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February 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 5

Research Says… / One-to-One Laptop Programs Are No Silver Bullet

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Nearly a decade ago, when school systems began forking over millions of dollars to purchase laptop computers for every student, these programs (often called one-to-one or ubiquitous computing initiatives) were heralded as having the potential to close persistent technology gaps.
Today, however, some school systems that ushered in one-to-one laptop programs amid great fanfare have begun to scrap them because of budget cuts (Lemagie, 2010); mushrooming maintenance costs (Vascellaro, 2006); and concerns about how students are using the computers (Hu, 2007).
Many district leaders continue to believe that one-to-one programs are worth the expense and headaches. A recent survey of 364 leaders of large districts with one-to-one initiatives found that 33 percent believed the laptops were having a significant effect on student achievement, and another 45 percent believed they were having a moderate effect (Greaves & Hayes, 2008). Of course, such self-reporting is prone to subjectivity. What does more objective research say about one-to-one initiatives?

The Encouraging News

Let's start with what we can say from careful research about the benefits of these programs.
More engaged learners. A four-year study of 5,000 middle school students in Texas found that those engaged in laptop immersion programs were less likely to have disciplinary problems (but slightly more likely to be absent from school) than students in schools without laptops (Shapley et al., 2009).
Better technology skills. The Texas study also found that the technology skills of students in the laptop programs improved significantly— so much so that after three years, low-income students in the laptop schools displayed the same levels of technology proficiency as wealthier students in the control schools (Shapley et al., 2009).
Cost efficiencies. Proponents of one-to-one programs also assert that such programs create savings in other areas, including reduced costs for textbooks, paper, assessments, and paperwork, as well as a reduction in disciplinary actions (Greaves, Hayes, Wilson, Gielniak, & Peterson, 2010).

The Discouraging News

Overall, however, most large-scale evaluations have found mixed or no results for one-to-one initiatives. After five years of implementation of the largest one-to-one initiative in the United States, Maine's statewide program, evaluations found little effect on student achievement—with one exception, writing, where scores edged up 3.44 points (in a range of 80 points) in five years (Silvernail & Gritter, 2007). The evaluators speculated that the reason other subjects have not shown measurable improvement could be that the state assessment does not measure the 21st century technology skills that laptop initiatives promote.
An evaluation of Michigan's one-to-one laptop program found similarly mixed results. It examined eight matched pairs of schools and found higher achievement in four laptop schools, lower achievement in three, and no difference in the final pair (Lowther, Strahl, Inan, & Bates, 2007).
The study of Texas middle school students referenced earlier found slightly higher student growth in mathematics, but no higher growth in reading for students in laptop programs (Shapley et al., 2009). And unlike in Maine, writing scores were actually lower (although not significantly so) for students in the laptop group; the researchers reasoned that students may have grown so accustomed to writing with computers that they had trouble adjusting to the pencil-and-paper format of the state test.

The Devil Is in the Details

Certainly, the anemic results for laptop programs should give educators pause. However, like most interventions, the reality may be that one-to-one laptop programs are only as effective—or ineffective—as the schools that adopt them.
A study of one-to-one programs in five middle schools in western Massachusetts, for example, found that one of these schools struggled so mightily with incorporating laptops into learning that even three years after implementation, its students were not using technology any more than students in schools without laptops (Bebell & Kay, 2010). These researchers attributed the poor implementation to lack of teacher knowledge and buy-in, concluding, "It is impossible to overstate the power of individual teachers in the success or failure of 1:1 computing" (p. 47).
  1. Ensuring uniform integration of technology in every class.
  2. Providing time for teacher learning and collaboration (at least monthly).
  3. Using technology daily for student online collaboration and cooperative learning.
It is perhaps no coincidence that these factors mirror key predictors of effective schools and districts in general. For example, ensuring uniform integration of technology in every class implies a district with a clearly articulated, districtwide approach to instruction—a key trait of high-performing districts (Marzano & Waters, 2009). Similarly, teacher collaboration is an important school-level predictor of achievement (Marzano, 2003), and meaningful cooperative-learning experiences have been linked to higher achievement (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001).

The Bottom Line

Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what's already occurring—for better or worse—in classrooms, schools, and districts. Jim Collins (2001) arrived at a similar conclusion about technology in the business world. "Technology alone," he observed in Good to Great, "never holds the key to success." However, "when used right, technology is an essential driver in accelerating forward momentum" (p. 159).
The same thing could be said of one-to-one computing initiatives in schools and districts.

Bebell, D., & Kay, R. (2010). One to one computing: A summary of the quantitative results from the Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative. Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 9(2) [Online journal]. Retrieved from http://escholarship.bc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1222&context=jtla

Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap … and others don't. New York: HarperBusiness.

Greaves, T., & Hayes, J. (2008). America's digital schools 2008: Six trends to watch. Shelton, CT: MDR.

Greaves, T., Hayes, J., Wilson, L., Gielniak, M., & Peterson, E. (2010). Project RED key findings. Shelton, CT: MDR. Retrieved from One-to-One Institute at www.one-to-oneinstitute.org/NewsDetail.aspx?id=85

Hu, W. (2007, May 4). Seeing no progress, some schools drop laptops. The New York Times, p. 1. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2007/05/04/education/04laptop.html

Lemagie, S. (2010, November 21). 1 student, 1 laptop proves costly. Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Retrieved from www.startribune.com/local/109779099.html

Lowther, D. L., Strahl, J. D., Inan, F. A., & Bates, J. (2007). Freedom to Learn program: Michigan 2005–2006 evaluation report. Memphis, TN: Center for Research in Educational Policy.

Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano, R., & Waters, T. (2009). District leadership that works: Striking the right balance. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Shapley, K., Sheehan, D., Sturges, K., Caranikas-Walker, F., Huntsberger, B., & Maloney, C. (2009). Evaluation of the Texas Technology Immersion Pilot: Final outcomes for a four-year study (2004–05 to 2007–08). Austin: Texas Center for Educational Research.

Silvernail, D. L., & Gritter, A. K. (2007). Maine's middle school laptop program: Creating better writers. Portland: Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation, University of Southern Maine.

Vascellaro, J. E. (2006, August 31). Saying no to school laptops. Wall Street Journal, p. D1.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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