When the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the nation in 2020, schools closed swiftly. Districts pivoted to remote instruction. Then inequalities showed up just as quickly, especially in big city schools and rural areas where the “digital divide” persisted. Stories surged in social and mainstream media of administrators distributing laptops and tablets to children and youth who had no devices at home and also setting up locations where the Internet could be accessed. Everyone had to have a device and use of the Internet to do remote instruction.
Quick distribution of devices to individual students reminded me of an innovation that began a few decades ago called 1:1 laptops. At that time policy entrepreneurs, vendors, and iconic technology companies claimed that if every single student had a personal laptop, then there would be more teaching and it would be faster and better. So whatever happened to this innovation?
When and why did 1:1 computer programs spread?
The rush to buy device that were inexpensive and lightweight occurred throughout the 1990s and early 2000s for three reasons. The strong belief among policymakers buyng laptops (and later tablets) was that new portable technology in the hands of students and experienced teachers would revolutionize teaching, boost students’ academic achievement, and lead to jobs in the rapidly expanding technology sector. In Maine, for example, former Gov. Angus King launched the Maine initiative in 2002. It began by leasing and distributing Apple laptop computers to every 7th and 8th grader in the state. During the next eight years, the effort expanded to include other grades, vendors, and devices.
Spurred by Maine and other districts, a buying spree brought these machines into classrooms across the nation to achieve these desirable ends for teachers and students–although there was little evidence that such usage would reach the outcomes promised by the promoters and boosters of the new technology (see below).
What did a 1:1 program look like in classrooms?
Some photos capture what elementary and secondary classrooms with 1:1 devices looked liked.
Did 1:1 programs work?
One definition of “work” is to ask whether all students having personal devices altered their classroom behavior in doing academic work. One survey of over 300,000 students in 2017 asked if students with laptops do classroom work differently. Researchers found that:
High schoolers assigned a laptop or a Chromebook were more likely to take notes in class, do internet research, create documents to share, collaborate with their peers on projects, check their grades and get reminders about tests or homework due dates. Among high school students assigned these devices, 60 percent said they had emailed their teachers with questions. That’s compared to 42 percent among students without an assigned device.
But the survey could not establish that such behavioral changes in students using laptops led to higher academic achievement. Which then leads to another definition of “work.” For all of the dollars spent did schools achieve higher test scores on state tests, did teachers teach more content and skills even faster and better than before, and did graduates of high schools using the new technologies enter jobs using what they learned in using the devices? The answers to the three-part question is, based upon the available evidence, decidedly mixed. No surprise when it comes to educational research, especially when it deals with uses of technologies.
No consensus exists, for example, on laptops being the cause of any rises or dips in academic achievement, as measured by tests. Pause for a moment and consider the idea that technology even could make such a difference since it is the teacher and her pedagogy that decides to what extent and in what ways laptops would be used to cover content and skills in the district curriculum for that grade and subject. Separating the teacher from the technology, then, is illogical and, in a word, goofy. And that is probably why there are conflicting studies showing academic gains and even losses or no differences in test scores in many studies (see here, here, here, and here)
What happened to 1:1 programs?
Nothing. They are still around but the hype surrounding the first generation of the devices being bought, distributed, and used has melted away. No longer in the foreground, each student having a device to use for a classroom lesson (and also at home) is so common in 2021 that the Gee Whiz label of 1:1 strikes today’s students and parentss as anachronistic. After all, an earlier generation of boosters for 1:1 had plowed the ground thoroughly for a later generation to see laptops and tablets as common as paper and pencil.
A veteran educator at the World Bank captured well what happened in many nations when the frenzy for new technologies struck governments in the developing world. Mike Trucano at the World Bank who has observed and participated in rollouts of new technologies in many nations offered a list “worst” practices (opposite of “best practices”) with two being especially apt for many schools that rushed to 1:1 laptops.
1. “Dump hardware in schools, hope for magic to happen.” Trucano goes on to say that such practices are kissing cousins to: “If we supply it, they will learn.”
2. “Think about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware.” He continues: “…it is a fact that, in many places, once computers are in place and a certain level of basic ICT literacy is imparted to teachers and students is the rather basic question asked: What are we going to do with all of this stuff?”
So that final question remains largely unanswered as these once-new devices become obsolete and another generation of inexpensive devices (e.g., tablets, smart phones) have to be, yes, bought again.