- We evaluate the impact of restricted internet access on education outcomes.
- We randomize access to Wikipedia in Malawian secondary schools.
- Online information appeals broadly to student interests.
- Increased time spent reading leads to gains in English exam scores.
- The internet can also improve Biology scores, especially for low achievers.
Can schools use the internet to promote reading and learning?
We provided Wikipedia access to randomly-selected students in Malawian boarding secondary schools [n = 301 vs n = 1,207 controls]. Students
used the online resource broadly and intensively, and found it trustworthy, including for information about news and safe sex.
We find a 0.10σ impact on English exam scores, and a higher impact among low achievers (0.20σ). Students used Wikipedia to study Biology, and exam scores
increased for low achievers (0.14σ).
Our results show that by restricting internet access to a source of engaging and accessible reading material, it is possible to encourage independent reading
and affect educational outcomes.
[Keywords: Internet, information, education, development, reading, secondary school]
…Our experiment took place in 4 government boarding schools which serve students of mixed socioeconomic status. Each school has approximately five hundred students spread over 4 forms (grade levels). Government boarding
schools are common in Malawi and across sub-Saharan Africa. They are more academically competitive than government day schools and most private schools (de
Hoop 2010). However, even in these schools, many students do struggle academically. In particular, 1⁄4th of students had an English exam score
below 50⁄100 in the year before the intervention. While government boarding schools attract good students, fees are not exorbitant.25 Indeed, according
to our baseline survey, many students at our sample schools are of lower socioeconomic status: 42% do not have electricity at home, and 45% do not have running
water. 1⁄3rd of students have at least one parent who did not complete primary school.
Boarding schools provide a controlled environment; students have no access to the internet outside of our intervention, allowing us to cleanly limit internet
use to Wikipedia. At the time of the intervention, the school grounds had consistent 3G or 4G network coverage. However, students were not allowed to access the
internet or use phones, even outside of class time, and being caught with a phone at school was grounds for suspension. Students sleep in dormitories, and are not
permitted to leave the school grounds. In particular, they do not go home during the term, so those who do have home internet access cannot use
We conducted a randomized experiment in government boarding schools in Malawi, a country with rapidly improving internet infrastructure, but where students have
limited internet experience and no internet access at school. This setting allows us to isolate both treatment and control students from the broader internet.
Students were allowed to use Wikipedia inside a classroom referred to as a digital library, using anonymous usernames. Students were aware that their browsing
behavior was private, and that browsing histories could not be linked to individual students. The digital library was open evenings and weekends during one school
year, and access was restricted to treated students. This design limits potential spillovers on English language skills and Biology exam scores. Students did not
have any other internet access during term time.
…Students found the online material engaging, as evidenced by their frequent and broad use of Wikipedia. They spent, on average, 80 minutes per week online.
Rather than relying on aggregate usage statistics, we observe individual browsing histories, which allows us to characterize demand for specific topics at the
level of an individual. Each student browsed, on average, more than 800 different pages across a range of topics.
Students came to use and trust Wikipedia, particularly for topics which are important, prone to misinformation and often absent from school books, such as world
news and safe sex. We find spikes in activity in the week surrounding world news events that occurred during the experiment. We also show that students with access
to Wikipedia are able to find news information that control group students cannot. Young people are generally curious about sex, and we find that students spent 7%
of their browsing time on topics related to sex and sexuality. While Wikipedia pages are informative, and access to accurate information about sex can be important
(Dupas 2011; Kerwin, 2018; Derksen et al 2021), students may have browsed these pages not only for information but also as a form of
entertainment. 1⁄3rd of the time spent browsing these topics overlapped with topics from the school syllabus, such as pregnancy and reproductive health.
Students sought information on both news and sex and sexuality independently, without prompts or incentives.