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June 05, 2008

In Bridging the Digital Divide, Watch Out for Pitfalls

Ray Fisman
Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise
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The gap between rich and poor has widened in America over the past few decades. And we’re getting increasingly better evidence that technology is one of the main culprits.

In the computerized workplace of the 21st century, skills and education are becoming ever more valuable, and those that don’t keep up with this technological revolution are left on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide. That’s the rationale behind government subsidies for computers and all sorts of corporate-giving programs focused on computer education. But anyone who has witnessed the gaming power of the modern PC is surely aware that these machines won’t necessarily be used for educational purposes if placed in the hands of an easily distracted teenager.

This is the topic of this month’s Slate column, where I report on the results of a study by Cristian Pop-Eleches, my colleague in Columbia’s economics department. Pop-Eleches and his coauthor, Ofer Malamud, find that distraction won out over more studious pursuits when unchaperoned kids were given subsidized computers by the Romanian government.

Obviously, this hadn’t been the government’s intention in designing the program (nor is this the intent of the host of other efforts that similarly focus on providing poor kids with computer access). The Romanian experience with computer subsidies also serves as an object lesson on the importance of having mechanisms in place for evaluating the impact of social programs, whether they originate in government or through corporate philanthropy.

I’m hoping that companies whose philanthropic activities focus on computer education will pay attention to Pop-Eleches’s study in designing their programs, and more broadly, I hope that companies become as serious about measuring the impact of their philanthropic pursuits as they are about tracking profits and losses.