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An evaluation of the impact of 1:1 laptops on student attainment in senior high school sciences

Simon Crook
PhD Candidate, Physics Education Research, The University of Sydney

While there is a lot of research linking the use of technology to increased engagement and motivation in schools, there is a relative paucity of studies examining the links between ICT and student attainment, particularly in Australia.

One opportunity to study these links was provided by the Australian Government’s Digital Education Revolution (DER), an initiative operating 2008-2013 which aimed to provide laptops for 1:1, individual use by high school students in years 9-12.

A longitudinal study has been examining how the introduction of 1:1 laptops has impacted on student attainment in the sciences, across 16 comprehensive, systemic Catholic secondary schools in southwest and south Sydney from 2010 to 2014.

The nature of the DER’s implementation at these schools meant that half of the year 9 students in 2008 received laptops and half did not. Consequently in late 2011, when these students sat their year 12 NSW HSC examinations, half of them had been schooled with 1:1 laptops for over three years, and half without. With school principals and directors of education asking the question ‘what will these laptops do to our examination results?’ this dichotomous scenario presented a unique opportunity to find out, through a ‘natural’ rather than researcher-designed experiment.

The study, conducted to fulfil the requirements of a PhD thesis at the University of Sydney, has involved the publication of a series of papers in academic journals. The first paper drew on 2010 data to examine how closely teacher practices, and teachers’ expectations on students, aligned with students’ own self-reported practices regarding the use of laptops. The study found that many teachers led by example, modelled effective use of the technology, and had a solid sense as to what students were doing. The practices of some teachers, however, were not so well aligned to those of their students.

The second paper, also drawing on 2010 data, studied the practices of teachers and students and how they used their laptops in science classes, in terms of higher- and lower-order activities, defined against Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy. While students had substantially shifted from pen and paper to laptops by this time, students generally used the devices for the lower-order practices of note taking, word processing and simple online searching. Students enjoyed higher-order activities such as blogging and video editing, but most teachers did not provide opportunities for these activities at the time of the study.

The current article summarises some of the evidence available in a third paper, the main paper of the thesis. (Aspects of this research are also reported in an article in The Australian, and in a news item and blog post on the University of Sydney website.)

Multiple regression analyses were performed to measure the impact of the 1:1 laptop provision and other variables on the attainment of 967 students in biology, chemistry and physics in 2011, using socio-demographic, school and examination data. The experience of being schooled with 1:1 laptops was found to have a statistically significant and positive correlation with student attainment, after controlling for all other variables. Drawing on John Hattie’s work (2009), the researchers calculated that being schooled with 1:1 laptops had a notable positive correlation with student attainment in physics: a 0.38 effect size (by comparison, Hattie had found that reducing class size had an effect size of 0.21). Being schooled with 1:1 laptops also had positive, though more modest, correlations in biology (0.26 effect size) and chemistry (0.23 effect size).

Further data from student and teacher questionnaires suggests that the gains in students’ attainment in physics corresponded to greater use of simulations and spreadsheets by students and teachers. When used for these purposes, the laptops were more likely to challenge and extend students' analytical and higher-order thinking skills, and provide opportunities that would not otherwise exist—for example, performing individual virtual experiments that would otherwise involve apparatus that is too expensive or too dangerous for the classroom. It was not how much the students used the laptops, but what they did with them.


Conclusion

This study provides a robust quantitative analysis of the impact of 1:1 laptops on student attainment in external standardised tests (HSC in this case). It goes a long way to providing some actual quantitative findings regarding laptops and learning outcomes, particularly within an Australian context.

The fourth paper in this series will appear in the CITE Journal (Science) in 2015. Building upon the results of the previous paper, this study compares the use of technology in physics and biology classes, in relation to both teachers’ and students’ practices. The NSW HSC syllabus documents are also compared, to provide some explanation for the differences between the two subjects. The fifth paper is currently being written and will hopefully be published later in the year. It will provide a longitudinal analysis and the case studies of four different teachers.


References

Crook, S. J., Sharma, M. D., Wilson, R., & Muller, D. A. (2013). Seeing Eye-to-Eye on ICT: Science Student and Teacher Perceptions of Laptop Use across 14 Australian schools. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 29(1), 82-95.

Crook, S. J., & Sharma, M. D. (2013). Bloom-ing Heck! The Activities of Australian Science Teachers and Students Two Years into a 1:1 Laptop Program Across 14 High Schools. International Journal of Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education, 21(1), 54-69.

Crook, S., Sharma, M., & Wilson, R. (2015). An Evaluation of the Impact of 1:1 Laptops on Student Attainment in Senior High School Sciences. International Journal of Science Education, 37(2), 272-293. doi: 10.1080/09500693.2014.982229

Crook, S. J., Sharma, M. D., & Wilson, R. (in press). TCKing the Box: TPACK with 1:1 Laptops in Physics and Biology Curricula. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge.

KLA

Subject Headings

Senior secondary education
Chemistry
Biology
Physics
Science
Mobile devices