Tuesday, August 16, 2011

So what is happening with laptops in maths classrooms?

Continuing the series about 1:1 laptops in mathematics classrooms 

If you ask someone who doesn't sit in a high school maths faculty, they will probably tell you that maths teachers just love using computers. Computers = programming = maths ... doesn't it? You may be surprised to know this is not usually the case - certainly not when it comes to actual teaching practice.

How much has the high school mathematics classroom changed since 1950?
Change the blackboard for a whiteboard - or if you are fortunate, an electronic
 whiteboard (IWB) - but how much has the teaching really changed?

Are students using their laptops in the mathematics classroom? The research findings are clear and unambiguous: when it comes to school 1:1 laptop programs, students are using their laptops in mathematics classrooms much less than other in subjects. Indeed, some of the major studies report usage levels at 50% less compared to other subjects. This picture of significantly lower levels of laptop use in mathematics classrooms is consistent no matter how the data is collected: from classroom observations to questionnaires and interviews with teachers, students and parents. 

Are laptop programs making a difference to mathematics outcomes? While there have been some interesting signals in the data (see references below), the uncomfortable truth is more measured. When we look at the mass of evidence, we do not see a consistent positive effect on mathematics outcomes in standardised tests.  Even the most enthusiastic laptop advocates who initially reported strong results on standardised tests (Silvernail is the most prominent) have become more cautious and now look to other measures to evaluate 1:1 programs. However before we dismiss the laptops, we do need to consider more carefully: Are we measuring the right outcomes? Are we measuring maths classrooms that are actually using the laptops? Are we looking at how the laptops are being used?   But there is no avoiding the lack of strong evidence after ten years of 1:1 programs - we just can't claim the mere presence of the technology will radically boost maths test results. It's that old "education silver bullet" story all over again. If you still haven't read it, read "The Naked Truth" article. Seriously, you will be glad you did :-), whether you think 1:1 programs are helpful or a distraction.

Sometimes looking at the "average" hides important details:  My own research at five secondary schools shows that, at the schools I visited, the overall use of laptops in mathematics classrooms is indeed quite low. But more interesting was  the wide variation in the use of laptops - some mathematics teachers use the laptops much more than other mathematics teachers.  I found three very different and distinct groups of teachers in terms of how frequently their students used the laptops:

So immediately we see the more general, more aggregated data may mask interesting subtleties in what's happening with 1:1 programs. If we want to see what is really going on, we need to look more carefully how individual teachers and their classrooms are responding to 1:1 programs.

But the fact remains: mathematics teachers aren't using the laptops as much as teachers in other subjects.

Which really has us wondering: 

And that's the real focus of my research. While many research papers have reported laptop use in mathematics classrooms is noticeably less than in other subjects - no-one seems to have asked: "Why aren't mathematics teachers making more use of the laptops?"

And that's going to be the subject of the next few posts in this series. It turns out there is indeed "something different about mathematics".

Background information

Where do I get my data from? In conducting a literature review for my 2010 Master of Teaching honours thesis, I spent many months reading and analysing over 100 journal articles on the subject. My research was focused on 1:1 programs and on teacher beliefs and practices relating to technology in mathematics classrooms, with data collected at a small cluster of schools within one school district. No attempt was made to evaluate learning outcomes - this was well beyond the scope of the project. As of August 2011 there is no peer-reviewed published data on mathematics outcomes for recent Australian 1:1 programs.

The following is a short list of papers from leading researchers presenting findings from longitudinal studies which in most cases are published in peer-reviewed journals. Please contact me if you would like a more comprehensive reference list.

Bebell, D., & Kay, R. (2010). One to one computing: A summary of the quantitative results from the Berkshire wireless learning initiative. Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 9(2), 6-59.

Dawson, K., Cavanaugh, C., & Ritzhaupt, A. (2008). Florida's EETT leveraging laptops initiative and its impact on teaching practices. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 41(2), 143-159

Dunleavy, M., Dexter, S., & Heinecke, W. (2007). What added value does a 1:1 student to laptop ratio bring to technology-supported teaching and learning? Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 2007(23), 440–452.

Grimes, D., & Warschauer, M. (2008). Learning with laptops: A multi-method case study. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 38(3), 305-332.

Lei, J. (2009). Quantity versus quality: A new approach to examine the relationship between technology use and student outcomes. British Journal of Educational Technology (2009) Early View.

Silvernail, D. (2009). Research and evaluation of the Maine learning technology initiative (MLTI) laptop program. Maine Internal Centre for Digital Learning. Retrieved November 25, 2009 from http://www.usm.maine.edu/cepare

Zucker, A., & McGhee, R. (2005). A study of one-to-one computer use in mathematics and science instruction at the secondary level in Henrico County public schools. Arlington, VA : SRI International