THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 18, Spring 2000

William A. McEachern, Editor

Teaching Machines

Technology has been viewed for years as a savior of education. Thomas Edison predicted in 1922 that motion pictures would revolutionize education. And B.F. Skinner in the 1950s talked about "teaching machines" that would increase learning efficiency. He wrote about "the constant interchange between program and student." The latest wave of technology, the Internet, is considered even more promising, especially for distance learning. President Clinton wants all classrooms wired: "Every child in America deserves a chance to participate in the information revolution."

The latest technology is getting such a warm reception not because of its proven effectiveness but because of much disappointment with the existing system, particularly at the primary and secondary levels. It's like awarding the talent prize to the second contestant after judging only the first. In

1994 the Israeli State Lottery sponsored the installation of computers in many elementary and middle schools. Since some schools got the computers and some did not, the program offered a natural experiment to estimate the impact of computerization on both the instructional use of computers and on student test scores. Using a variety of estimation approaches, Joshua Angrist of MIT and Victor Lavy of Hebrew University find a consistently negative relationship between the program-induced use of computers and fourth grade math scores. For other grades and subjects, the estimates are not significant, though also mostly negative. The opportunity cost of the computers worked out to be about one teacher per year per school. The authors conclude that computer-assisted instruction is no better and may even be less effective than other teaching methods. Their findings are published in "New Evidence on Classroom Computers and Pupil Learning," (NBER Working Paper No. 7424, November 1999) available at

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