Students with laptops did better in HSC sciences

Here is an article I wrote recently, published originally in The Conversation.
Laptops did have a positive effect on learning. AAP/Alan Porritt

While there are plenty of reasons why students should be exposed to technology in schools, educational research is yet to produce consensus on the degree to which personal laptops boost learning.

Historically, when researchers examine what makes a difference in education, laptops, and other technology, come way down the ranks. Some educationalists go as far as to describe the use of computers in schools as distractions, plus there are concerns about screen time.

A report from the European Commission which looked at 31 recent “one laptop per child” initiatives from across 19 countries found little or no improvement in learning outcomes. However, recent research which examined a group of Australian schools found laptops did make a positive difference to learning. Not surprisingly, how the laptops were used determined the size of the benefit.

The Digital Education Revolution

In 2008, the then newly elected Labor government began implementing the (subsequently much maligned) A$2.1 billion “Digital Education Revolution”, whereby it was intended that every Year 9 student would receive a laptop over four or five years, thus creating a 1:1 computer-to-student ratio.

For 12 Catholic secondary schools in Sydney this meant that half of the Year 9 students in 2008 received a laptop and half did not. The distribution of who received the laptops was random in terms of socioeconomic status and average performance, having being imposed independently by a federal audit.

This ultimately lead to a dichotomous scenario whereby in 2011 half of the students in these schools sitting for the NSW HSC had been schooled for over three years with 1:1 laptops and half had not.

This created a natural experiment beyond our influence rather than a researcher-designed randomised experiment. This was also quite timely as many principals and education authority directors were wondering what would happen to their exam results.

The effect

We looked at the examination data from the 12 schools to see if the students with laptops performed better or worse in the sciences (our field of research) than those without. We predicted a null result.

To our surprise, when controlling for other factors (socioeconomic status, gender, school type, prior attainment and more), we found that those who had been schooled with a laptop did better to varying degrees and that this was statistically significant in biology, chemistry and physics.

HSC physics students had the most significant gains from laptop use from http://www.shutterstock.com

In senior science laptops were found to have no effect and the sample size for earth and environmental science was too small to produce a result.

We then found the “effect size” (an approach taken by prominent education researcher John Hattie who gave a score of effect size to every kind of educational intervention so that we may compare them) was much greater in physics than in biology or chemistry. This presented the follow up question – why?

The why

In our follow up paper we investigated why the students with laptops did better, particularly in physics, by surveying how physics and biology teachers and students actually used their laptops.

Interestingly, the physics students and teachers consistently reported performing more “higher-order” activities such as simulations and spreadsheets with their laptops than their biology counterparts, and much than those without laptops.

The biology students and teachers consistently reported more use of “lower-order” activities such as word processing, electronic textbooks and internet searching.

We also scrutinised the NSW HSC syllabuses. Despite both the biology and the physics syllabuses providing identical motherhood statements about the use of technology in their guidelines there were no explicit mandates or recommendations for the use of technology in the biology content, unlike physics where there were many.

Ultimately we found that in HSC biology, chemistry and physics, those students schooled with laptops actually performed better than those without. This effect was much more pronounced in physics which correlated with greater higher-order use as mandated by the curriculum.

The aftermath

There are several repercussions from this research. The findings, as ever, are highly contextual (for these 12 schools; in southwest and south Sydney; in the HSC sciences; in 2011), but we now have some robust quantitative data regarding the use of technology and student academic performance in Australia. The crude data is freely available for anyone to perform their own analysis.

The research also suggests the “Digital Education Revolution” was not as shambolic or a waste of money in all cases, as portrayed in the media . With the NSW HSC syllabuses about to be rewritten, we hope there will be greater consistency in the capitalisation on technology for “higher-order activities” across all subjects.

The pen is mightier than the sword, but the computer is mightier than both

By Michael Cowling

It’s official. In 2015, the keyboard has began to genuinely challenge the pen for dominance in the classroom.

With Finland having decided that it will no longer teach cursive handwriting in primary school, replacing it with typing lessons for students, and with pen manufacturer BIC fighting to “save handwriting” in Australia, it could be argued that the humble pen might finally be singing its swan song.

But what does this mean for the Australian classroom, now that smartphones are ubiquitous and gadgets are invading every part of our lives?

The relationship between education and technology

Education has always embraced technology. From the humble overhead projector, to the TV with VCR that was pushed into the classroom on a trolley, to the computer labs full of Commodore 64s, new technology in the consumer space has always found its way into the classroom. What’s changing, though, is the availability of that technology.

As a middle-class student growing up on the North Shore of Sydney in the 1980s, I remember clearly how computer time worked. The classroom I sat in every day had no computers, but once a week we would all queue up and march down to the computer room to spend an hour using them.

You would find a disk, boot the computer and spend a blissful hour playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? or Treasure Island and learning how the computers worked. Even in my later years in high school, the computer labs were always a separate activity, reserved for special classes on “Business Technology” or “Computers in Schools”.

Now, 30 years later, my son is attending prep at a school that boasts a 1-to-1 computer policy. Every student in the school is expected to have a computer, and in later classes every student is equipped with an Apple iPad.

The teacher uses a television screen for learning connected to a Macbook Pro and builds lessons around the technology that the students have access to. As he grows up, I’m sure my son will request a smartphone of his own, and I hope that the school he goes to will encourage him to use it for learning as well.

No longer is technology relegated to just the computer. Rather, it’s built into every facet of the students lives. This has the potential to change classrooms in ways that have never been seen before.

The digital native, active learning, digital resident student

Back in 2001, Marc Prensky coined the term “digital native” to describe a different type of individual, one who doesn’t know a world without technology in it.

I personally learnt the term around five years ago, and since then have noticed a certain amount of controversy about it’s use, especially amongst those that Prensky considered “digital immigrants”: individuals who grew up in a world before technology was commonplace.

Among the immigrants, the notion that there is a divide between those who know technology and those who don’t is difficult to come to terms with. Many counterpoints to Prensky’s work have been written, as well as other terms proposed like David White’s “Digital Resident/Digital Visitor”, or the “Active Learner” to describe the change in learning.

For some reason though, the term “digital native” persists, perhaps because, despite its flaws, it acknowledges a change the in the way that we interact with the world, regardless of our generational differences.

Technology is integral to the lives of digital natives, but is our education system catching up?
Michael Coghlan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The best example I can give is from my own experience. When I was a student, a pen was an important implement to take to lectures and tutorials. It allowed me to not only make notes but also write down other pieces of information, like the lecturer’s contact details or the submission time for an assignment.

Now, I notice that students no longer take pens to class, and when they want to take notes, they instead use their mobile phone’s inbuilt camera.

As a “digital immigrant”, I found myself totally floored the first time that a student submitted an assignment via the online Learning Management System in front of me, and when I suggested that they print the confirmation page, they instead took out their phone and took a photo of the screen!

Add that to the ubiquity of students using their phones to check words you say in class, Google a quick question you ask, or even record your lectures for later listening, and you can understand the persistence of the term “digital native”.

The last gasp for the mighty pen

Of course, this transition is not without its challenges. Technology moves quickly, and as soon as one piece of technology becomes popular, it gets replaced with another.

This presents a challenge in the classroom, where lesson plans and pedagogy often takes longer to bed down than the life of the average mobile phone.

Add in new technology like the Oculus Rift headset and the raft of new Internet of Things devices and you discover new pedagogical challenges for the 21st Century student.

A good example of this is the use of technology in exams. We often use exams to make sure that students understand the material in a controlled environment, free of opportunities to “phone a friend” or look items up on the internet.

But how does this work for the digital native, who expects to always be connected? How do we conduct exams with these students, without resorting (as many universities do), to forcing students to write the exam with pen and paper, possibly asking them to put ink on the page for the first time in the semester?

I am currently working on a project to bring electronic exams to more classrooms, but even this presents challenges, as computers need to be locked down and student access to a global world of information controlled.

And don’t even get me started on how Internet of Things devices fit into the mix. Students are now able to use devices such as Android Wear and the upcoming Apple Watch to bring the connected world into the exam room, even when we don’t want them to.

An exam invigilator recently confessed to me that this check has now been added to their list: checking water bottles, erasers and then also what watch a student is wearing! Quite a challenge for the digital immigrant, isn’t it?

But even these challenges are surmountable. The evidence suggests that 2015 might be the year where we finally start making these changes, acknowledging that even if we aren’t sure if we should call them “digital natives”, the way that modern students learn has changed, and the tools we use in the classroom have to change along with it.

Just like the humble Commodore 64 and the TV on a trolley before it, perhaps it’s time for the pen to say it’s farewells for regular use in the classroom, replaced by the smartphone and relegated to “writing time”, just like we used to have “computer time” back when I was a kid.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.