Smarter Kids: Hello Tablet, Meet Laptop
Should schools ditch textbooks with tablets? A growing number of parents, kids and educators think so. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, in her run for mayor, said she has a $300 million education agenda that will cover the cost of a tablet for every student. The move also saves around $100 million by dumping traditional textbooks, but the move makes people nervous: replacing books with tablets sounds too good to be true.
This is the first of a two-part series and explores the idea of giving every student a tablet. By looking at data from laptop programs of yesteryear, we can look inside and see if technology really does help students learn.
From New York to New Mexico, politicians love to bring up technology when they talk about education, but big ideas can carry big price tags and therefore big risks. While the e-classroom debate heats up, we can look at past examples of technology use in the classroom for possible answers: laptops. Decades ago, schools that adopted the tablet forerunner asked largely the same questions, and we can learn a lot about the future by gleaning into the pioneering past.
Gadgets to Help Learn
The most basic, but often overlooked, question is: do computing device help children learn? Research, collected since schools began to use laptops in the early 2000s, says yes -- but in more ways than you think.
As PCs became popular, schools added started to add computer labs. But nobody gave students those costly computers, and they learned to code on them, rather than use them to learn in other subjects. But when cheaper laptops arrived, that learning model was turned upside-down. School started to put laptops into each student's hands -- called the "one-on-one laptop program." The idea was to transform the education process -- to improve engagement, make learning interactive and hopefully improve test scores.
The laptop programs increased attendance rates, according to Lori Holcomb, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University. After handing out laptops, absentee rates dropped by around one-third in Alabama and nearly 10 percent in Maine. In fact, most schools reported a drop in bad behavior and a surge in engagement and community support as well.
Writing scores improved across the country too, according to her research. Why? Part of the reason, she said, was that students spend more time on laptops to write edit and reflect on writing.
In 2005, when Maine rolled out its one-on-one program, students scored better than two-thirds of all students in 2000, which didn't use laptops. Students that weren't given laptops scored the lowest, while those that did received the highest marks on the Maine Educational Assessment. In fact, all students who did homework on laptops consistently improved their writing scores on both online and pen-and-paper tests, showing that technology engaged them in the craft of writing overall, rather than simply provide them with digital crutches like spellcheck and thesaurus.
Students that used laptops also scored better in math. For example, middle school kids in South Carolina's two-year laptop program significantly outscored those that didn't on standardized state tests. The math improvement wasn't as dramatic as in writing and language arts, partly since the subject wasn't as heavily emphasized in the beginning. Overall, laptops helped improve math scores over time, showing that those programs may yield concrete results.
Laptops helped to motivate kids and keep them engaged in schools across the U.S., Holcomb said, resulting in higher student achievement scores. Still, she points out that some programs were more successful than others, and "levels of success vary" based on the "method and model of implementation."
Despite general success, not all schools that hand out laptops see gains in reading and writing scores. In Texas, for example, Holcomb revealed that students with laptops score roughly the same on tests compared to those without technology. Similarly, a Virginia high school, facing rising costs, cut its laptop program after students failed to show academic gains.
Schools that cut laptop don't always study the reasons they failed, but one-on-one programs take time to show their full effect. But by looking at those that fell short, we can see what works and figure out the best program for schools.
For one, schools can't just give out laptops and expect success. Successful programs do more, and offer clues others can follow. In Part 2, we take a look at some pioneering tactics that blazed the trail, and show what educational leaders and experts recommend to give students and schools the best chance of success.
Schools face tough choices in these austere times, and successful laptop -- and tablet -- programs do impact education. But looking at programs, and not just devices, is a prudent decision for a wise investment.
Agree or disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Share your experience and leave a comment below. ♦