Isolating the ‘Tech’ from EdTech: Experimental Evidence on Computer Assisted Learning in China
Recent studies of supplemental computer assisted learning (CAL) interventions have consistently found large positive effects, bolstering arguments for the rapid expansion of educational technology (edtech). We explore the possible channels by which supplemental CAL programs might affect academic outcomes among schoolchildren. CAL programs, often held after school, provide not only computer-based instruction, but often additional non-technology based inputs such as more time learning academic material and instructional support by facilitators. To isolate the technology-based effects of CAL, we design a novel multi-treatment field experiment with more than four thousand schoolchildren in rural China. Although we find evidence of positive overall CAL program effects on academic outcomes, when we isolate the technology-based effect of CAL we generally find null effects. Recent studies also do not provide information on the optimal amount of CAL used for education. We design a second experiment to estimate the returns to scale of edtech for more than six thousand Russian schoolchildren. We find evidence of decreasing returns to scale suggesting that there might be too much of a good thing in using CAL in education. The findings from this research project suggest that edtech might have smaller effects on academic outcomes than previously suggested and other limitations, which have important implications for the continued, rapid expansion of CAL throughout the world.
Robert Fairlie is professor of economics at UC Santa Cruz with interests in entrepreneurship, education, IT, inequality, immigration, and labor economics.
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