Students with computers do better in the HSC – if they use them right

Student_with_computerRecent research, which examined a group of Australian schools, found that students having a notebook computer makes a positive difference to learning.

This research is interesting firstly because it exists, but even more so because of the reasons behind the conclusion it reaches.

It’s very hard to come by real research which shows a demonstrable difference in learning outcomes from kids having computers. In fact, much research actually points to little or no difference but that tends to be in the context of a longitudinal study because there is no control group. However in 2008 there was an unintended consequence of the way the Digital Education Revolution money was distributed amongst catholic schools in Sydney:

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.

So researchers took advantage of this and had a look at the results: “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”. Now being an advocate for computers in schools I don’t find this result very surprising (but I do like seeing my belief validated by data).

What makes this study really interesting is that it shows that just having a computer doesn’t make very much difference; it was how the laptops were used that determined the size of the benefit. Students in physics and chemistry showed a larger benefit than those taking biology. The researchers dug into why:

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.

So using your computer as a tool to aid learning and thinking, rather than a substitute for paper, meant a more significant gain. And this was at least partly driven in physics and chemistry by the syllabus:

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.

So what can we conclude from this? I would say that giving every student a computer can make a significant difference to their educational outcomes if the computer is used as a learning tool rather than a substitute for a bit of paper. In other words, it’s not having the computer that makes a difference – having the computer is the foundation – the difference comes when you make effective use of the computer and properly build on the foundation.

It’s at this point that many BYOD and 1:1 school programs founder – getting a computer in the hands of students is not the end, it’s a means to an end, and achieving something with the computer is the hard, but important, part of the process.

For more on the research including access to the raw data see here.

Image: Student with computer” by Courtcourtwest – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons

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