Laptop computers are the latest technological trend that is touted to improve student achievement by providing access to educational opportunities in new ways. Laptop advocates suggest that portability will lead to learning at all times and in all places, and access to the internet will spur students to conduct research and perform other tasks with greater frequency and proficiency.
However, few studies have tried to determine whether laptops are changing student behavior or, more importantly, performance. The study developed by the author is one of a handful of attempts to identify educational benefits from a program in which middle-school students have laptops.
A year-long study was conducted of 80 sixth-graders at a well-regarded private school. Sixteen of those students were given Macintosh PowerBooks for the duration of the school year, and they were compared to their peers on writing skills improvement. Writing was chosen because it is the most common activity students undertake with computers and therefore should demonstrate the benefits of computer use, if they exist.
From the outset, the program was plagued by technical problems. Some were caused by student carelessness, and others by the nature of laptop batteries (short life between recharging). However, fears that students might suffer physical injury from toting 10-lb. computers and using them all day proved unfounded.
Still, the most salient observation is that the students with laptops did not show any improvement in their writing skills as compared to their peers in tests administered in January of their sixth-grade year. While acknowledging that “we certainly do not suggest that we have completed the definitive study of laptops in middle schools,” the author nevertheless suggests that if laptops don’t result in academic improvements at a highly competitive, well-endowed private school, they are even less likely to work in less-accommodating environments.
On the other hand, he admits the fact that all students at the school have access to computers both at school and at home may account for the non-impact of laptops. If having laptops didn’t increase students’ relative access to technology, then benefits from that technology would not surface.
At the very least, the author suggests that his school’s study should send up caution flags when considering the benefits that laptop supporters promote:
• Fundamental change in the relationship between teacher and student. Is this really desirable, especially if the change is not accompanied by improved performance?
• Increased time using a computer. Is this really desirable, if students are to be well-rounded and live healthy lifestyles? Besides, many students have computers at home (or easy access to them), so the incremental access of a laptop may be negligible.
• All students benefit. Is this true? Children learn differently, and there are some (perhaps many) who would not benefit from more exposure to computer-based learning.
• Laptops are cheaper than PCs. It’s true that requiring parents to buy laptops (as many private schools are considering) would be less costly than purchasing an equal number of PCs. However, the complexity of managing a network with so many users during the school day will eat into those savings rapidly. In addition, training costs for both teachers and students would be enormous.
• Laptops encourage curriculum reform. Is this good? Certainly it’s costly, and there is no assurance that rewriting a course to accommodate laptops will improve it.