Home laptops increase achievement (apparently)

laptopMore than 20 years ago I taught on the West Coast were I was told a yarn about a tree-feller who had an inenviable record for the number of trees he could fell in a day with his axe. A salesman came to town selling chainsaws, and was able to persuade the tree-feller that he could increase the number of trees he cut down by using a chainsaw. The a tree-feller duly bought a chainsaw and headed off into the bush. At the end of the first day he returned to town where the salesman inquired how things had gone. The tree-feller reported that he’d managed to cut down about the same number of trees as he had with an axe, but that he expected to do better the next day.

The following day he returned with reports that he’d only managed to cut down half the number of trees he normally would have, and on the third day this had fallen to around a quarter. The salesman, keen to ensure his reputation wasn’t tarnished, offered to help the tree-feller perfect his technique with the chainsaw. Taking the chainsaw in both hands he dragged on the starter rope and pulled, and BBRRRRRrrrr – the chainsaw roared into life. At which point the tree-feller leapt back in amazement – “what’s that noise?” he gasped.

An oldie, but a goodie 🙂 The point of this parable – nothing changes by simply inserting a new piece of technology!

I thought of this story when I read a news item this morning from the UK, where Government Minister Vernon Coaker, on opening the BETT education show, used his speech to trumpet the Government’s plans to provide 270,000 free laptops to low-income families, which were announced earlier this week. In his speech he claims that having access to a laptop in the home can boost children’s GCSE scores by two grades.

Now if this is the case I’d certainly be interested in seeing the evidence. Don’t get me wrong, I am a BIG supporter of students having access to a personal digital device that can enable them to connect to the internet and express themselves digitally – it’s just that I’ve been around long enough to see the claims and counter claims that are made for (or against) the introduction of new technologies in education.

I can recall my first job as a lecturer was to get my students to survey the number of OHPs in the schools they were about to begin a practicum. The responses were the same – every school had been provided with OHPs by the (the) Department of Education, but these students found the majority unused in back rooms, or covered in books and papers in the front (or back) of classrooms. Similar reports exist where there has been a roll-out of interactive whiteboards and computer labs.

My (recurring) theme here is the need to consider professional development in all of this. And I’m not talking about short sessions to teach people where the buttons are and how to save and edit etc. I’m talking about professional development that is connected to practice; focuses on the teaching and learning of specific academic content; and helps locate the technology use within the teacher’s context, and is connected to other school initiatives.

The problem is, PD is expensive, and you can’t measure it in terms of the number of “widgets” that are purchased – which is why, it appears, in governments all over the world, we see investment in things, not people. We need to see a change in priorities.

Mr Coaker may well have evidence to support his claim – if so, we need to see it, and when we do I’ll wager that the actual laptops were only a (albeit important) part of the picture that led to the rise in achievement.

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