Books or laptops, a new study about choosing the right tools in education

Earlier this week there was the often shared article in Scientific American that discussed the use of laptops in (higher) education. This new study looks further than the effect on learning, but also looks at the possibilities and the cost.

What did they find – in short?

  • Accessing and producing reading resources are increasingly shifting from print to digital options that can be viewed on electronic devices, such as computers. In education in particular, research studies have shown that providing digital content on computers has lower marginal costs but higher fixed costs in comparison to textbooks for schools.
  • Information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as computers and laptops, provide users with computational tools, information storage and communication opportunities. However, these devices may also pose as distractors that tamper with the learning process.
  • Using a randomized controlled trial in elementary schools in Honduras, we show that at the end of one school year, we fail to reject the hypothesis that the substitution of laptops for textbooks did not make a significant difference in student learning for mathematics and Spanish and in non-academic outcomes related to coding and verbal fluency.

It’s a bit complicated to understand this last point. Do laptops have a good, a bad or no effect on learning? Luckily the conclusion in the article is much more clear and the answer is: no effect:

We found textbook replacement with laptops did not affect student learning after one school year using a randomized controlled trial with 271 schools and 9,600 students. We also implemented a cost-effectiveness analysis to compare expected results of this replacement of textbooks using laptops. Laptops have a higher initial fixed cost than books and impose variable costs, such as electricity, Internet and maintenance. However, the marginal cost of providing additional content decreases.

Our research highlights limitations relevant for future work. First, our results correspond to one year of program exposure. The impact of the program during a longer exposure may enhance our understanding of how technology affects student learning. In particular, it would be interesting to explore the effects of laptops after four years of working life. Second, some literature points to adaptability of software as a determinant to learning efficiency. We only explore how format provision changed student learning. Future work may test how specific software features affect its role in providing content information. Third, our cost-effectiveness results are sensitive to assumptions on student’s benefits derived from Internet access, communication technologies and digital literacy. However, we do not have good causal estimates of the returns on these computer features (net potential harmful effects). More information on how students benefit from computer use in the long run would provide useful information to inform policy regarding laptop provision. Fourth, given the low marginal costs of digital provision of content, it would be interesting to estimate how the substitution of more textbooks affects learning outcomes. It is a priori unclear whether there are positive or negative scale effects on learning. Fifth, another relevant area to explore is how freedom of choice may impose a cost control on users. More specifically, laptops may make it difficult for students to focus on learning tasks. Students may get distracted by games, music or social communication features.

Is this the definitive study on laptops versus books in education? Did you just read the last paragraph? Hell no. It’s just another interesting piece of a jigsaw puzzle of which we don’t know how it looks like and how many pieces there are left.

Abstract of the study:

Information and communication technologies can be used for educational purposes, but these devices may also pose as distractors that may tamper with the learning process. This paper presents results from a randomized controlled trial in which laptops replaced traditional textbook provision in elementary schools in high poverty communities in Honduras. We show that at the end of one school year, we fail to reject that there were no differences between laptop and textbook provision on mathematics and Spanish test scores and in non-academic outcomes related to coding and verbal fluency

 

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