Laptops etc

I remember when we used to have computer rooms. Students would go along to them and do a bit of IT; word-processing, excel sheets, looking things up on the internet and so on. The general consensus was that this didn’t really work very well and that IT needed to be integrated into the curriculum. So science labs began to house about four or five desktops at a bench along one side. If you wanted to do anything with them then the students had to take turns.

In science, we were convinced that the future was all about datalogging. This was where, instead of using a thermometer to measure the temperature of something, you used a temperature sensor that you connected to a computer. The computer would then plot a graph for you, removing the need for students to learn how to draw graphs. Dataloggers could also collect data over night, which sounded pretty cool. Someone went to the BETT show and came back with some dataloggers so we used them with the desktops. But it wasn’t very practical because we didn’t have enough.

Then, one year, someone went to the BETT show and came back with a box with some antennae on it. You could plug this in to the network access point at the front of a lab and then wirelessly connect lots of laptops. This was fantastic. Suddenly, every room became a potential computer room. We bought a trolley and a set of laptops and stared down the future like a boss.

Except it wasn’t very practical. The laptops started to lose keys. Every time I booked them there would be a few keys missing or some keys would have switched places. And the little antennae thing didn’t work very well. I tried putting it on top of a box and I tried fiddling with the aerials. One day, I tried standing on a chair and holding it above my head but this was somewhat limiting and had health and safety implications. Whatever I attempted, there would always be four or five laptops that couldn’t log on. Of those that did, there would be a few students who couldn’t remember their network passwords or whose accounts had been suspended.

I largely missed the iPads trend – I’d moved to Australia and no longer knew people who went to BETT – but I do remember my whole school going wireless. Now things would be different. This wasn’t just some little box, this was a proper wireless system. So I asked permission to run a trial. We gave my senior physics class a laptop each to use in class. The laptops were touch-screen so that the students could write on them with a stylus – this circumvented the need to type equations.

Except that it wasn’t very practical. There were the same issues with connectivity, passwords and logins as I had experienced before.

And so I abandoned the trial the next year. We went back to paper and exercise books but I had only written-off laptops temporarily. Despite the false-dawns, I assumed that the technology would work, one day. At this point, we could all reap the benefits of having computers in the classroom. The future might have won for now, but we’d be back.

I had never questioned the basic assumption that sat beneath all of this; the assumption that computers were good for learning. This just seemed obvious. After all, there was a whole industry trying to figure out ways of getting more tech into classrooms. Why else would they be doing that?

When I started to develop an interest in research, I became aware of a strange gap. Where was the research showing that tech led to better learning? Why did there not seem to be much? After all, lots of people were buying and using edtech products. It would not be hard to run a randomised trial or two. We could soon sort out the relative benefits of using different tech in lessons but this evidence just didn’t seem to be there. Why not?

Astonishingly, the evidence that did exist seemed to hint at potential negative effects. I make the point that it was only a hint. We can’t be too conclusive when looking at correlations. For instance, Australia’s heavy investment in computers seems to be associated with worse outcomes but it is hard to strip out the different factors involved or to isolate a cause. It could be the case that increased computer use causes lower outcomes or it could be the case that lower levels of literacy and numeracy cause greater investment in computers. Perhaps there is no direct cause-and-effect relationship and other factors are at play. It is suggestive, but not the kind of evidence you might get from a randomised controlled trial (RCT).

Which makes a recent randomised controlled trial all the more interesting: 726 students at West Point military academy were randomly assigned an economics class. Half of the classes allowed the use of laptops and other devices and half banned them. Banning laptops was associated with a small, statistically significant improvement in performance. I take the point that it was small, that these are students at a military academy who are very different to children in schools and that economics is not as central to the school curriculum as English and maths. If you want to disregard this evidence then perhaps you can but, if so, I ask you this:

Why are we all so convinced that laptops and iPads are great?

Should we not perhaps pause before prescribing more computers for schools?

Should we not at least question whether computers are necessarily a good thing?

If the evidence I have presented does not trouble you then what evidence are you being guided by?

By Becky Stern from Brooklyn, USA (T400 Temperature Datalogger) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Becky Stern from Brooklyn, USA (T400 Temperature Datalogger) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

16 thoughts on “Laptops etc

  1. Aside from the logistical cost to learning you describe – time wasted with technical issues – I’ve never worked in a school where you don’t have a good number of kids misusing the tech to some extent, even if it’s just checking their school emails when they logon. So any demonstrable benefit needs to outweigh those costs.

    I thought there had been something showing that ipads were bad for younger kids? Can’t be sure where I heard it from. It’s certainly not the case that they need to learn to use them from a young age, since they’re designed to be usable by anyone – it’s the tech of choice for mothers of most people my age. One would also suspect that ipads don’t foster sustained concentration in the way that reading a book would.

  2. I can fully appreciate your frustrations of using laptops/computers in lessons as I have similar experiences myself. Whether to use more technology or less in schools is a multi faceted argument that doesn’t have a simple answer. It is another intervention in schools that is difficult to measure and the methods used to collect evidence need to be substantial and transparent so they can be repeated with another group of students in another country, language or with a different age group. The West Point article has its limitations as you have mentioned but I would also add that the authors are from the same place as the study is being conducted and the paper doesn’t appear to be peer reviewed. I am sure the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Economics is a well respected group committed to analysing the methodology before publishing this paper but they are not a group that seem to be focused on education per se. A more simple way of looking at this argument is to suggest that if educators like using laptops etc they will get the best out of them as will their students. The opposite could also be true, in that those forced to use laptops etc will highlight the negative aspects and they will not be used to their full potential.

    1. You may be right that “if educators like using laptops etc they will get the best out of them as will their students”… but I think this requires a far larger change to educational models than perhaps is implied in your comment. Technology is often used as an overlay to existing designs, an extra layer on top of what we already do. This raises many problems, for example the cognitive limitations in our ability to multitask, which I’ve written about recently (

      I suspect that the only way that technology would be successfully integrated into education would be a totally overhaul of how we do things so that the tech is placed at the centre and everything else is based around that. Would that we worthwhile, efficient, or even possible? My guess is probably not, but I am open to being shown otherwise.

  3. I’m not sure why you find the West Point RCT interesting. It jumbles in laptop and tablet use as if it were the same thing and by their own admission “we cannot relate our results to a class where the laptop or tablet is used deliberately in classroom instruction”.

    Surely we didn’t need an RCT to confirm that chucking in computers into a classroom would not result in magic happening. Perhaps we did.

      1. Me too, to be fair. We’ve been using iPads for three years and so far there’s been no zombie apocalypse. This video gives an idea of how tablets are used, when they are used – notice they do not substitute other. more traditional resources.

        There are other schools across the sectors who use them successfully too. I’m sure that if the will was there to do a robust study, it could be organised fairly easily. I, for one, am happy to help with this if anyone is interested.

        But there’s always the questions: what do you measure? what can you measure?

      2. Surely the onus is on those proposing spending money on tech to articulate the measurable net benefit.

        As for the video link. Once you need a sound track for your campaign just admit it is an advertisement not an argument.

      3. @stan yes, articulating the benefits is essential. We have done that. Students, parents and teachers are fully onboard. The video is only a part of this articulation, a figure or an illustration if you like. I find it curious and naive of you to assume that our ‘articulation’ is limited to a short clip with a little music or that it constitutes our whole argument.

      4. I assumed on a blog about evidence based practice your comment would provide a link to your best argument. Yet even while attacking me as naïve you cannot be bothered to share a link to it.

        You might ask who is being naïve here? Me for assuming you were posting your best argument or you for assuming others would imagine you have a better one that you choose not to share. But that debate is pointless.

        Rather than drop into ad-hominin’s about who is the most naïve how much better would be if you provided the best part of your argument rather than a mere illustration of something else.

        Right now I am curious about whether you have anything cogent to say about this.

      5. Oh dear. It’s a shame you feel you have to be so combative and hung up on my use of the word naive. I apologised if you felt attacked by it. You asked if I could offer a better argument and I offered one, but your response was to be snide about it. Get in touch with me and I will happily send you a free digital copy if you feel so strongly about not buying it. I’ve also contributed various blogs over the years explaining how I think we can make effective use of technology in schools, all of which is freely available on the internet. I will not continue this conversation on Greg’s blog because it’s not fair to him, but I will happily respond to your email should you are really interested in the subject.

    1. It’s ad hominem, by the way. But it wasn’t. My use of the word naive accurately reflected the fact you were making a judgement based upon an assumption, without all available knowledge – that is the definition of naive. But, as you say, that is a pointless debate. I’m sorry you felt attacked.

      You are right. I should offer a better argument. So, here’s a book I co-wrote on the subject:

      1. That’s a very interesting debating technique, to paraphrase: I have a much better argument I will sell to you.

        I still say you have shown nothing here but an ad. Now we hear that despite having a book full of arguments you still won’t share any unless we pay up.

        It is unfortunate that a lot of people confuse Cleese’s management training videos with his earlier work in comedy. If you check you will find the argument sketch is not a sales training video it is simply meant as a joke.

        (Also I think you should look up naïve in a dictionary. I think you are off the mark. Me buying your book would be naïve.)

  4. The issue is also the money. In a world with almost always limited education dollars, money spent on technology is money not spent on something else. It creates new burdens of hiring more administrators for the technology and its infrastructure (who are usually techno-enthusiasts), spending professional development time to teach the technology to the users (which usually involves money spent on outside consultants), upgrading the technology or its infrastructure and class time lost explaining/troubleshooting the technology.

    In the end, while there are some benefits, they do not yet outweigh the costs, particularly when those dollars could be used for more effective things with proven results, like improving assessments, shrinking class sizes, dedicated literacy/numeracy programs, etc. There’s a reason that Hattie gives technology a low multiplier effect..

  5. Here is another example of more of the same

    Love the irony of discussing failed attempts at using IT as if the problem was the implementation not the cost benefit ending in a deficit.

    Proponents of ed Tech seem to have a difficult time even separating out the potential benefits. That is education in technology use that will be a benefit to students once they leave school – this would be things like keyboard skills or typing as it was once called. And technology that makes learning material already in the curriculum more efficient.

    Proponents of the second might argue for instance that tech can make writing more efficient. A word processor means students and teachers can focus on the content and be more efficient at editing and commenting. The benefits are obvious. But there is a cost – equal access to technology is one. But fraud become easier too and unless exams are all done with access to word processing tools students will need practice at writing essays without a word processor. Given the benefit here is obvious all a proponent has to do is show that they have a cost effective solution to the access, exam taking and fraud issues and they have a good case.

    Has anyone seen that described by any proponent?

  6. To me me there are four reasons for the use of technology in schools.
    1. Increase digital literacy skills that are definitely needed in life and they don’t get from snap chatting each other
    2. To facilitate the teaching of the rather new (at least in terms of school) domain of knowledge, Computer Science (or in AC, Digital Technologies).
    3. To increase efficiency in teaching and learning.
    4. To do things in class not possible without IT. Such as your datalogging.

    Now it is possible to measure an increase in student outcomes in each of these things but, to me, the real issue is we conflate them. We say “all jobs will need ICT skills in the future therefore teaching everything subject with computers is a benefit”, “computer science is an important subject for the future therefore using twitter in History is beneficial”. No it isn’t.

    Computer Science was ignored for a long time because schools were going to ‘integrate ICT in each curriculum’ but thankfully it has been able to distinguish itself as another discipline. Although the apple/google/intel/whatever innovative educator programs always seem to focus on Papert-inspired discovery at least high schools are now thinking that they need a discreet focus on programming etc.

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