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Are One-to-One Laptop Programs Worth It?

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist

01/03/2018

Many international schools have introduced one-to-one laptop programs. We either provide our students with laptops at significant expense or require them to provide their own device. Either way, the extra support required in an IT department to make the program work is not a negligible expense. Teachers, at least in the early stages of implementation, sometimes view the devices as more of a distraction than an advantage and considerable professional development is sometimes required to get teachers making effective use of the laptops.

It seems a no-brainer that we should be using more technology in the classroom in our technological age. Moreover, it seems logical that in a one-to-one environment, students will have more opportunity to further their technology skills. But what impact do these programs have on learning, beyond increasing these specific technology skills?

The previous director of my school often posed this question in relation to its cost. The concern is reasonable, given that a school’s limited budget must be allocated in ways that best further student learning. A recent study published in the journal Review of Educational Research may help us answer the question.

The paper contains a research synthesis of 96 relevant studies, as well as a meta-analysis of 10 of those studies in which the data enabled an effect size to be calculated and compared. The meta-analysis allowed researchers to quantify the effect of one-to-one laptop programs on learning and the broader research synthesis described with depth the changes in classroom practice that took place as a result of the implementation of these programs, noting perceptions of students and teachers and the impact on outcomes not captured in the quantitative analyses. When combined, these two approaches allow us to draw some tentative conclusions about the effect of one-to-one programs on learning.

What were the results of the meta-analysis?

The following statistics are quoted as effect sizes, sometimes known as Cohen’s d. An effect size is a standardized measure of the differences between two groups, allowing comparison. The final measure is quoted in terms of standard deviations, so d= 0.2 means that the average difference between the two groups was equal to 1/5 of a standard deviation.

English Language Arts: 19 effect sizes across 6 studies yielded an average effect size of d=0.15

Reading: 13 effect sizes across 4 studies yielded an average effect size of d=0.12

Writing: 11 effect sizes across 3 studies yielded an average effect size of d=0.20

Mathematics: 21 effect sizes across 7 studies yielded an average effect size of d=0.16

Science: 3 effect sizes across 2 studies yielded an average effect size of d=2.5

All the average effect sizes reported were positive, indicating that one-to-one laptop programs had a positive impact on learning across these five learning areas. All but the result for reading were also statistically significant. However, the effect sizes were small. The standard interpretation from Cohen is that an effect size of 0.2 is small, 0.5 is medium, and 0.8 is large. Thus, one-to-one laptop programs appear to have a positive but quite small effect on learning across these learning areas.

What can the research synthesis add to our understanding?

1. Effects on classroom practice
One-to-one laptop classrooms showed:
• increased frequency and breadth of use of technology by students
• more individualized learning
• more use of projects
• an increase in the quantity of writing undertaken by students as well as an increase in the variety of genres students were expected to produce
• improved relationships between students and teachers and between home and school

2. Teacher & student perceptions
Students generally had very positive attitudes towards one-to-one programs with some studies also showing that students in one-to-one environments demonstrated higher motivation and persistence in learning.

Teachers often had initial concerns, but these perceptions became positive over time except in schools where the professional development (PD) was ineffective or where information technology (IT) support was insufficient. In these schools, negative perceptions remained.

3. 21st-century skills
One-to-one laptop environments were found to promote the acquisition of:
• individual and collaborative learning skills
• problem-solving skills
• information, media, and technology skills

A caveat should be mentioned with regard to 21st-century skills. Studies rarely attempted to operationalize and systematically measure student growth in these areas using control groups. Researchers therefore caution that, while results are encouraging, the evidence to date in this area is still weak.

What might this mean for our schools?

A number of studies included in both the meta-analysis and the research synthesis demonstrated no positive effect in the first year of implementation. This is probably the case for any educational change. Teachers need time to understand the possibilities afforded by the new approaches and adjust their practice accordingly. This may mean that if the effect sizes related to the first year of implementation were removed from the analysis, we may see larger positive average effect sizes than those listed above.

Overall, however, it seems that one-to-one laptop programs do have at least a small positive impact on learning across a broad range of subjects. This impact would seem to be mediated by the fact that laptops allow for greater personalization and for a broader range of more complex projects to be undertaken, while supporting students in the writing process. It is interesting that the effect on writing was easily the most significant. However, we must also note that this positive effect is unlikely to be achieved without adequate IT support and significant amounts of carefully planned PD to help teachers in making the most effective use of technology in their classrooms.




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