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Laptop Programs: Rapid Change and the Search to

Justify the Money

Nick Hadfield
ETEC 500
Literature Review
I. Introduction

Growth of Laptop Learning

With the growth of the Internet and its ability to provide immediate access to knowledge,
schools have prioritized funding to reduce the ratio of students to computers. Whereas in 1995 the
ratio was nine students per computer, in 2002 the number has fallen to four to one (Russell, Bebell,
Higgins, 2004, p. 314). This drive to increase the number of computers available to students has led
to various forms of integration, most notably laptop programs that place a computer in the hands of
all students in a class.
Laptop programs are a dramatic response to the push for more technology in classrooms.
Laptop programs allow students to learn anywhere at anytime (Siegle and Foster, 2000, p. 10-11,
Sahl and Windschitl, 2000, p. 5). With laptops, students can now access whatever information they
are seeking, from any location, at any time, and helps students “gather, store, organize, analyze,
represent, and communicate information and ideas" (Sahl and Windschitl, 2000, p. 4). Students are
no longer spending hours in the school library researching, but instead have all the research tools
they need at their fingertips.
The push for laptop programs in schools has come from both the top-down, as well as the
bottom-up. Large-scale laptop programs aimed at providing each student their own laptop for
learning have been implemented in whole states such as Maine (Rockman, 2003, p. 24), and also
frequently cited is Australia’s push for laptops in their schools (Stager, 1995). Conversely, many
smaller-scale laptop programs have also started from the individual efforts of teachers and
administrators, looking to embrace the technological change but much more constrained by smaller
budgets. These smaller-scale laptop programs may only involve a single classroom, or a single
grade at the given school (Rockman, 2003, p. 24).
Universities have also realized the benefits that laptops can bring to their students and are
now spending millions to provide more laptop friendly facilities (Jones, 2005, p. 9). Students bring
their laptops to class to take notes, collaborate on group assignments, and have near-instant access
to knowledge. By either helping students to acquire laptops, or requiring them to have laptops, the
university is also freeing up their own resources. With students looking after their own computers,
the university does not have to provide as many computer labs or technicians to keep their labs
functioning. Universities such as Malaspina University/ College in Nanaimo, BC, are providing
wireless internet access on campus to aid student learning and research (Malaspina, 2006). At some
universities, professors are saying that it becoming more uncommon to see students taking notes
with a pen and paper, and much more common to see laptops in class (Jones, 2005).

Changing Instruction and Skill Set

With the integration of increasing numbers of laptop programs at all levels of schooling,
teachers are having to adjust their teaching to this shift. "Teachers wonder how they will adapt to
the presence of these new tools and what kind of support they will receive to learn to use them;
principals contemplate the administration of such programs and they consider changes to the life of
the school…." (Sahl and Windschitl, 2000, p. 5). Laptop programs change the shape of teaching,
but teachers are finding the leap to learning anytime, anywhere a challenge to plan. Traditional
teaching methods do not seem to take advantage of the learning possibilities that laptops provide.
For the students in laptop programs, many are the test cases that are paving the way for their
school districts and discovering the pitfalls for later students. Teachers seem to feel that that
students learned more when they had laptops and could create much more elaborate assignments
(Siegle and Foster, 2000, p 1). An increase in student motivation is also frequently cited as a direct
benefit from participation in laptop programs (Trimmel and Bachmann, 2004, p. 156, Lowther,
2001, p. 8, Russell et. al., 2004, p. 327). With consistent gains in motivation, teachers can
accomplish a lot more learning during the school day, and perhaps even teach a whole new set of
The 21st century workplace requires a completely new set of skills. Students in laptop
programs are “…developing 21st century skills as they apply technology to problem-solving,
communications, self-management, and thinking” (Rockman, 2003, p. 25). The very same
challenges that students face in laptop programs are the skills needed in the workforce: “writing,
conducting research, simulating problems, manipulating formulae, making presentations, and
organizing information" (Rockman, 2003, p. 25). Students gain experience communicating,
researching from multiple sources, collaborating with fellow students, and presenting their ideas to
large groups.
The role of the Internet has drastically changed the way students do research, and allows
students in laptop programs to find relevant and accurate sources of information on virtually any
subject almost instantly. No longer is the teacher or librarian the sole source of information, but
students have access to more information than it is possible to learn in a lifetime. Through use of
online encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica, search engines such as
Google, or online journal indexes like EBSCO, students have access to multiple sources of accurate
information at a variety of academic levels. Laptop students are also not confined to researching
solely at school, students in one study reported that the second most frequent use of their computer
at home was searching for school-related work (Russell et. al., 2004, p. 325, Trimmel and
Bachmann, 2004, p. 154).
Unfortunately, with such varied sources of information, and easy access to essays for sale,
plagiarism has also become a greater concern for laptop classrooms. Various essay websites
advertise essays for around ten dollars per page (Essayrelief, 2006), making the teacher’s job of
evaluating student work much harder. Unintentional plagiarism (students using information without
citing the source) has also started to become “a thorny problem for our laptop classrooms" (Barrett,
2002, p. 48). Students may be unclear about when they need to reference and therefore may just cut
and paste another’s words into their assignment. In addition, students engaged in researching may
be allowed to use a picture from certain websites for educational purposes, but they may also
unintentionally use one that is copyrighted by the author.

II. Current Research

a.) Classroom Instruction
Many studies repeatedly find increased motivation as one of the main benefits from the
implementation of a laptop program. The study by Russell et al. (2004) claimed that students in
laptop classes have "…higher levels of engagement…” (p. 321) than those in regular programs, and
while learning, laptop students word process almost constantly. Similarly, Trimmel and Bachmann
(2004, p. 156) found that laptop students show greater interest in learning and more cooperation
with their fellow classmates. Rockman (2003, p. 3) also found that laptop students frequently share
website resources, collaborate on class work, and spend more time doing homework on computers.
Current research seems to have repeatedly demonstrated that students in laptop programs have
become extremely adaptable and creative in the learning process and are actively engaged in their
Research seems somewhat conflicted around the issue of student collaboration. Trimmel
and Bachmann (2004) claim that "Laptop students experience less restrictiveness, show increased
willingness to learn, feel higher pressure to perform, and notice more possibilities of active
participation during lessons" (p. 156). Their study seems to imply that laptop students see more
opportunities to share the knowledge that they have found to help direct the group. They also found
that laptop students perform better on activities that require spatial visualization (p. 155). Russell et
al. (2004) found that "students in 1:1 classrooms were also observed peer conferencing nearly two
times more frequently than student in the shared classrooms..." (p. 324). This increased
collaboration seems to somewhat contradict with the idea that learning on a computer is largely a
solitary experience, and students spend a great deal of time at home learning by themselves. These
studies do not report what type of collaboration these students are engaged in (are they physical
interactions or virtual?), or when these activities take place. Further research about what types of
collaboration laptop students engage in, and what activities are mostly solitary would greatly help
researchers identify whether certain activities in laptop programs are encouraging group interaction
or encouraging students to become more solitary and isolated from one another.
Research also seems to support the use of laptop in improving writing skills. Traditionally
during the writing process students draft their first copy by hand, edit and revise their ideas
(requiring writing out new copies by hand), and finally presenting their finished work. Computers
(especially laptops) allow students to re-work their ideas more easily, and encourage more edits and
revisions. Students come to see their writing as a work in progress; "As students learn to take
advantage of computers for writing, their writing strategies change-revisions in real time become
easier and accepted as a normal part of the process" (Rockman, 2003, p. 25). Belanger (2000)
found that laptops were “especially suited for writing activities, student projects, and presentations"
(p. 3). Revisions and edits are less of a chore on a laptop and more just a part of the writing
process, because changes to their work and new copies are made much more easily. Rockman et al.
(2000) found that the ease that students can change and revise ideas make laptops and ideal writing
tool, and allow students to write more, make more changes, and perform better on writing
assignments (p. 4). Rockman et al. in 2003 again revisited the issue of writing and reinforced their
earlier findings that students write more (and qualitatively better) than their non-laptop counterparts
(p. 27). The study by Russell et al (2004) established that students in laptop programs come to view
their laptops as their “primary writing tool" (p. 322). One teacher noted:
The volume of writing has increased in all areas of the curriculum. Written responses are
neater and easier to read legibly. Teaching process writing has progressed more quickly in
my opinion because of the rate at which student are able to process their ideas in an
aesthetically pleasing and organized way that lends itself to more efficient revising and
editing. (p. 323).

While research supports the notion that using laptops improves students’ writing, whether or not it
helps or hurts students’ performance on standardized tests needs to be thoroughly researched. If
laptop students are trained to type on computers and are then forced to handwrite on standardized
tests, do laptops aid or hinder their academic gains?
Perhaps the largest factor influencing the performance of student learning in the laptop
classroom is the teacher. The laptop program teacher needs to be a dynamic individual with a wide
variety of skills. They need to be proficient in ways of teaching and planning, as well as very
technologically literate with a multiplicity of software and hardware. Laptop teachers have unique
challenges to their teaching because of the use of laptop: lesson planning, teaching style, and
teacher training all have to change to accommodate the new learning process required by laptops.
Gary Stager (1999) notes, “… laptop schools expect their teachers not lonely to be comfortable with
30 notebook computers in their classroom, but also to participate actively in the reinvention of their
school (p 79). Changes to the teaching practice most commonly cited by research focuses on more
constructivist teaching activities (Sahl and Windschitl, 2000, p. 4, Rockman, 2000, p. 3). Research
finds that teachers include “more frequent uses of student-led inquiry and collaborative work….
" (Rockman, 2000, p. 3), and tend “to employ more student-centered strategies such as project-
based learning, independent inquiry-/ research, teacher as coach/ facilitator, and cooperative
learning" (Lowther, 2001, p. 9). Learning in a laptop classroom comes to mean developing the
abilities to “participate in meaningful and productive activities" (Sahl and Windschitl, 2000, p. 3),
instead of just focussing on the acquisition of knowledge. Other research found that teachers
perceived laptop programs allow students to “learn more independently, cooperatively, and
collaboratively than through traditional instruction" (Russell et. al., 2004, p. 235). With the switch
from teacher as the expert, to the teacher as the learning partner (Tatar and Robinson, 2003), laptop
classroom have become centers for instructional change. Longitudinal studies would greatly help in
this area by assessing if constructivist learning is a required characteristic of laptop classrooms, or if
it is a just because Constructivism is the current trend in education.
Laptop programs require that students use a different set of skills than a traditional
classroom, and take greater control over their learning. Students also learn that participation in the
learning activities does not necessarily mean being at some physical place. Students who are home
sick from school, in some cases, can log in and get their class notes in real time (Barrett, 2002, p.
49). Not only do students have to look after their studies, but also students in laptop programs are
responsible for carrying and storing a $2000 laptop. For many students, this alone would be a huge
increase in responsibility. Laptop students also do much of their work independently and therefore
have to monitor their own progress, identify the tools and resources they need to use, and know
when to seek help" (Rockman, 2003, p. 27). This increased responsibility puts greater pressure on
the child, and no doubt as a direct response Rockman (2003, p. 27) found that many laptop schools
have greater parental involvement than do their non-laptop counterparts. These research findings
very clearly reflect the socio-economic status of the research participants. While the cost of the
laptop to an economically advantaged family is a nominal investment, for a lower-income family it
either would be not available without financial assistance, or would cause some economic hardship.
These pressures would pass directly to the child, so that while an economically advantaged child
might be concerned about losing their laptop, a lower income student would have much greater
pressures that would drastically change the research in this area.

b.) Academic Performance

With so much money spent on increasing the available technology in schools, many are
expecting greater academic performance (Rockman, 2003, p. 25). While qualitative studies report
that teachers find that students using laptops “produce higher quality work and had more self-
confidence, greater enthusiasm, increased depth of knowledge, and were more engaged with other
learners (Lowther, 2001, p. 8). Qualitative studies into academic performance repeatedly find
increases in student interest and academic performance. Siegle and Foster (2000, p. 10) found that
using laptop computers increased academic performance over a term in an anatomy class, and other
studies such as Lowther (2001, p 8) continue to provide evidence for improved writing ability.
Studies that rely on teacher assessment of learning rather than standardized tests have much greater
correlations between laptop learning and academic performance. Other studies however, that rely
on more than interviews and questionnaires have failed to provide the breadth of needed evidence to
support increases in academic performance.
One of the largest ongoing studies by Rockman et al (2000, 2003) states, "We consistently
find substantive impacts on teaching and learning, on teacher and students, yet we continue to have
difficulty tying full-time access to computers to the outcomes of standardized test currently in use"
(2003, p. 24). Frustratingly for many researchers, although students in laptop programs are making
great gains in their learning, their performance on standardized tests have not shown these gains.
Schaumburg (2001) found that “the use of laptops has only impacted the knowledge about
computers (p. 7). Rockman et al. finally conclude that while computers are powerful learning tools,
standardized tests to measure academic performance do not accurately measure this new type of
learning (2003, p. 24).
Although teachers are finding that laptop learning increases retention and greater academic
performance in their students, current standardized tests do not reflect these results. Perhaps a
better indicator of academic performance for research would be a longitudinal study that follows the
academic performance of students in high school, and continues to track their academic progress in
university. Researchers can thereby largely ignore standardized tests as a measure of performance
and instead rely solely on teacher/ professor assessment tools. Since many universities are already
spending millions to become more ‘laptop friendly,’ these studies cannot be far off.

c.) Economic Advantage

One of the main issues in the research of laptop programs is that they largely happen in
private schools, or upper-income public schools. There has been very little research done to study
their effectiveness for low-income students. This is largely because there are only a few schools in
economically disadvantaged areas that have laptop programs. Since many of the schools make the
parents financially responsible for the laptops, this obviously decreases the number of laptop
programs in low-income areas. "Many underrepresented minority students do not have easy access
to computers, powerful software tools, and the Internet. As a consequence, as these students move
through school they get further and further behind [their richer counterparts]" (Hounshell et al,
2002, p. 101). Currently, laptop programs seem to be another way that the economically
advantaged are increasing the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ This “digital divide”
(Moores, 1996) is becoming more apparent as the number of programs increases at both the high
school and university level.

III. Conclusions
Laptop programs continue to provide rich learning environments that can greatly enhance
student creativity and motivation. Laptops allow students instant access to the Internet thereby
allowing access to the largest collection of human knowledge. Students in these programs benefit
from the flexibility that the technology allows, and learn more independently. Students of laptop
programs are developing a wide variety of skills needed for the 21st century.
Current research has repeatedly established that laptops encourage student motivation, and
now the focus of research needs to prove that laptops increase academic performance. Classrooms
have changed to accommodate laptops, teacher instruction has changed to take advantage of the
computing power, but standardized tests fail to show the resulting gains. Finding a new measure of
student academic performance needs to be found instead of current standardized tests in order for
researchers to prove that laptop programs increase academic performance, and also to demonstrate
the change in learning. These new technological skills however are very hard to measure, and do
not directly correlate to performance on academic standardized tests. While classroom learning and
teacher instruction has changed to develop these new skills in students, tests to measure their
academic performance have not.
Lastly, more laptop programs are being developed each year, but hopefully many more will
be started in lower-income areas so that these students can experience the advantages that those
more economically advantaged enjoy. This will also aid researchers by allowing their studies to
more accurately reflect larger populations, and allow for the study of groups that are not so
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