Most Australian students in years 9 to 12 were provided with a laptop courtesy of The Digital Education Revolution between 2008 and 2013. There was a lot of comment at the time about how the use of laptops might influence student learning and what that influence might be. I was particularly interested in the possible impact on the experiences and achievements of high school science teachers and students.
In 2010, I embarked on a six-year study involving 16 Sydney Catholic high schools in NSW to gather evidence. I have to say my expectations at first were quite conservative. I predicted my research would get a null result, as the data would be too inconsistent and messy.
The most interesting finding
However, the results were surprising and quite clear, with the statistical significance and positive effect sizes that boffins wanting “evidence” so crave. The major finding of my research was that teaching and learning with 1:1 laptops was directly linked with students attaining better results in their HSC in biology, chemistry and physics. In most of the previous research in this area only evidence of generic qualities, such as increased motivation or engagement, had been found. My research actually provided hard numbers. Given the high stakes nature of HSC exams in NSW, these findings might be of interest to other teachers of senior students.
Biggest impact in physics, why?
Investigating further I found that 1:1 laptops had a bigger positive impact in physics than in biology and chemistry. The reasons for this seemed related. Physics teachers and students out-reported their peers in the other subjects in terms of using science specific applications e.g. simulations, science software and spreadsheets. They were using applications that would directly benefit the teaching and learning e.g. simulations for experiments that would be impossible to do otherwise. Digging further, this is not surprising as the physics syllabus encourages and even mandates the use of technology throughout the syllabus, whereas in say biology, there is no reference apart from some generic motherhood statements.
I am not claiming in any way that the physics teachers were better than the biology teachers with using technology (they may or may not be, I didn’t explore this), but that the physics teachers had a mandate to use technology and they did, whereas the biology teachers didn’t have the same obligations, so they did not.
Students became more proactive
Even if teachers didn’t engage with the technology (a minority), the students would still do so of their own accord. Given that they had a laptop, it appears they really wanted to use it. Also, students were much more inclined to use more creative applications such as blogging, video editing and podcasting than their teachers.
Old practices continued
However, in contrast, while I observed that students moved away from using pen and paper and did more work on their laptops, they still took notes and worked from textbooks, as they did before they had their laptops. The only difference was they now used word processing for notes and electronic textbooks plus simple online searching. Essentially, the laptops were most commonly being used to perpetuate traditional practices. It must be understood however that these findings were from 2010 data, only one or two years into the DER. The question now should be what are the modal practices with technology in 2017?
Teachers had ‘fingers on the pulse’
Another interesting finding was regarding teachers’ perceptions of what students were doing on the laptops compared to what the students reported themselves. About one third of teachers very much had their fingers on the pulse and were quite aware of what their students were doing. Just over half had a medium sense of their students’ practices. One in six teachers appeared to be out of tune with their students’ practices.
Teacher case studies
The final findings were based on case studies of four science teachers. Not surprisingly, I found that different teachers started from different positions of use of and expertise with technology. However, over the years of the study, all teachers reported improvement in their use of and expertise with teaching with the laptops, especially those that were starting from the lowest baseline.
A shift in the power dynamics of the classroom
The most interesting finding from the teacher case studies was that the implementation of the laptops involved a renegotiation of the power dynamics of the classroom and a shift in the teachers’ role from traditional instructor to facilitator of independent learning.
All of the teachers involved reported a gradual relaxing of ‘control’ over time, trusting and collaborating with the students more, and allowing the students to take more of a lead in how to make best use of the technology.
Five years since the end of the DER (such is the nature of part-time research), I feel the findings of this study still have currency for today’s schools. Whatever the latest iteration of technology in schools, or indeed any new initiative, this research raises areas of consideration for future classroom practices and research.
Teachers need to have their fingers on the pulse of their students’ practices. If teachers and students use technologies to capitalise on the unique opportunities they provide, rather than as a gimmick, it has been demonstrated that teaching and learning will improve. Hopefully, this research will further encourage research into new initiatives to include a more quantitative analysis and measurements of improvement or lack thereof.
I would strongly advocate that teachers are consulted on their personal thoughts and experiences in advance to any new initiatives implemented by governments and administrations, based on my research, and that these are monitored over the course of the implementation.
Impact on new syllabuses
In NSW as in many other states and territories, new syllabuses are being written in light of the new(ish) Australian Curriculum. It is quite pertinent that syllabus writers take into consideration the latest research regarding their influence on teaching and learning practices. New syllabuses should encourage the use of and capitalise on technologies that have been demonstrated to benefit teaching and learning. Empty motherhoods statements or catering for the lowest common denominator are not good enough – contemporary syllabuses should be relevant to a contemporary world and evidence-based.
Throughout the time of the DER and in the years since, it has been the subject of persistent criticism, particularly within the right-wing media (it was a Labor initiative after all). However, as with any initiative, while there are often failings, there are also many successes.
In the post-truth world we now find ourselves, we could all benefit from looking at the evidence rather than just react to the constant flow of opinion and comment in the media.
Simon Crook has just completed his PhD in Physics Education Research at the University of Sydney. Producing a ‘thesis by publication’, most of his academic journal articles are already in the public domain. Professionally, Simon is a STEM education consultant with his company CrookED Science. He supports primary and secondary schools and school systems across Australia, providing professional development to teachers and working with students. Previously, he was a high school science teacher for 15 years in the UK and Sydney and eLearning Adviser for the Catholic Education Office Sydney for 6 years. You can find him on Twitter @simoncrook and check out his website
This article is about the findings from my recently published PhD thesis entitled Evaluating the Impact of 1:1 Laptops on High School Science Students and Teachers, completed through the Physics Education Research group at the University of Sydney.