Efforts by K-12 schools to give every student a laptop computer increased student achievement and gave a modest boost to their “21st century skills,” according to a first-of-its-kind meta-analysis of 15 years’ worth of research studies.
“It’s not like just providing a laptop to every student will automatically increase student achievement, but we find that it’s the first step,” said Binbin Zheng, an assistant professor of counseling, educational psychology, and special education at Michigan State University.
Using statistical techniques to analyze already-completed studies, Zheng and her colleagues found that 1-to-1 laptop programs on average had a statistically significant positive impact on student test scores in English/language arts, writing, math and science. The limited number of rigorous quantitative studies available to analyze mean that those findings are not definitive, but they are clearly a good sign for 1-to-1 proponents and underscore the need for more study, Zheng said.
A further review of 86 additional papers by the researchers, meanwhile, found some modest evidence of other positive benefits associated with giving laptops to students, including increased student technology use; more student-centered and project-based instruction; greater student engagement; and better relationships between students and teachers.
The analysis focused solely on 1-to-1 laptop efforts. The researchers cautioned that their results are not generalizable to other devices such as tablets, desktop computers, and smartphones.
The new findings run counter to the skepticism about educational technology expressed by many researchers and practitioners. A raft of prior studies, for example, have shown that even when technology is present in classrooms, teachers are slow to transform their practice, instead using technology primarily to make administrative tasks and existing forms of instruction more efficient.
The new analysis has the potential to reshape the debate about ed-tech’s impact, said Elliot Soloway, a computer science professor at Michigan University who has spent decades studying classroom technology.
“This is one of those definitive studies that comes along every 20 years,” Soloway said. “Schools are going to use [the findings] to justify the move to 1-to-1.”
Rapid Growth of 1-to-1 Student Computing
One-to-one student computing was first introduced to K-12 schools in the United States in the late 1990’s. In 2002, Maine became the first state to launch a statewide program.
The trend has since gathered steam: In 2013 and 2014 alone, schools purchased more than 23 million laptops, tablets, and Chromebooks for use by students and teachers in the classroom (and sometimes at home.)
Generally, the goal is to enable teachers and software to deliver more personalized content to students, to boost students’ technology skills, and to empower children to do more complex and creative work.
A handful of high-profile 1-to-1 disasters resulting from poor purchasing plans, bad planning, and a lack of clear academic vision have raised questions for schools about the wisdom of the approach, however.
And some research has been less than encouraging. A 2009 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, for example, found that classroom technology was used for practice of basic skills far more often than for design and creation. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that countries where 15-year old students use computers most in the classroom scored the worst on international math and reading tests.
In an attempt to definitively determine the impact of K-12 1-to-1 initiatives, Zheng and her colleagues reviewed 96 journal articles and doctoral dissertations published between January 2001 and May 2015.
Just 10 of those studies met the researchers’ criteria for inclusion in the statistical meta-analysis of 1-to-1 laptop initiatives’ impact on student achievement, reflecting the still-very-limited research base on student computing initiatives.
“A disproportionate amount of the research to date on this topic consists of small case studies in one or a handful of schools,” Zheng and her colleagues wrote in their study, titled “Learning in One-to-One Laptop Environments: A Meta-Analysis and Research Synthesis,” published online earlier this year in the academic journal Review of Educational Research.
Still, there were enough historical findings to conclude that 1-to-1 laptop programs helped improve students’ academic achievement by an overall effect size of .16 standard deviations—a figure that Zheng said indicates statistical significance, but is noticeably less than the effect sizes of other established interventions, such as small class sizes or individual tutoring.
The researchers found the following effect sizes for specific subjects:
- English/language arts, by .15 standard deviations
- Writing, by .20 standard deviations
- Math, by .17 standard deviations
- Science, by .25 standard deviations.
- Reading, by .12 standard deviations
The impact on students’ reading achievement was positive, but not statistically significant. Only two studies included science results that could be analyzed.
The results are “small but noteworthy,” Zheng said.
Measuring Impact Beyond Test Scores
The researchers also looked beyond test scores, reviewing 85 additional studies that did include an empirical examination of 1-to-1 laptop initiatives’ impact in K-12 schools, but did not include an experimental design and/or quantitative results.
Among the findings from that review:
- A 1-to-1 laptop environment often led to increased frequency and breadth of student technology use, typically for writing, Internet research, note-taking, completing assignments, and reading.
- Students used laptops extensively throughout the writing process, expanding the genres and formats of their work to include writing for email, chats, blogs, wikis, and the like.
- Student-centered, individualized, and project-based learning appeared to increase in at least some instances of 1-to-1 laptop rollouts.
- Student-teacher communications (via email and Google docs, for example) and parental involvement in their children’s school work increased in some instances.
- Students expressed “very positive” attitudes about using laptops in the classroom, as findings consistently showed higher student engagement, motivation, and persistence when laptops were deployed to all students.
- Students’ technology and problem-solving skills improved and their ownership of their own learning increased, according to some evidence.
- There were mixed findings on whether 1-to-1 laptop programs helped overcome inequities among students and schools.
Those results should be interpreted with caution, the researchers said, because they tended to rely on observation, survey, and interview data.
“There was a wide consensus in the studies we reviewed that use of laptops promotes 21st-century learning skills,” the authors wrote. “However, studies rarely attempted to operationalize and systematically measure the growth of 21st-century skills in laptop students compared with control students.”
Leslie Wilson, the CEO of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit that consults with schools and districts, said she was “thrilled” to see the new research, though she cautioned that educational leaders shouldn’t leap to conclude that going 1-to-1 is enough on its own to increase student achievement.
For such a program to be effective, she said, schools must focus on crafting comprehensive plans that cover everything from infrastructure to curriculum to pedagogy to professional development.
And the real benefits of giving every student an access to a computer, contended Soloway of the University of Michigan, come when school move from “instructive” to “constructive” learning, or from “teaching kids to remember something to teaching them how to figure something out.”
To best measure the extent to which that change is taking place, Zheng said, researchers and educators will have to look beyond standardized test scores.
Hopefully, she said, the new research will prompt further effort to develop assessments for students’ digital literacy skills, as well as their creativity, independence, and leadership.
“Many of the benefits of 1-to-1 laptop programs are not detected by standardized tests,” Zheng said. “For the many programs whose purpose is to help students be a better 21st-century citizen, we need to develop and use corresponding measurements.”
Students at Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg, Md. use laptops in class in 2014. --T.J. Kirkpatrick for Education Week
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- Why Ed Tech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach
- Half of Students to Have Access to One-to-One Computing by 2016
- How Teachers Use Ed Tech: 8 Research Studies You Need to Know
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.