The Solow paradox

In 1987 the Nobel prize-winning American economist Robert Solow famously observed, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

Solow was referring to the slow productivity growth of the American economy following the technology boom of the 1970s and ’80s, but some scholars argue that this so-called IT productivity paradox also exists in higher education today. Despite increasing investments in technology in higher education (from spending $765 per student in 2002 to $925 per student in 2013), there is still heated debate over whether these investments are justified. Tech & Innovation

According to an article in Financial Times, it’s a well-researched oddity of the past few decades that as technology gets faster, people get slower. Digitisation of the workforce has failed to do what it promised and there is no agreement as to why1.

 All measures of IT spending have kept trending higher, yet since 2005, rates of labour productivity growth at least halved in the US, UK, Japan, Germany and France.

The Solow paradox is a term used to describe the apparent contradiction between the rapid development of information technology (IT) and the relatively slow growth in productivity in the United States and other developed countries. The paradox was first noted by economist Robert Solow in 1987, who observed that “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

There are a number of possible explanations for the Solow paradox. One possibility is that the benefits of IT investment are not being fully realized. For example, IT investments may be used to automate tasks that were previously done by humans, but this may not lead to a corresponding increase in productivity if the new tasks are not more productive than the old ones. Another possibility is that the benefits of IT investment are being offset by other factors, such as globalization or changes in the composition of the workforce.

A Computer might look modular, but it’s a swamp of potential incompatibilities and performance bottlenecks, meaning entire corporate systems are discontinued whenever a software update or a withdrawal of OEM support prematurely terminates the usefulness of one part. And because of this accelerated replacement cycle, workers must continually relearn their jobs.

As for my own situation as a school leader in the fairly new, soon-to-be-replaced county Viken, much of the new software implemented these last 3 years has undoubtedly reduced our productivity profoundly. 

The development of AI follows the same pattern

The productivity paradox could also be observed in the recent past. In 1987, Nobel Prize winner Robert Solow noted a similar development with regard to the use of computers: “Computers are everywhere – except in the productivity statistics”. Ultimately, the success of computers only became noticeable in the USA, for example, between the years 1995 and 2005.

AI also started out with the promise of changing our economy for the long term and of course, ultimately increasing our productivity. But it’s not reflected in worldwide economic growth, even adjusted for pandemics. For a group of researchers at MIT and the University of Chicago, this is no reason to underestimate the impact of AI use: They describe the development as a “Productivity J-Curve”, i.e., a curve that appears as a slightly inclined J in the graph: a short period of stagnant or declining productivity growth is followed by a sharp increase after a short time. And they are convinced that this development will occur faster and to a greater extent with AI than in the past.

The Solow paradox has important implications for education. If IT is not leading to a corresponding increase in productivity, then it is not clear that investing in IT in schools will lead to a corresponding increase in student learning. However, there is some evidence that IT can be used to improve student learning, particularly when it is used to personalize instruction and provide students with more opportunities for interaction and collaboration.

Several software initiatives are being used to increase learning in schools using technology, AI, and personalized learning. 

There is not enough research to tell us whether software initiatives will be successful in increasing student learning. However, the evidence suggests that technology can be a powerful tool for improving education. 

Here are some additional thoughts on the Solow paradox and its implications for education:

  • The Solow paradox suggests that thinking carefully about how technology is used in schools is essential. Simply investing in technology is not enough. It is also important to ensure that technology is used in ways that align with educational goals and lead to improved student learning.
  • Personalized learning is one promising approach to using technology to improve student learning. Personalized learning allows students to learn at their own pace and in their own way. It can also help address individual students’ needs, such as those with learning disabilities.
  • AI has the potential to play a significant role in personalized learning. AI can be used to create personalized learning plans for students, to provide students with immediate feedback, and to help students learn more effectively.
  • The Solow paradox reminds us that there is no silver bullet for improving education. It is important to be patient and to experiment with new approaches. With careful planning and implementation, technology can be a powerful tool for improving student learning.
  • In an OECD report from 2019, they conclude that while good applications can augment, reinforce and amplify great teaching, spending on computers in schools cannot close either educational or economic digital divides.

    The message for policymakers is clear:

    “Ensuring that every student attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics will do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or [subsidizing] access to high-tech devices and services.”

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