Excerpt from Benefits and challenges of using laptops in primary and secondary school: An investigation at the Eastern Townships School Board. Summary of main results, by Karsenti, T., & Collin, S. (2011). Montreal, QC: CRIFPE.
This project was the fruit of an exemplary research partnership between the Canada Research Chair on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Education and the Eastern Townships School Board. The school board, under the urging of its visionary Director General Ron Canuel, had already determined eight years previously to provide most of its students with laptops to use for their schoolwork.
In this study, which is still ongoing, we aimed to identify the main benefits and challenges of using laptops in primary and secondary school. We administered a large-scale survey questionnaire to students, teachers and other education stakeholders. We also conducted individual and group interviews and performed classroom observations (currently under analysis). In all, 2,432 students and some 280 teachers and other education stakeholders participated in the first study phase.
The data gathered to date have enabled us to determine the state of technology access, both at school and at home. We also identified the computer equipment owned by teachers and students at the Eastern Townships School Board. In addition, the survey revealed the pedagogical uses of technologies by teachers and students. We also identified the technological skills of the teachers and students. Most importantly, the gathered data enabled us to identify the main impacts, including the benefits and challenges, of the use of ICT by teachers and students at the Eastern Townships School Board.
We grouped the challenges of using laptops into two general categories: technical and pedagogical.
The technical challenges appeared to be more problematic, and were most probably related to the intensive use of information and communication technologies for pedagogical purposes (Karsenti & Collin, 2011). The pedagogical challenges were of various types: some Websites and pedagogical activities that were suitable for ICT use were not very appealing or stimulating for the students, so that they were tempted to use their laptops for fun instead of learning. In this case, ICT can become a source of distraction rather than a tool to encourage learning.
The teachers found that the pedagogical challenges were mostly related to the ongoing training they received. The training did not seem to meet their needs, which are quite different from those of their students.
Finally, the students, like their teachers, appear to have developed a strongly educational perception of the use of laptops in class. In tangible terms, many students clearly stated that recreational use instead of pedagogical use of their laptops in school would be a waste of time. This 'techno-educative maturity' of the students is an unexpected finding, and could be at least partly explained by the frequency and duration of use of laptops in class.
The benefits identified in this first study phase may be grouped into four main categories, as follows:
- Schoolwork facilitation and improvement;
- Psychosocial factors for students' academic success (motivation, autonomy, interaction and attention);
- Access to information, learning and skills development;
- Equity, openness to the world, and opportunities for the future.
A total of 12 main benefits of using laptops were identified by the majority of the students and teachers:
- Facilitation of schoolwork for students and teachers, and consequently time saving;
- Increased access to current, high-quality information;
- Greater student motivation;
- Improved student attentiveness;
- Development of student autonomy; 6. Increased interaction between students and between students and their teacher;
- Individualized, differentiated learning;
- Active, interactive and meaningful learning with multimedia support;
- Development of ICT skills;
- Universal access;
- Breakdown of the barriers between the school and society;
- More opportunities for the future.
These benefits, which were mentioned by the vast majority of the respondents, clearly demonstrate that the use of laptops, or the intensive use of information and communication technologies, has a major impact on students' academic success, and potentially on their future academic and socio-professional careers.
A further, particularly interesting finding of this study is the attitude of teachers towards technologies. In fact, the literature on the pedagogical integration of ICT frequently reports that ICT are motivating for students, but are perceived more negatively by teachers, for instance, due to the changes in teaching practices that they imply.
It is therefore particularly unusual to find so few teachers with a negative attitude toward technologies. Less than 5% of the teachers at the Eastern Townships School Board were unenthusiastic about using them. The majority, even though they had experienced a few problems, would not go back to their old ways of teaching. Indeed, for both teachers and students, the worst use of the new technologies would be not to use them in class.
Another notable impact was revealed by the results of this study: the 'one laptop per child' strategy appears to have contributed to the development of ICT skills in both students and teachers, particularly information literacy skills. As noted by Karsenti and Dumouchel (2011), technologies have wrought substantial changes in information production and accessibility (see UNESCO, 2005).
In today's knowledge society, the primary advantage of ICT is to provide rapid, easy and free access to practically unlimited amounts of information. ICT have become a prerequisite, a mandatory way to access information and consequently produce knowledge and foster learning. We may therefore conclude that the teachers and other education stakeholders at the Eastern Townships School Board have pioneered an exemplary approach and made an outstanding contribution.
In light of the results of this preliminary study, we may posit that the implementation of 'one laptop per child' strategy at the Eastern Townships School Board is a primary factor to explain its leap from 66th position in 2003 to 23rd in 2010 (out of 70 school boards), and why the student dropout rate has plunged from 39.4% in 2004-2005 to 22.7% in 2008-2009.
This progress, which we may at least partly attribute to the 'one laptop per child' strategy, would certainly never have been possible without the complete commitment and outstanding skills of the teachers, the school administrations and other education stakeholders at the Eastern Townships School Board.
The official statistics on student graduations in this school board appear consistent with the preliminary results of this study, which enable us to gain a broad overview of the benefits and challenges of using laptops in the classroom. In this respect, we should retain the lesson that, despite the technical and pedagogical challenges, this innovative education initiative represents above all a gain, for both teaching and learning, and for the future social and professional lives of the students who participated.
Directions for future research
At this point (the research is still ongoing), it is difficult to point out directions for future research. Nevertheless, the findings of this first study phase suggest the following scientific approaches:
- More systematic studies on the impacts of enriched technology environments, such as at the Eastern Townships School Board, on students' academic success;
- More specifically targeted studies on adaptation processes in teachers and students when making the shift from a traditional class to a laptop class, and vice-versa;
- Studies on the relationships and interactions between students use of laptops in the classroom and at home;
- Longitudinal studies to document the academic and professional paths of students who attended 'one laptop per child' classrooms in order to gain a better understanding of the impact extent of this innovative project.