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Laptops in classrooms help students learn

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It turns out more screens might actually be a good thing for kids.   

A study from Michigan State University found students' learning improved when they were given their own laptop, or similar device. The report was a meta-analysis of studies looking at the effect of these "one-to-one" programs that give an individual device to each student.

Students improved learning achievement in science, writing, math, and English. The results were small but noteworthy, especially for schools weighing the costs and benefits of supplying the expensive devices for their students. 

"It should be combined with 21st century skills, such as to promote students' critical thinking, problem solving, individualized or collaborative learning skills," said Binbin Zheng, lead author of the MSU study.

Teachers getting the most from laptops use them to enhance their curriculum, rather than simply for note-taking, Zheng said. Allowing students to bring devices home is also a key advantage of laptops over desktop computers in a school computer lab. 

She said laptops or similar devices are not a "magic tool," but when used properly they can add a lot to a student's learning. 

Still, providing laptops to even some students can be expensive, and Zheng recommends schools only buy them if they have a curriculum that would benefit from the technology. She said different schools she researched used different devices, some finding more affordable options like Netbooks. 

Allendale Public Schools on the west side of the state has used one-to-one devices since 2009. It now provides devices for all 3rd through 12th graders, many of which can be brought home for homework.

Paul Mulder, director of technology for the district, said members of other school districts have visited Allendale hoping to learn more about one-to-one before deciding to purchase devices themselves.

"I was with one of the teams that was going around our classrooms just observing," he said, describing a recent visit. "One of the teachers said to this group: 'There is no way that I would ever want to go back.'"

Mulder said the laptops they use cost Allendale schools around $500,000, a relatively small portion of their total budget. He said he doesn't push for other districts to add laptops, but finds many are already leaning toward making the purchase anyway. 

The devices allow teachers to try new lesson plans, like the "flipped classroom" for math classes, Mulder explained. Students watch the lectures at home on their laptops, then work through problems in class with their peers as the teacher stands by to help. 

"We see teachers able to personalize instruction more," he said. "We see them able to give students options to go deeper and improve their learning."

More work has yet to be done to determine the full effects of one-to-one technology on student learning, Zheng said. Before that can happen, she said, researchers will need to break out of traditional evaluations of student achievement. 

"Many of the benefits of the one-to-one laptops program are on students' 21st learning skills," she said. "We need a more accurate assessment of these outcomes because right now most of the studies focusing on 21st century skills are still using descriptive statistics. So, not a lot of accurate assessment of the outcomes are present now."