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Stop asking whether laptops improve learning outcomes

The media might not be able to get past the question — but we in education need to dig deeper

It’s a question we hear all too often—from parents, technology critics, and, of course, the news media: Do those pricey laptops schools buy actually improve academic results?

On the surface, it seems logical. Schools make big investments in technology and stakeholders want to see a return on that investment—by way of better school ratings or big jumps in test scores. But really, the question is superficial and shows a limited understanding of what is needed to enhance teaching and learning using technology.

Laptops by themselves change little. They are simply one component of a range of things that need to change in order to leverage technology to enhance education. Introducing laptops while not changing the teaching and learning paradigm is of little use, and may even produce negative academic outcomes.

Tools alone are not the answer

The tools alone are not enough. Ever meet someone who decided to get fit, bought all of the best gym equipment, and never did much with it (and didn’t get fit either)? Know anybody who took up a new hobby, such as photography, and then bought a lot of expensive equipment such as cameras, lenses and software, but did little with it? A few months later the equipment was probably stored in a cupboard collecting dust. These cases are not uncommon, and we are usually not surprised as we realise that it takes more than just buying expensive equipment to become fit or an accomplished photographer.

Why do we change these expectations with education? Is it simply because laptops are a visible component and thus are easy to measure? However, a simple measure can produce simple and incorrect conclusions.

Instead of counting the number of laptops in an organization, we would be better off walking around a school noting the number of classrooms in which teaching and learning has changed—and I mean really changed, not just replacing paper and chalkboards with a brand-name laptop.

Degree of change in the classroom

Simply having students using laptops for learning is not enough. It is the type of activities that are being used and the depth of learning that occurs that is important. The laptop is simply a window to the learning. If the “view” is poor, the results will be poor. If the view is rich and meaningful, the results will be rich and meaningful.

For example, 21CLD is a simple and readily available framework for meaningful learning. It provides an easy way to assess existing units of study. The concepts are simple and obvious and the rubrics provided to analyse and improve units of study are easy to use.

Tools such as these are critical for anyone wanting to really implement technology to improve learning in conjunction with the implementation of laptops. It is only then that an effective strategy can be introduced (as compared to the superficial attempts that are quick and easy, but ineffective).

Is there success?

When a change begins in society, there are usually a number of lone innovators who take the change and apply it successfully. They look beyond the device, use it as just one of the tools available, and modify their teaching and learning—and they get positive results.

The concept spreads and eventually becomes mainstream. Malcolm Gladwell explains this in his book “The Tipping Point.”

There are many examples of lone innovators who are achieving success. One example is Stacey Roshan, an Australian educator who has used flipped learning with AP Calculus classes to improve learning. She has qualitative and quantitative data showing her success.

Next page: Why laptops are less than 1/6 of improving learning outcomes

Rob Boriskin has had success flipping the classroom in the very practical area of ceramics. He has had increased enrollments, increased student satisfaction and increased levels of skill development with students. The computer and technology are simply one part of their changed teaching and learning paradigm. Note that it is a teaching and learning paradigm that has changed; the technology is simply an enabler of this change.

There are also examples of teachers who don’t really embrace the change and “have a go at this laptop thing.” They don’t get improvements and thus find disadvantages. This doesn’t prove the technology “doesn’t work.” It is no different to the friend who joins a gym to get fit, but complains a lot and doesn’t take the time to learn how to use the equipment properly, doesn’t follow through with the advice of their trainer, and eventually gives up because it hurts and is inconvenient. Yet nobody would imply that gyms aren’t effective for body building and fitness.

Six main components

During the past year, I’ve identified six main areas that need to change in order for organization-wide success to occur. These are

  1. Infrastructure
  2. Organisational leadership
  3. Mindset
  4. Staffing
  5. Professional development
  6. Flexible learning spaces

The articles that outline these areas are available from the links provided.

Laptops are one sixth of the first component — infrastructure; one of more than thirty key aspects in all. Yet some would expect that it is the definitive measure for success. Really?

Big picture learning

Looking at laptops and infrastructure alone as drivers of academic change is simplistic. It shows a lack of understanding of the big picture and the changes that must occur in the entire learning ecosystem for academic results to improve.

It is about time we, as educators, looked deeper and had more sophisticated conversations about technology in education. This is the biggest shift in education in over one hundred years. It deserves more considered attention. Failure to do this would leave education as the only industry that does not need to evolve to harness the benefits of technology. Do we really believe that this is likely?

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