Expert Commentary

Student learning with laptops: Measuring the effectiveness of laptops in American classrooms

2016 study in Review of Educational Research that looks at whether student use of laptop computers results in learning improvements.


The issue: Questions about how to use limited financial resources vex school administrators and local governments across the country. Computer technology is critical to the 21st century economy. So school administrators increasingly see laptops as a way to ensure all children receive tools for success. As laptops fall in price — Google’s Chromebook, for example, starts at $150 — they are becoming more common in the classroom. But do such programs help students learn?

An academic study worth reading: “Learning in One-to-One Laptop Environments: A Meta-Analysis and Research Synthesis,” published in Review of Educational Research, 2016.

Study summary: This meta-analysis, led by Binbin Zheng of Michigan State University, reviews 96 studies on the effectiveness of school programs that distribute laptops to students in K-12 classrooms. Specifically it looks at so-called “one-to-one” programs, which ensure every child is issued a laptop for use across a range of subjects. For a data analysis, the authors chose 10 studies with statistics that could be compared. Overall, the study looks at research from January 2001 to May 2015 and does not include work focusing on tablets, desktops, or other devices.

Key takeaways from the study:

  • The analysis finds statistically significant performance improvements in English language arts (ELA), writing and middle school science (though science scores improved more for boys than for girls).
  • Students from low-income backgrounds and homes where English is a second language saw improvement in scores across a variety of subjects. In some cases, these students improved test scores in writing more than their better-off peers. Improvements were measurable, but less obvious, for students from homes that are more likely to have computers.
  • There are mixed findings on how well the programs bridge the digital divide between students from high- and low-income homes. Students from poorer backgrounds gain more from laptop programs in general, especially in technical skills; that is likely because they start with less computer and digital experience outside the classroom. However, those with access to computers at home, one study notes, also performed better in ELA tests. Though an overall positive outcome is observed, the ability of laptop programs to bridge socioeconomic gaps is unclear.
  • One-to-one programs are not correlated with an improvement in reading scores, though the authors note strong indicators that using computer technology can predict stronger reading scores.
  • Sometimes improvements are only measurable in the second year of a one-to-one program.
  • Teacher buy-in is critical. Technology alone does not improve students’ test scores. In Birmingham, Alabama, where the one-to-one program was introduced by the local government with “almost no funding or support for curriculum development … or teacher professional development” and little input from teachers, the program failed: Computers in classrooms went largely untouched, became unusable without IT support and the program was abandoned after three years. “Technical, curricular, and pedagogical support for laptop use is an important component of program success.”
  • When teachers are offered strong IT support and training, and when they are involved in decisions about how to roll out a one-on-one program, they become more engaged in the program and confident using the technology. In turn, students are more likely to thrive.
  • Laptop programs sometimes helped improve teacher-student relationships, often because the students help the teachers understand the technology. The programs also suggest a positive impact on parent involvement in homework.
  • “Students were found to write more in classrooms where all students are provided with individual computers.”
  • Standardized tests have many flaws and are often criticized for not measuring the kinds of thinking and skills needed today. But teachers and students interviewed in the studies showed “wide consensus … that use of laptops promotes 21st-century learning skills.”

Helpful resources for reporters writing about this issue:

  • The National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education publishes data on classrooms with computers and internet connections, as well as other figures useful to journalists writing about the role of technology in schools.
  • One Laptop Per Child is one non-profit organization that has received extensive media attention for creating and distributing low-cost laptops in classrooms, especially within the context of foreign aid.

Related research:

  • The meta-analysis studies 96 papers in depth, most of which are listed in the paper’s references section, which is categorized by how each is used.
  • A 2013 study also led by Binbin Zheng describes how one-to-one laptop use in two California and Colorado school districts provide Hispanic and low-income students significant gains in writing test scores. The results also show that these at-risk students use the laptops more frequently than other students.
  • A 2013 study in Computers and Education says that laptops in college classrooms can be distracting for both the user and other students: “Participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not.” A study the same year in the journal Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences describes similar results.
  • A 2014 study in Psychological Science“The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” discusses the advantages of taking notes on paper rather than on a laptop.
  • A 2014 research roundup from Journalist’s Resource, “Multitasking, social media and distraction,” highlights 14 studies on how our constant wireless connectivity can negatively impact productivity.


Keywords: education, technology, computers, networking, standardized testing, education financing, public spending, teacher training, digital divide

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