Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Is it time to shut down?

Waste basket of computer equipment

Sir Iain Hall asks whether schools are really seeing the effects of investment in IT on the quality of learning.

One of the things that I am most proud of in my career was being part of the drive to build a new school to replace an aging prefabricated structure. Watching it grow day by day was an exciting time as headteacher.

We had decided that the school would be hi-tech and, using Linux open sourcing, we managed to cannibalise enough old computers rejected from planet business to put one in each classroom and build four computer rooms.

Little did I realise, at the time, that enabling staff and students to enter the brave new world of technology would create an insatiable demand. Laptops were purchased on mobile trolleys and, eventually, we were running at a student-computer ratio of almost five to one. The budget costs rose enormously; so did the repair and replacement costs.

Looking back, the only regret that I have is that I did not attempt to measure the impact of this new technology on student achievement.

Recently, on a wet afternoon, I typed 'Liverpool' and 'education' into a search engine to see if there were any interesting developments in my home town. Imagine my surprise when up came Liverpool, New York, and a story about a whole local authority turning away from the electronic revolution.

The article started with the usual horror stories. Some students had used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. Every other morning, when the entire school had study hall, the network inevitably froze because of the number of students roaming the internet in undirected study rather than following the school's online courses.

The solution seemed, at first, somewhat dramatic. The local authority had decided to phase out individual laptops as there was little evidence of benefits to learning.

Liverpool was, apparently, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students' hands but feedback from the teachers indicated that a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop was getting in the way of meaningful teaching and was a distraction to the educational process.

Last month, the United States Department of Education released a study showing no difference in academic achievement between students who used educational software programs for math and reading and those who did not.

In one of the largest ongoing studies, the Texas Centre for Educational Research, a non-profit group, has so far found no overall difference on state test scores between 21 middle schools where students received laptops in 2004, and 21 socially similar schools where they did not, though some data suggested that high-achieving students with laptops may perform better in mathematics than their counterparts without.

Mark Warschauer, an education professor at the University of California and author of Laptops and Literacy: Learning in the Wireless Classroom recently completed some research that found no evidence that laptops increased state test scores in a study of ten schools from 2003 to 2005.

A study by Becta in 2000 found no link between the level of ICT resources and improvement in either mathematics or literacy grades in key stages 1 or 2. Research by the Teacher Training Agency in 1999 found only a very weak link between the level of resources and student attainment.

I fully accept that the new technology has had a positive impact on the way many teachers teach and students learn. I even accept that having laptops in classrooms can motivate reluctant students, resulting in higher attendance and lower dropout rates. I also believe that schools need to reduce social disadvantage by making computers available to students from homes where they would be a luxury.

What is less clear is whether one-to-one computing has improved academic performance across the curriculum. Computers do encourage creativity, of both teachers and students. They do allow for a neater presentation of work, but I do wonder if spell-check has removed the need to become literate.

They do offer a unique tool for researching the internet, but they also offer distraction with so much information available. You have to be super human to constantly monitor what 30 students are watching or listening when using the emerging hand-held technologies.

We have invested a lot of finance and energy into equipping students for a high-tech life in the third millennium but I feel that we are sometimes moving so fast that we do not have time to evaluate the educational impact on achievement from such investment.

I am sure that there are many gains but perhaps it is time to pause and see what the impact really is before the next salesperson arrives at our door.

Sir Iain Hall is a former headteacher and currently director of training for the NCSL Future Leaders programme.

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