Laptop revolution fizzles out

Elizabeth Buie and David Henderson report on the latest classroom thinking from the annual conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association in Perth

Computer technology makes pupils more interested and motivated - at least initially - but has yet to show an impact on academic attainment or more truly independent learning, researchers say.

An evaluation of the provision of personal laptops to 60 S1 pupils and 21 P5 pupils in a Scottish city found that the technology was making little inroad into altering teaching practices, although it was seen as a useful tool for streamlining activities and improving current classroom procedures.

The research, by Mary Simpson of Edinburgh University and Fran Payne of Aberdeen University, examined a project that provided personal laptops for two groups of children and their teachers, and aimed to make radical changes in learning and teaching.

They concluded that their findings mirrored those of other research outwith Scotland - while using ICT in education can introduce significant innovation into schools, classroom practice is not greatly affected.

The initiative was found to have worked better in the primary school for a number of reasons: the curriculum was less "stuffed and rigid" than in secondary; primary staff benefited from a mutually supportive collegiality; and technology was seen as a way of supporting and enhancing learner-centred approaches.

The researchers even found that primary teachers' computer skills were more advanced than their secondary colleagues'.

In the primary school experiment, the main benefits in the classroom were increased motivation, increased availability of information to pupils and the use of the laptops and a projector and interactive whiteboard for whole-class work.

The machines were used regularly within the normal curriculum but also allowed extended and creative enterprises such as the production of an animated video.

Overall the pupils' initial excitement and positive expectations were maintained throughout the two years. Playing games and communicating through chat sites and e-mail were the two most frequent activities in using the internet at home, while researching for school work and "getting information" were the next most frequent.

When researching information for project work, the internet was not always the best resource. With the encouragement of the teacher, children came to realise that they could find what they wanted more quickly from books and that these were much more appropriate to their level of understanding.

The primary school parents were very positive overall about the project - in contrast to the experience of two-thirds of the secondary sample.

Parents of secondary pupils tended to perceive laptops as an excellent opportunity but one that had led to more difficulties and frustrations than they had anticipated.

Likewise for secondary pupils, the initial excitement and positive expectations were dampened by the range of technical problems they encountered, and increasing constraints on personal use with respect to games and hobbies.

The authority which had conceived the project concluded that its "visionary focus on ICT as the driver of change in teaching and learning practices had perhaps been over-ambitious and misconceived". Staff said greatly increased technical and curricular support would have been required.

The authority's overall conclusion was that, without a learner-centred approach and changes in teaching practice, the use of laptops would not transform learning and teaching. In these situations, the technology is simply "fitted in" with existing practices.

HMI has just published new guidance on using ICT in learning and teaching as part of its How Good Is Our School? series.

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