Does Giving a Laptop to Each Student Improve Teaching and Learning?

“The effects of new technology on teaching and learning are one of the most hotly debated topics in U.S. education,” say Binbin Zheng, Chin-Hsi Lin, and Chi Chang (Michigan State University) and Mark Warschauer (University of California/Irvine) in this Review of Educational Research article. Skeptics point to the failure of previous technological innovations to change basic classroom dynamics; Stanford professor Larry Cuban famously said, “Computer meets classroom: classroom wins” and computers are “oversold and underused.”

Zheng, Lin, Chang, and Warschauer believe Cuban may be right if computers are sparsely scattered among classrooms, but they say that when each student has access to a computer, it’s a different ball game. Their meta-analysis on the efficacy of one-to-one laptop programs concludes that the potential effects “are radically different from those of radio, television, and film, which explains why computers, unlike those previous technologies, are bound to have a very different educational fate from the one suggested by Cuban…” Their findings:

  • The teaching-learning environment – One-to-one computer access increased student-centered, individualized, and project-based instruction, enhanced students’ engagement, and improved teacher-student and home-school relationships. Students were generally enthusiastic and used their laptops productively for drafting, revising, and sharing writing and for personal access of information.

  • Academic achievement – Students with one-to-one access showed significant improvement in science, math, English, and writing, with increased quantity and genres of writing.

  • Adult attitudes – Teachers’ initial reaction to one-to-one programs was much less positive than students’, the main concerns being their limited technology savvy, insufficient PD and technical support, uncertainty about how the technology would affect them, and fear of losing control of their classrooms. “As a result,” say Zheng, Lin, Chang, and Warschauer, “some teachers reportedly had difficulties creating a learning environment ‘where learning drives the use of technology, instead of the other way around.’” In schools without high-quality professional development and tech support, these negative attitudes persisted, but when teachers had good support, they were usually on board and able to integrate the laptops well within a year.

  • Teaching 21st-century skills – The authors found evidence that one-to-one access improved students’ reasoning, information-finding, problem-solving, collaboration, and critical thinking skills, but the studies that report these findings were not as rigorous and robust as those on academic achievement and the teaching-learning environment.

  • Equity – One-to-one laptop programs improve computer access for students from low-income families, but do they close achievement gaps? The researchers found mixed results on that question, with the critical variable being whether teachers used the laptops for higher-level skills. “The relationship between technology and inequality is quite complex,” say the authors, “and it will take far more than distribution of computers to address the issue. Laptop programs that include sufficient technical and curricular support and that focus on the particular needs of low-SES learners, such as by emphasizing writing skills, are likely to be more successful in bridging divides than programs that lack support and focus.”

  • Future prospects – Zheng, Lin, Chang, and Warschauer conclude that the “falling price of hardware, software, and wireless access; the increasing digital literacy of teachers, students, and parents; the growing sophistication of educational technology applications; and the rising need for computers to be used in student assessment all suggest that one-to-one laptop programs are going to continue to expand in K-12 schools.”

“Learning in One-to-One Laptop Environments: A Meta-Analysis and Research Synthesis” by Binbin Zheng, Mark Warschauer, Chin-Hsi Lin, and Chi Chang in Review of Educational Research, December 2016 (Vol. 86, #4, p. 1052-1084),; Zheng can be reached at

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