The impact of laptops in education

By Antonio M. Battro, OLPC’s Chief Education Officer

As stated by the Millennium Goals of the United Nations, it is our duty and responsibility to provide a good education for all children. The purpose is to provide at least elementary schooling to every child in the world by the year 2015.

Education is essentially about universal values of truth, beauty and good. These values are embodied in historical times. We must recognize that today a new artificial environment interacts with our planet: the digital environment. The sad fact is that while many of us live in the digital era, many more are excluded. The digital divide is one of the greatest obstacles to overcome in contemporary education, especially in poor communities.

An isolated school without computers and connectivity to the Internet is incompatible current educational requirements. But of course, technology is not sufficient. Technology may have an impact on education only if constructive dialogue is occurring among teachers, students and their families. Moreover, digital technology should be in the hands of children at an early age for them to learn the new digital language as a second language. And it must be mobile (laptops or netbooks, instead of PCs) because children learn in many kinds of settings, not only in the classroom.

Some economists have tried to measure the educational impact of digital technologies, but they have reported conflicting results (cf. Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality, by Randall Stross, New York Times, July 9, 2010). For instance, children using computers at school and at home have attained good computer skills while their grades in mathematics and language declined. The more so if they live in low income households. These results need clarification.

First, it is important to understand that time is needed to produce a cognitive transformation in a student. It is possible that some of the reported failures are biased because academic performance was evaluated too soon. Any evaluation must factor in the time span of an entire cohort, which is the basic unit in education. The time cannot be abridged; it requires the entire development of the young mind, from childhood to adolescence, some 10 years since the child enters first grade when most of the connections of the developing brain are made. Many cognitive capacities may be latent for years before they are expressed. Currently, tests are frequently done in static and conventional cross sections during the school year instead of in longitudinal studies of individual cognitive dynamics.

Second, in the digital era we can use digital tools for assessment (e.g., online monitoring of the student activities) but we still need new methodologies to obtain robust results. In particular, traditional statistical comparisons between experimental and control groups (as reported in the quoted studies) are not possible when the digital divide disappears and the entire population of students and teachers of a region or country has full access to the digital environment at school and at home. In that case, the control groups disappear and all students have been “vaccinated.” We must invent new methods of evaluation for the digital era.

Third, scale creates phenomenon. We need to change from microscopes to telescopes in order to encompass the wide spectrum of natural phenomena at different scales. The same is true in education…

A pilot study in a particular school, or in a small group of schools, cannot become the model for a large deployment that aims to saturate an entire community of many thousands or millions. Each scale has different properties at the cognitive and social level.

This scaling property is one of the assets of the OLPC concept.  The leading test case is the CEIBAL program in Uruguay that has already penetrated the primary school public system with half a million laptops and is now starting deployment in secondary schools. CEIBAL is the world’s most advanced and expansive digital platform in public education and a model for other deployments. It provides continuous evaluations of the impact of the program at many levels. Some of the evaluations contradict the reported observations in Romania and the United States.

Large-scale programs provide results that small pilots, as reported by the surveys mentioned above, cannot predict or explain. To reach the appropriate level of digital saturation in a community or a country we need courageous political decisions, financial support and the collaboration of many experts. We are entering the field of “big science,” somewhat similar to the Human Genome project. We can represent the millions of connected children and teachers with their own laptops as an expanded “school without borders.” And we can expect substantial changes in the way the human family will teach and learn in the next decades. A sound education for all is a human right and our duty as educators.

6 thoughts on “The impact of laptops in education

  1. Pingback: The computer on your lap – The Road I Choose

  2. Allowing laptops in the classroom reinforces computer skills and can allow students to have contact with computers without having them take a class geared specifically toward learning computer skills. Using laptops for the purpose of note taking can be very beneficial, since a strong typist can record notes much faster than writing by hand, which can force students to learn to type quickly and accurately.

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  6. Mr. Battro,

    I am afraid you are taking Stross’s opinion piece at face value. A closer inspection of the studies Stross cites raises doubts about some of his conclusions.

    In particular, Stross overstates the North Carolina study’s negative findings and understates the Texas study’s positive findings. In the North Carolina study, researchers found that students’ test scores in reading and math declined by a relatively minor 1% and 1.3% of a standard deviation respectively. In the Texas study, researchers found that low-income students’ test scores in reading and math went up by 7% and 20% of a standard deviation respectively after three years of immersion. This is a sizable impact – a change of 9% of a standard deviation in math each year is considered sufficient to close 86% of the “Scarsdale-Harlem” achievement gap.

    Stross also does not cite additional studies that found significant and positive academic outcomes. I run a non-profit, Computers for Youth ( that help low-income children do better in school by improving their learning environment at home. A study we administered in conjunction with ETS found that our program had a statistically significant impact on math test scores. The authors of the Romania study (referenced by Stross in his piece) also cite two additional studies that found statistically significant and positive impact on student test scores.

    So what do we make of all this? I believe there is a straightforward explanation for the discrepancy in the conclusions of these studies. Put simply, the initiatives that include educational software and training for the adults that support student learning (the teachers, and better yet, both the teachers and the parents) are showing positive impact on student achievement. The initiatives that leave out these important components, and expect the computer to have this impact on its own, appear to be falling short.

    What is the evidence? The Texas pilot program, which served more than 7,000 students, included educational software and teacher training. The CFY program, which has served more than 23,000 families across the nation, includes award-winning educational software and training for both teachers and families.

    In conclusion, I believe the key take-aways from all these studies is that computers can play an important role in improving student achievement when they are but one component in a broader program that includes tested educational software and training for the adults who support students the most – their teachers and their parents.

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