Laptops for teachers: An evaluation of the TELA scheme in Otago schools

Publication Details

The purpose of this evaluation was to investigate the impacts of the Laptops for Teachers Scheme (TELA) on primary schools within the Otago region.

Author(s): Keryn Pratt, Kwok-Wing Lai & Ann Trewern with Fiona Concannon & Harriet Sutton. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: May 2010

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Section 7: Discussion

This report presents the findings of a long-term qualitative evaluation of the impact of primary school teachers' access to laptops as a result of the TELA scheme. It has explored the impact of this scheme, and the school and personal factors that may have impacted on it. In this section we will explore this further, looking firstly at the effect personal factors had in determining the impact of the scheme, and then exploring how school factors have impacted on the scheme. We will discuss how personal and school factors have interacted, and the effects this has had, before addressing the research questions directly.

Personal factors and impact of the laptop scheme

As part of this research we explored two personal factors that we believed would affect use of the TELA laptop: teachers' goals and objectives regarding the laptop, and their beliefs regarding the value of ICT for teaching and learning. All teachers involved in the research believed ICT could affect children's learning, although often this was through motivating and engaging them, rather than in directly enhancing or enabling achievement. Over time there seemed to be a small shift for some teachers, to believing ICT could have a direct effect as well as the indirect motivational one. There appeared to be a relationship between teachers' use of ICT and their beliefs regarding its value such that teachers who identified the potential benefit of the laptop in terms of administration and preparation tended to only use it for these purposes, which may have precluded them discovering other ways in which it could enhance their practice. The relationship between beliefs and use of ICT is limited, however, as while all teachers believed ICT could be of value, many showed limited use of it in the classroom. Those teachers who did use it more seemed to be those who had a deeper pedagogical understanding of how ICT could be used to enhance teaching and learning.

Teachers' goals and objectives seemed to be in line with their actual use of the laptop and of ICT in general as reported in interviews and as seen during observations. What is not clear, however, is whether this was because teachers were identifying goals based on their current use of ICT, whether their goals and objectives were driving their use or (quite possibly) both. It is also important to realise that goal setting is a complex process and one in which teachers were not always entirely in control. Goal setting and clear articulation of goals may depend on a variety of factors that go well beyond individual motivation and expectation, such as the school factors discussed in this research. External requirements clearly appear to contribute to the formation of an individual's goals and expectations, but equally they may also elbow-out other goals and expectations, which, in turn, become less important.

School factors and impact of the laptop

Situational factors, such as infrastructure and school culture, seem to have mediated the impact of the TELA scheme as well as teachers' setting of goals and objectives. Leadership appeared particularly important in terms of the impact of the TELA scheme, with both principals and teachers commenting on the need to have the principal supporting and driving the project. It seems that the leadership of the principal may have had this effect through two mechanisms. Firstly, having the principal driving the use of ICT makes it difficult for teachers to 'opt out'. Several teachers talked about the expectation of ICT use and the knowledge that 'this is what we do here' as being important. The other mechanism through which the principal's leadership appeared to work was through the provision of infrastructure and support so that teachers could make good use of ICT. Comments from several teachers referred to frustrations at not being able to use ICT as they wished owing to technical or access problems.

The network infrastructure and computing resources varied in each of the schools and only one reported that they had sufficient resources to have more than two children per classroom on computers at the one time. In one of the schools the central computing facility had become outdated at the start of the research and this had been a deterrent to teachers developing ICT activities for their children. One teacher noted her frustration with the current computing arrangement, and indicated that her students had had access to a computer only once during the current school year:,

"I've been over once [to the computing facility] this year, just to do word processing, but I wouldn't go over there again until the new computers come, because you go over there and there is 15 computers and of those 15 you might get 6 that go. They are just diabolical at the moment, so it's just not worth the hassle."

The same teacher commented on how this lack of infrastructure had impacted on her experience as part of the TELA scheme, and how new computers for the central computing facility would be a key factor in facilitating a change in the ICT teaching practices. One teacher noted that it was not the laptop itself, but the school's network infrastructure that was a key factor in facilitating ICT as a teaching tool. All schools upgraded their technology over the course of the research project, which is to be expected given the three-four year timeframe of the research and the recommended three-four year life of a computer. Despite the upgrades, teachers in most schools continued to talk about access as being an issue. In some schools it was a determining issue, with a teacher from School E noting she had fewer computers (one) in her class at the end of the project than the start (four). In other schools teachers talked about what they could currently do, but also what they would like to do in an ideal world. Teachers at School A seemed happiest with their access, which is not surprising considering they had computers in each room, pods of mobile computers and a central computing room. Teachers from this school commented that they could usually gain access to additional hardware if they could make a pedagogical argument for it.

Other aspects of school culture affect teachers' use of the laptops and ICT use in general. The policies that were set, for example, impacted directly on how laptops could be used. Schools differed in what their policies covered, with School B emphasising that they were for work-related purposes only. In contrast Schools A and D explained that they were happy for teachers to have personal material on them, as using them for personal purposes may lead to classroom use.

Schools' ability to provide immediate technical support and professional development also seemed to be a key factor in determining the impact of the laptop project. In two schools most professional development and technical support was provided by the principal, and teachers commented on how much they appreciated the just-in-time support. The principals in these schools commented that although it was outside their job descriptions, and took a reasonable amount of time, they felt the advantages of providing this immediate support outweighed the cost to them.

School factors, personal factors and the impact of the laptop scheme

Personal and school factors did not affect the impact of the TELA scheme in isolation. As the diagrammatic explanation of our research questions showed, personal factors that may affect laptop use are embedded within a broader school context. This is what we hypothesised at the conceptualisation of our research, and while this representation was adapted based on our findings, this core concept has remained. From our findings it seems very clear that: school factors affect how ICT is used, personal factors affect how ICT is used, and school factors interact with personal factors to affect how ICT is used. A participant from School E was equally as passionate in her beliefs about the value of ICT as one in School A, yet the teacher in School E was unable to meet many of her goals owing to factors beyond her control, such as access to ICT in her classroom. In this research we have had teachers with a range of attitudes and beliefs regarding ICT and the TELA scheme, and schools providing a wide range of support. The pattern of teachers' use of technology showed that while having either a school culture or personal factors supportive of ICT use had a positive impact, the greatest impact was when the school and personal factors are both conducive to ICT use.

Previous findings

The findings of this research were generally in line with that of other researchers (for example, Cowie et al, 2008b) examining the effect of the TELA project. Like them, we found that the initial and largest effects were on administration, with lesser effects on classroom teaching. The first impact seemed to be on teachers' skills, and like our teachers, those involved in Cowie et al's research found that it took longer to achieve goals than they had envisaged. Our research found that leadership played a vital role in terms of providing a supportive context within which teachers could work, and through creating an expectation of ICT use. Cowie et al, however, found that very few teachers recognised leadership as important, although it must be noted that they were being asked to compare this with other factors. We also asked direct questions about the leadership in the school in terms of the scheme, which may have resulted in this factor being identified more strongly by our participants. Nonetheless, our research seems to show that leadership does play a critical role in terms of ICT use in the school, whether it be directly or indirectly.

Research questions

At the start of this research project, we posed three questions. We will conclude this report by revisiting these, providing answers based on the previously discussed findings.

1. Why do primary teachers participate in the TELA initiative? What are their goals and expectations of laptop use?

  • To what extent does having a set of goals and objectives of laptop use affect how and when teachers use the laptop computers?

The primary teachers who participated in this research generally did so at the behest of their school. The Years 1 to 3 teachers were anxious to receive their laptops, as their Years 4 to 6 and Years 7 to 8 colleagues had received laptops in previous rounds. They generally saw the laptops as recognition of them as professionals, and the increasing need for administration to be done electronically. The goals and objectives they had were largely based around planning and administration, or about teaching in general.

There appeared to be a relationship between use of ICT and teachers' goals and objectives for their laptops. However, the goals identified were normally building on current use, and it not clear whether having goals affected use, use affected goals, or whether use and goals interacted.

2. What are the impacts of the TELA initiative on teachers' professional growth and collaboration opportunities, access to, and creation of, quality ICT-based teaching and learning and assessment resources, as well as on their lesson planning, preparation and administration?

  • Are there any changes of attitudes, beliefs, and values of teachers about the use of ICT in teaching and learning as a result of the TELA initiative?
  • What pedagogical approaches do teachers use in their teaching with ICT as a result of an increase in ICT skills and confidence?

The TELA scheme appeared to have the largest impact on teachers' skills, confidence and competence in terms of the use of ICT for administration, preparation and planning. There seemed to be some effect for some teachers, in some schools in terms of use of ICT in teaching, and in particular in terms of pedagogy, but this was less common, and took much longer to occur. In several schools the initial focus was on upskilling staff, followed by enhancing the use of technology for preparation and administration, with these schools now working on using ICT in teaching and learning. It appears that this process takes time and that personal and school factors interact in terms of ensuring it occurs. There seemed to some change in the beliefs and values of teachers about the use of ICT in teaching and learning as a result of the TELA Initiative. Generally these were incremental changes, although some teachers reported having a newfound understanding of how ICT could be of value in teaching and learning. Again, school factors seemed to impact on whether or not beliefs changed.

3. To what extent has the school supported teachers' participation in the TELA initiative, as reflected in the school's ICT and professional development plans?

  • How important is the school and work culture in affecting teachers' laptop use? In what way does the TELA initiative change the culture of the school?
  • What is the role and importance of the school leadership and planning in fostering change?
  • What, if any, additional demands has the TELA initiative placed on schools, in terms of teachers requiring access to the Internet and network from their classrooms and their homes or access to peripherals such as data projectors and printers?

As part of the scheme, schools were required to provide the necessary infrastructure, professional development and technical support. The amount of support varied between schools and in many cases was insufficient. Many teachers commented on a lack of initial professional development, in terms of understanding the basic features of their laptops. Three of the schools were in ICTPD clusters during the course of the project, and there seemed to be a reliance on this programme for professional development. The other structured professional development that seemed to be provided most often was with regard to schoolwide systems, such as an intranet or school management system. Several schools provided 'just-in-time' support through principals, ICT coordinators and lead teachers, and this seemed to be the most effective in terms of general use.

School factors such as general work culture and leadership appear to have had a large impact on teachers' use of the laptops and ICT. Where ICT use was not expected, fewer teachers used it for a narrower range of tasks. All schools required their teachers to use the laptops for at least some administrative tasks. One school had required the use of the laptop and other forms of ICT in teaching and learning since the TELA project began, with three of the remaining four schools also expecting its use in teaching and learning by the end of this research.

The TELA scheme placed additional demands on the schools and on the individual teachers involved, particularly over time. Generally, schools upgraded their networks as a result of the project, in most cases implementing or extending a wireless network. There was also increased demand for classroom ICT. This demand highlighted issues with current classrooms, as several teachers commented that they would like more classroom computers, but that there was no room to put them.

Many teachers reported working from home more often. This placed additional demands on them, but was also seen as one of the key benefits of the scheme, as it gave them flexibility in their working conditions. In at least one school, the increase in teachers working from home led to them upgrading their intranet, so teachers could have full access to it from home. Teachers also reported needing more and more immediate technical support and professional development, as the improvement in their personal access to technology led to them using it more.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the laptops provided by the TELA scheme had become an invaluable and everyday part of these teachers' lives. Although in the first round of interviews some teachers felt they could do without their laptops, this changed. In the final round of interviews teachers felt there was no longer any way they could do their jobs without their laptops, commenting on difficulties they had experienced on occasions when laptops had been out of service owing to technical difficulties. The portable and flexible nature of the laptop was seen as its most valuable feature.

It is difficult to determine the impact of this project as it has not occurred in isolation. Technology use in the world is increasing, and schools have been involved in professional development clusters, all of which may have impacted on the use of ICT. Nevertheless, teachers identified a number of ways they felt that the laptops specifically had impacted on their practice:

  • enhanced confidence and motivation, particularly in terms of ICT skills, but also in the use of ICT in teaching and learning
  • increasing use for accessing and creating resources, with the types of resources being accessed changing over time to include those such as YouTube videos and interactive sites
  • used for administration and planning in ways that were more effective and efficient, although there was often a learning curve associated with this.

Some teachers identified ways in which how they used ICT had changed as a result of the project, with their pedagogy changing to a more student-centred focus.

While there have not been wholesale changes in classroom teaching, the use of ICT in teaching and learning has increased, and it appears the laptop scheme has been an important part of this. Having said that, this research also shows that personal and school factors cannot be overlooked, and must be considered as well.