purpose – communication, education and work.

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