Surveys show that most teachers, students and parents positively perceive laptop initiatives, but few controlled studies have examined the relationship between various laptop programs and student achievement. As district officials weigh options for investing limited technology dollars, they may wish to consider what the research can (and can't) tell us.
According to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Technology in Education Consortium, more than 1 million U.S. students and teachers are using laptops through various programs. The consortium recently examined evaluation findings for five laptop programs. Four involved middle school students statewide programs in Michigan and Maine; a district-wide program in Beaufort County, S.C., and a school-wide program in Pleasanton, Calif. The Anytime Anywhere Learning Program involved 800 elementary, middle and high schools from across the nation.
Three of these evaluation studies matched laptop students with similar non-laptop peers, and on some measures, "the research showed a positive correlation between participation in laptop programs and increased academic achievement."
However, the consortium cautions that because participation in these programs was voluntary for students and some teachers, "there is no scientific way to determine if the laptop, teachers or participation in a new program accounted for the added value." In Maine, where participation is not voluntary, middle school students who used laptops for two years scored about the same on standardized tests as students in the past who hadn't use laptops (except in writing, where laptop users showed gains).
The largest district-funded laptop program in the United States was initiated in 2001 in Virginia's Henrico County, where some 26,000 wireless laptops have been distributed. The school board recently announced it has hired an independent researcher to help determine technology's effects in the classroom.
Researcher Saul Rockman comments, "We consistently find substantive impacts on teaching and learning ... yet we continue to have difficulty tying full-time access to computers to the outcomes of standardized tests." Findings so far:
Potential benefits Various nonrandomized studies have found increases in student motivation, engagement, organization, homework completion and collaborative learning. Teachers often report increases in the quality and quantity of student writing. Some studies show that low-income and minority students, in particular, may benefit.
Challenges Administrators considering laptop initiatives need to consider infrastructure, resource and security issues, but they must also consider readiness. According to John Ross, Edvantia's senior R&D specialist in technology, "Readiness involves not only teacher technology proficiency but also teachers' ability to use laptops so they are essential for the instruction and directly contribute to student achievement. So there's technology proficiency and instructional proficiency."
The One-to-One Computing Evaluation Consortium concludes that decision makers considering a laptop start-up must address five key issues: planning, training and professional development, hardware and software, managing change, and program monitoring and evaluation.
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