How important are computers to learning? Many education reform advocates, in particular Bill Gates, argue that one way to improve education is to give poor students free computers. Rich kids, after all, appear to have an edge in school because they regularly use computers at home. Computers for poor kids would bridge the so called digital divide, the gap between students who have access to information technologies and those who don’t, and ramp up the learning gains of the disadvantaged.

Well no. This doesn’t work. The initiative is a waste of money. Matthew Yglesias at Slate summarizes this paper by Robert Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson. The researchers provided computers to randomly selected California children from households without computers. What happened? Yglesias:

The short answer is nothing.

The slightly longer answer is that the kids reported an almost 50 percent increase in time spent using a computer, with the time divided between doing homework, playing games, and social network. But there was no improvement in academic achievement or attendance or anything else. There wasn’t even an improvement in computer skills. At the same time, there was no negative impact either. The access to extra computer games didn’t reduce total time spent on homework or lead to any declines in anything. They broke it down by a few demographic subgroups and didn’t find anything there either. It’s just a huge nada. Nothing happening.

Why is this? It’s not demonstrated in the study but Yglesias posits that it may be that “the ways in which high-income families help their kids in school don’t relate to durable goods purchases and may be things like social capital or direct parental involvement.”

That’s certainly a plausible explanation. Another possibility, however, is that computers just don’t have much to do with education achievement, for rich or poor kids.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer