Laptops for Teachers: An evaluation of the TELA scheme in schools (Years 4 to 6)
The purpose of this evaluation was to investigate the impacts of the Laptops for Teachers Scheme (referred to from here as the TELA scheme) on Years 4 to 6 teachers’ work over a period of three years (2004-2006) and to record emerging changes in laptop use. The investigation focused on the Ministry of Education expectation (Ministry of Education, 2004) that teacher access to a laptop for their individual professional use would lead to gains in confidence and expertise in the use of ICTs, to efficiencies in administration, would contribute to teacher collaboration and support the preparation of high quality lesson resources. It was also anticipated that teacher would use their laptop in the classroom for teaching and learning.
Author(s): Bronwen Cowie, Alister Jones and Ann Harlow with Mike Forret, Clive McGee and Thelma Miller, University of Waikato.
Date Published: May 2010
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Section 2: Trends: ICT in education/laptops for teachers
ICT use is increasingly implicated in what it means to be socially, economically, culturally and politically involved in 21st century society (Selwyn & Facer, 2007). ICTs are at the heart of global flows of knowledge, people and services that characterise the knowledge economy and social inclusion. An ability to bring people and places together has emerged as one of the defining characteristics of ICTs: they can be seen to underpin the development of a more networked and interconnected society (Castells, 1996). In this section, we provide an overview of key studies and findings that have looked at how teachers integrate laptops into their professional lives, what the classroom use of the laptops might look like, and how ICTs fit into the wider school context.
2.1 Integrating ICT/laptops into teachers’ professional lives
Research suggests that the impact of computers on teaching and learning has not been as great as was anticipated. Balanskat (2007), reporting on comparative international evidence on the impact of digital technologies on learning outcomes, found that only a small percentage of schools in some European countries had embedded ICT into the curriculum and demonstrated high levels of effective and appropriate ICT use to support and transform teaching and learning across a wide range of subject areas. Most schools in most countries, however, were in the early phase of ICT adoption, characterised by “patchy uncoordinated provision and use, some enhancement of the learning process, some development of e-Learning but no profound improvements in learning and teaching” (p.1). Erstad (2005) employed case study methodology in Norwegian schools to examine the potential for benefit (affordances3) that new technologies might provide for student learning activities. He found that the biggest impact of technology was in how the learning space was made larger, in the sense that the students could reach out of the classroom and work on and with issues in the outside world, and it created more flexibility in relation to subject content. The resources to be included in the learning activities were more varied and stimulated different learning approaches among the students. This more flexible learning environment appeared to indicate that there was a transition from a teacher/book/blackboard-learning environment towards a student-centred learning environment. However, it was found that teachers were not changing their teaching methods – they used similar pedagogies but found that with new technologies they were able to motivate students more than before. Alongside this, Bebell, Russell & O’Dwyer (2004) propose that recent developments in ICTs support the need for a broad conceptualisation of the potential impacts of ICTs. Their survey of 2,894 teachers in the United States indicated that the teachers were making substantial use of computers out of the classroom in support of teaching for tasks such as lesson planning and preparation, administration and management, and email communication with colleagues. This evaluation, in line with the goals of the TELA scheme, adopts this broad conceptualisation of the possible impact of teacher access to a laptop for their individual professional use.
Research is beginning to explicate the impact of laptops on ICT integration in schools and on teachers and students. Indications are that access to a laptop afford different opportunities for teacher use of ICT than do desktop computers owing to their portability, the opportunity for teacher exclusive use and the generally higher specifications that laptops have compared to existing school desktop computers. Laptops offer the possibility that teachers will have access to the same set of documents and resources at home and at school and as such they go a long way towards meeting the proposal that, “any given technology can support learning only to the degree that it is available for frequent, integral use within and outside school” (Means, Roschelle, Penuel, Sabeli & Haertel, 2003, p. 165). Research indicates teachers are taking advantage of the flexibility that laptops provide in terms of time and place of teacher use of ICT. For instance, Cunningham, Kerr, McEune, Smith and Harris (2004), reporting on teacher perceptions at the end of the first year of their having access to a laptop for their individual professional use, note that teachers had become more confident and competent in their ICT use since receiving their laptops. Teachers reported greater access to a range of resources and an increase in the professional quality of lesson materials. The laptop was said to provide for the streamlining of management and administrative tasks. Teachers appreciated the flexibility in time and place of work provided by the laptop. There was some evidence that laptops supported increased communication between teachers, students and parents and greater sharing of information between teachers. Teachers felt they were gaining maximum impact from their laptops when they used them in conjunction with peripherals. Simpson and Payne (2005), in an evaluation of personalised laptop provision for teachers and some students in two Scottish primary schools, found that the main impact of teachers’ regular use of the laptops and peripherals was increased pupil motivation and increased availability of information to pupils. They cautioned that personalised ICT within schools in the form of laptops was not a means to achieve a student-centred learning environment in schools in which learner-centred pedagogies had not yet developed. Taken together, these studies suggest that the introduction of new technologies without adequate prior changes in pedagogical practice would tend to result in the technologies merely being fitted into current practices. These studies indicate that understanding teacher use of laptops needs to consider the ways teachers might be taking up the particular affordances of a laptop computer in relation to the broad scope of teacher professional activities.
2.2 The importance of context
Aside from individual understandings and preferences, the affordances of ICT use are organisationally and socially based (Cushman & Keicun, 2006). They derive from a combination of technological possibilities, user capabilities and understandings, and the wider social context. As Selwyn and Facer (2007, p.14) point out, ICT use is not just based on the individual being able to ‘understand’ the potential benefits of ICT use but also on how well ICT-based activity ‘fits’ with the wider contexts within which they are operating. If the wider cultural context of use (such as the workplace, school or home) does not fit well with the culture of the ICT application, then use will not easily follow. Adding weight to this point, Becker (1998) found that elements relating to professional development and support were predicative of effective teaching practice. Research by Efaw, Hampton, Martinez & Smith (2004) into the general use of laptops by teachers, but with a focus on use for teaching, found that teachers who observed other teachers’ effective strategies and those who shared effective strategies via a server were more likely to integrate laptops into their teaching. On the other hand, Fishman, Marx, Blumenfeld, Krajik and Soloway (2004) assert that if integration is left completely up to individual teachers and schools, it may be only the minority who are willing and able to put in the time and effort required to succeed. Individual teachers and schools may not have the resources needed for this task pointing to the need to consider national policy as part of the context for laptop use (Kozma, 2005). Policy, through the provision of vision and or professional development and resources to enhance the capacity, plays a role in change. Spillane, Reiser and Reimer (2002) assert there is a need to take into account the interaction of the “policy signal, the implementing agent’s knowledge, beliefs and experiences and the circumstances in which the local agent attempts to make sense of the policy” (p. 420). This conceptualisation of the context as pertaining to the local (syndicate, school) circumstances and the broader policy environment underpins this evaluation study of teacher laptop use.
To sum up there are a number of factors that influence ICT use and innovation by teachers and schools. Access to ICT on its own, does not necessarily result in changes for teachers or schools. To bring about changes a number of factors must be considered that are related to school-wide opportunities and incentives for ICT use, along with teacher personal and classroom factors. We were interested to know how these identified factors manifest themselves in the New Zealand context and thereby impact on New Zealand teachers when they are working to integrate technology into their professional lives. In this report we focus on the nature of and support for innovation with ICT as teachers use laptops accessed through the TELA scheme in New Zealand.
2.3 The New Zealand context for teaching with ICT
The Ministry of Education has promoted the use of ICT in New Zealand schools through a range of initiatives. One of the early Ministry of Education ICT initiatives, begun in 1998, was the national ‘Information and Communication Technologies Strategy for Schools’ (Ministry of Education, 1998). The following are some examples of the ICT related projects associated with this initiative: the development of Te Kete Ipurangi (an Online Resource Centre); Te Hiringa i te Mahara (a project designed to help Mäori secondary teachers reduce their workloads through the use of ICT); the provision of ‘Principals First’ one-day workshops for principals to develop leadership skills in planning for school implementation of ICT; the provision of ICT funding to schools that completed an ICT plan (99% of schools have received the funding); and the allocation of laptops to principals. A ‘national’ system of funded professional development, known as the ICT PD School Clusters programme, was established in 1999. To date, over 60% of New Zealand schools have been involved in the programme. A school commitment to the cluster programme is for a three-year period and programmes focus on the integration of ICTs into a variety of teacher professional practices with a particular emphasis on use in the classroom for teaching and learning. Teachers from schools involved in the cluster groups are led by a facilitator and encouraged to learn through regular discussion group meetings and by visiting each other’s schools to see ICT being used effectively by teachers in the classroom.
In 2002, the Government released the Digital Horizons: Learning through ICT (Ministry of Education, 2002b) strategy. This outlined the Government’s goals in relation to ICT as an area of knowledge relevant to all students. It reflected the New Zealand Government’s commitment to increasing the use of ICT in schools to help improve student achievement and teaching practice (Ministry of Education, 2002a) and to provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to achieve ‘personal goals and to be full participants in the global community’ (Ministry of Education, 2002a, p. 3). The TELA teacher laptops scheme is part of this initiative.
Effective teaching using ICT was the key component of an e-Learning action strategy formulated by the Ministry of Education in 2006 (Ministry of Education, 2006a). The main idea of this is to place learners and teachers at the centre of their own communication and information networks. The strategy suggested that teachers use e-Learning to create a blended learning environment where students could explore and experiment, think critically and creatively, reflect and plan, use feedback and self-assessment, and create new knowledge using ICTs. Teachers were encouraged to become more effective and efficient by using customised tools to aid their lesson planning and preparation and administrative tasks. Using group-learning opportunities that recognise individual differences and giving students opportunities to learn outside the classroom were suggested as ways that teachers could integrate ICT effectively into their teaching practice.
An analysis of the idea of effective teaching in the classroom has been included in a number of Ministry of Education documents. Alton-Lee (2003) identified ten characteristics of quality teaching as part of a literature review commissioned to strengthen the evidence base that informs education policy and practice in New Zealand. The report set out evidence about what works to improve education outcomes and what can make a bigger difference for the education of all children and young people. The evidence revealed that up to 59% of variance in student performance was attributable to differences between teachers and classes. The central professional challenge for teachers was to manage simultaneously the complexity of learning needs of diverse students. Amongst the ideas for effective teaching that emerged from the research were the need to contextualise pedagogical practice, make links between the school and other settings in which students live, and provide students with tools to enable them to take responsibility for their own learning. Most recently, the revised New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) discussed effective teaching and listed ideas from current research showing that students learned best when teachers encouraged reflective thought and action, made connections, provided multiple opportunities to learn, facilitated shared learning, enhanced the relevance of new learning and created a supportive learning environment. The document outlined the ways in which e-Learning (learning supported or facilitated by ICT) could support effective teaching approaches, such as by enabling students to enter and explore new learning environments, to join or create communities of learners that extend beyond the classroom, and by offering students virtual experiences and tools that save them time, allowing them to take their learning further. It was suggested that schools should explore how ICT could “open up new and different ways of learning.” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 36). In this evaluation, these notions provide a framework for analysing teacher reports of how they made use of their laptops for teaching and learning with ICT.
- Norman (1988) defines affordances as ‘‘the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used’’ (p. 9).