Technology tools are quickly replacing textbooks as the instructional materials of choice in America’s classrooms. But after a decade at the center of the conversation about technology’s role in schools, many “one-to-one” initiatives—where a student is paired with a laptop or tablet to use during class—are struggling to make the grade.
“You look at the research on the U.S. programs, and you see that an awful lot of schools are not using the laptops,” says EDC’s Daniel Light. “And we sort of know why—there’s a lack of professional development, and the pedagogical model that supports the laptop doesn’t match the activities teachers are doing in their classroom.”
Light has been studying the conditions that allow one-to-one initiatives to succeed. His research, funded by Intel, has taken him to schools as far away as Russia and Argentina, and this spring he will add South Korea to this list. And the lessons that he is bringing back home are applicable in the United States, where districts’ appetites for laptops, tablets, and mobile devices continue to grow.
Conditions for success
Light recently traveled to Moscow, Russia, to observe schools that had implemented successful one-to-one laptop initiatives. He was impressed by what he saw: teachers were using technology to support existing practices, and laptops were part of instruction, not an addendum to it.
“Teachers used technology as an instructional aid,” he says. “Sometimes they used technology tools to show visual models of difficult concepts and to create three dimensional graphics. But they were also using it to administer a quick self-reflection or quiz at the end of class, after which the teacher would ask students, ‘What can we do tomorrow to make this lesson better?’ Technology was the glue that held the lessons together.”
Light saw that students were able to conduct research independently and believes that ubiquitous laptop use promoted collaboration among students and teachers. But what really struck him was the degree to which teachers used multiple technology tools during the day. The focus of the school’s one-to-one program was less about the physical laptop and more about the power of well-designed, technology-supported lessons to transform learning.
“It’s not just about the computer,” he says. “Each school’s success is built on a full ecosystem of technology—laptop, whiteboard, and wireless connectivity. It all has to be there.”
A trip to Argentina reinforced Light’s growing sense that strong technology programs are as much about capacity building and infrastructure as they are about the tool placed in a student’s hands.
He visited schools in San Luis, a province situated halfway down the long leg of the country. Courtesy of an ambitious initiative launched in 2007, everybody in the province has access to wireless Internet, regardless of whether they live in the city or in the region’s more rural areas.
Observing lessons in an urban experimental school and at a one-teacher school on the outskirts of the province, Light saw practices similar to what he had seen in Russia: teachers were using technology tools to enhance their teaching and to bring materials into the classroom. He believes this was possible in part because of the province-wide commitment to technology infrastructure and professional training of teachers.
“The technology gives teachers access to materials that they didn’t have otherwise,” says Light. “It’s enriching the things they are already doing. It’s making their lives easier.”
It’s also making students’ lives easier. Light talks about a common practice in Argentinean schools: students keep a copybook, where they are expected to write down notes, lessons, and problems during the school day. Making the switch to laptops has negated the need for this labor-intensive practice, freeing up students to focus on making sense of content, not merely taking notes.
Based on his research, Light concluded that districts that had successful one-to-one computing programs had built support into multiple levels and integrated technology into everything they did. He documented this idea in his summary of findings from Russia. “Successful integration is a deliberate process,” he writes, “guided by strong principals and administrators working closely with their teachers who, together, carefully move these new tools into their practice.”
In Maine, promise
Light believes that these same lessons apply to one-to-one programs in the United States: schools that are succeeding with technology have found a way to integrate tools into existing practices.
This is certainly true in Maine. In 2001, the state launched an ambitious—and, at the time, controversial—program to equip all middle school students in the state with a laptop. The program, dubbed the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), expanded in 2006, with Apple supplying over 36,000 laptops.
EDC’s Pam Buffington was a key consultant to the Maine Department of Education in the early stages of MLTI, and she continues to support the initiative. She explains that Maine’s program has been a success because project planners thought about issues of support and sustainability at the outset.
“Schools didn’t just buy a machine, they bought a set of services,” she says. “Network maintenance was bundled in, professional development was bundled in. Some of the other early one-to-one programs crashed because they didn’t have all the pieces taken care of.”
She agrees with Light’s finding that a whole system approach is a necessary component of success for one-to-one programs. “That’s true still in Maine,” she says. “Where there’s strong leadership and support, there’s a lot more integration and use for transformational kinds of applications in the classroom.”
As districts increasingly turn to technology to support instruction, they are facing additional pressure to get it right—for both financial and academic reasons. Maine has done well on both accounts. In fact, bolstered by a decade of growth and success, the state is now soliciting proposals to support the next phase of its groundbreaking MLTI project, and this time, it has partnered with Vermont, Hawaii, and Montana, states which have not yet explored one-to-one adoption at a state-wide level. But since the landscape of classroom technology evolves so quickly, it is unclear what tool students may be using when they arrive in class next fall.
“Picking the right tool is a huge decision because it is a philosophical issue,” says Buffington. “What will provide the most support and power for digital learners: mobile devices, so kids can do more citizen science? Or laptops, because they might be able to do more sophisticated things? There’s been a lot of real interest.”
Originally published on March 12, 2013