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 2: Review of Literature

Internationally, a number of national, state and city agencies and school districts have invested heavily in computers for schools with the twin goals of improving student achievement and preparing students for the new kinds of work and interaction that will be integral to a future world. The scope and variety of interventions include provision of laptops for teachers, provision of computers to students or to teachers and students; nationwide provision to pilot schemes involving only a small number of schools; and interventions that test and trial different types of computers within general or specific contexts. While there are many evaluative studies that assess the impact of these initiatives, the body of evaluative literature available that assesses the impacts and outcomes of teacher laptop schemes is surprisingly limited.

We have not conducted a comprehensive literature review on this area but instead have focused on literature we feel is of direct relevance to this initiative. The literature discussed here comes largely from the United Kingdom, as well as the United States and also New Zealand. The type of literature explored includes evaluative research reports (including other TELA evaluations), summaries of research, assessments of current classroom contexts, conference papers, reviews of research and conceptually-framed articles. This review explores this literature within the context of the research questions that were developed to guide the direction of this evaluation.

Because technology use in educational contexts is invariably linked with student achievement, much of the available research into and critique of technology integration looks specifically at classroom usage and resulting impacts on student learning. Inan and Lowther (2009), researchers involved in the Michigan schools' laptop scheme for students, categorise technology use in the classroom into the three broad areas of instructional preparation, instructional delivery and use as a learning tool. While the categorisation is a useful one, it is limited in its scope in the context of the TELA evaluation. In reality there is much more to teachers' work. An understanding of how technology accentuates student learning continues to evolve. Evaluating the extent, and success or otherwise, of technology integration requires a broader focus that includes the school's culture, organisation, pedagogical approaches and technology. Researchers looking at integration/innovation from a wider perspective have included Kozma (2005) and Mioduser, Nachmias, Tubin, & Forkosh-Baruch (2003). The latter proposed a four dimensional categorisation: time and space configurations; student roles; teachers; and the curriculum. In this research, we looked at the effect of the provision of teacher laptops though exploring school- and personal-level factors that may impact on technology use and integration. This literature review looks at these aspects and at what the literature has to say regarding the impact of ownership on practice, in line with our research questions. This review is augmented by a description of teacher laptop schemes and their key findings (see Appendix A).

The impact of teachers' goals and expectations of technology use on practice

The first area of interest was the extent to which teachers' initial reasons for taking part in the TELA scheme, and their beliefs about the value of technology in a variety of professional work practices, affected their expectations and the way they adopted and integrated the technology into their practice.

Why become involved?

To understand what influences school communities or individual teachers to become involved in such schemes has been investigated rarely in reports. The reasons for individual teacher involvement may be quite different from those when whole schools decide to become involved in an initiative. In one pilot, Tablet PCs in Schools (Twining et al, 2005), teachers became involved simply because their school was part of the project. Most schools had become involved because of specific benefits afforded by the technology, such as mobility and the saving of space.

Parr and Ward (2006) asked this question directly of primary teachers and found there were two main reasons given for individual teacher involvement in the New Zealand TELA scheme. In initial surveys, TELA teachers believed that access to a computer was important for their work and that a computer was a valuable tool for teachers. Parr and Ward also found that TELA teachers had quite high pre-expectations that laptop ownership would impact more on administrative work and would be instrumental in improving their personal level of ICT skills, rather than any other specific areas of their work. They felt that there would be less impact of computers in improving academic outcomes for students and on classroom teaching practice. These are expectations that seem reasonable and practical given the contexts in which these teachers were using the technology. These attitudes may reflect policy expectations, where laptops were initially intended for the use of teachers only – not students. A single laptop, without peripherals such as a data projector, has some but overall limited use for instruction. By the end of the first year of this research, these teachers reported that they were somewhat slower in reaching their expectations than they had originally anticipated. In the surveys at this time, teachers reported that the greatest impact of ownership was on improving teachers' level of ICT skills (Parr and Ward, 2006).

Teachers' goals and expectations for technology use

Again investigations into teachers' initial goals for taking up technology or entering these schemes has been rarely undertaken. In the English Computers for Teachers initiative (BECTA, 2001), teachers were provided with a £500 subsidy by the government to purchase their own computer. When asked why they had bought a computer, the three most commonly cited main reasons were that it would help them improve their ability to use a computer (37%), to prepare teaching materials (21%), and to undertake administrative tasks (14%).

In the New Zealand TELA scheme reports, Cowie et al (2008a) found somewhat similar responses amongst secondary TELA teachers. The main goal for 23% of teachers was to create learning and teaching resources; for 22% of teachers it was to learn about ICT as a tool in teaching; and for 19% learn to use and improve skills. One year later, these percentage responses had changed very little. The goals of teachers at upper primary school levels were slightly different. There was evidence that these teachers' goals were changing and readjusting over time (Cowie et al, 2008b). In 2004, 37% of teachers indicated their goal was to learn more about ICT as a tool in teaching. Over three years of data gathering this increased to 46%. In 2004, 23% of primary teachers wanted to learn to use and improve skills, decreasing to 15% over the three-year period of data gathering, suggesting that some teachers considered they had achieved that particular goal. In 2004, 14% of teachers indicated their goal was to create teaching and learning resources, and this showed a small increase over the three years to 19%.

From the literature on teacher laptop schemes, it appears that initial expectations of the impact appeared to be limited to planning and administrative tasks. A limited number aimed to learn about using ICT as a tool in teaching and improving their ICT skills, but in general teachers' initial expectations for technology use appear to be located within quite limited dimensions.

To what extent does having a set of goals affect how and when teachers use technology?

How teachers' initial goals and expectations for ICT use are shaped has not been widely investigated. The TELA evaluation reports suggest that for many TELA teachers, goals and expectations may have been shaped by a self-estimation of their ICT abilities, and the school and classroom contexts in which they are working. There is some indication that individual TELA teachers' goals and expectations for laptop usage appear to have been influenced also by national policy expectations (Cowie et al, 2008b) but the level to which this has occurred has not been investigated and remains unclear. It was noted in the published TELA reports that, over time, goals and expectations changed very little for secondary teachers but reasonably substantially for Years 7 and 8 primary teachers, especially in the area of learning how to use technology in the classroom (Cowie et al, 2008a, 2008b). Meeting goals and expectations can also be stalled by the necessity of meeting other more compelling expectations.

That external goals and expectations impact on levels and extent of ICT integration is implied in the literature. Based on findings from their study of technology using schools in the United States, Baylor and Ritchie (2002) claimed that teachers' goals and expectations for ICT integration are shaped by seven factors: planning, leadership, curriculum alignment, professional development, technology use, teachers' openness to change, and teachers' non-school computer use. Schools that are successful in integrating technology into the curriculum are often guided by a comprehensive technology use plan that describes the overall philosophy of technology use and explores how technology will improve teaching and learning. If school leaders are seen to value and use ICT, and promote technology by providing acknowledgements and incentives that reinforce its importance, then they establish expectations that influence its use. Without adequate support, teachers may be unsure of best practices, leading to unclear expectations and an inability to cope with change. External professional development and timely in-school collegial support offers tips, techniques, best practices, and models for classroom implementation, giving teachers the opportunity to learn about and observe new teaching methods, share questions and problems with others and explore new ideas with experts (Baylor & Ritchie, 2002).

Impacts of laptop ownership on teachers

There is a considerable body of literature now available on the impact of laptops and other forms of portable technology on teachers' personal growth in ICT and collaboration activities. The English initiatives (for example, BECTA, 2001; Kington, Harris, Smith & Hall, 2003) found that personal ownership was a key transformative aspect of laptops. Teachers in all schemes commented that they could keep a great variety of professional work materials in one place without having to carry around various folders. The portability of laptops allowed for ability to work anytime and anyplace and this was also a key feature, allowing teachers to work on their laptops when they were waiting for groups, or take their laptops to other places to work, and work at home at nights and weekends. Having laptops has meant developing intranet spaces to house departmental resources for sharing.

Personal growth

Few studies have investigated progress in personal teacher development in ICT use over time or considered what forms of progress are occurring. The English 'Computers for Teachers' schemes and the laptop initiatives indicated that many teachers made 'resounding' advances in developing skills and confidence in using ICT personally and professionally, particularly in the initial trials (BECTA, 2001; BECTA, 2002). In the later trials, there is evidence of more general trends of improvement. A gradual improvement trend is also noticeable in the New Zealand TELA scheme. Cowie et al (2008a) describe secondary TELA teachers' progress as incremental and accumulative, but also point out that growth can be dependent on factors other than laptop ownership, such as ease of access to the school's network, ease of overcoming technical difficulties and so on. Nevertheless, many teachers in both the English and New Zealand schemes reported that felt they would be lost if their laptop was to be withdrawn.

On an individual basis, TELA teachers' knowledge and expertise in the use of ICT varied considerably. Many of the secondary teachers admitted in interviews that their laptops had not substantially enhanced their knowledge and expertise or their practice. There were exceptions to this, and researchers interviewed teachers who were actively redesigning their teaching and learning programmes to include materials that were current, authentic and multimodal in nature.

Collaboration activities

Many individual TELA secondary teachers reported extensive use of the laptops for email communication with colleagues in other schools for planning joint activities, subject association networking, sharing resources and diffusing new practices. Regardless of its advocates, computer-assisted communication did not appear to be impacted to any great extent by laptop ownership. Two methods of communication were investigated by survey by Cowie et al (2008a): email use and online discussions.

Email use was reasonably well established with TELA secondary teachers prior to the start of the laptop research. Just over half the teachers surveyed routinely used email and one-third of teachers occasionally used email (Cowie et al, 2008a). Virtually no change occurred in the type or amount of email use over time by these secondary teachers. Email use by TELA primary teachers appeared to be higher than for secondary teachers. However, comparisons between the primary and secondary groups is difficult to assess as the research team altered the way the questions were asked of primary teachers for the final year to differentiate ways in which email communication was being used. Primary teachers were using email for a variety of different professional purposes, including emailing parents and students (Cowie et al, 2008b).

Online discussions were not well used by either secondary or primary teachers. Routine participation in discussions actually halved during the data collection period and occasional participation increased moderately for secondary teachers. Primary teachers did increase their participation, but this was only a moderate increase from 16% to 23% of teachers participating.

If laptop ownership has had little overall impact on computer-assisted communication, this is not the case for in-school collaboration. Cowie et al (2008a) report that laptops fitted well with the collaborative work culture of many schools and departments. Two-thirds of secondary teachers were making use of laptops for the collaborative development of units and lesson materials. Secondary focus groups reported that the laptops have led to a significant change in the social practices associated with lesson planning and preparation. They often sat together to collaboratively develop and share lesson materials and student work, and met up with colleagues in cafes and other venues to share and develop ideas. In some schools, there was evidence that departmental spaces had been reorganised to allow teachers to work collaboratively. For TELA primary teachers, there was a noticeable increase in teachers collaboratively developing digital materials over time, from 58% to 82%. Also noticeable was the increased use of the Internet for accessing professional readings, with this type of usage increasing from 69% to 91%.

Access to and creation of quality ICT resources, lesson planning and preparation

International and local studies have all reported improved access to a greater range of Internet resources and software, with teacher ownership of laptops. Many teachers felt students were advantaged when teachers could access up-to-date and authentic information. Not all teachers were using the technology directly with their classes, but they were able to produce better quality and more relevant curriculum paper resources for their students. Routine use of laptops for preparation of student handouts greatly increased.

Various studies (Cunningham et al, 2004; Cowie et al, 2008a & 2008b) have found that most teachers routinely used their laptops to access other teachers' resources, created resources from Internet sources that could be shared with colleagues, reused resources making slight changes or adapted good resources for use with different subjects and year groups. Teachers reported that with laptops they could produce better, more cost-effective resources themselves, and this was quite motivating (Cunningham et al, 2004; Cowie et al, 2008a & 2008b).


Various international and national teacher laptop ownership initiatives have reported positive influences on whole-school management. This can also lead to impacts on teaching and learning. Cowie et al (2008b) found that in schools where administrative systems were digital and all teachers used laptops to contribute to record-keeping, whole-school analysis had become more comprehensive. The implications of whole-school analysis of learning are significant. The ability to more successfully identify gaps in students' learning and individual learning needs is likely to lead to greater personalisation of learning.

Pedagogical approaches

There is a considerable body of international literature that suggests that the impact of technology on changing instructional approaches has been minimal (Cuban, Kirkpatrick & Peck 2001; ERO, 2005; Ertmer, 2005; Lowther, Ross & Strahl, 2006). Ertmer reports that while the foundations for successful technology integration are now in place in US schools, the most common and frequent uses have resulted in only incremental or first-order changes in teaching style and remain far removed from the best practices advocated. Ertmer also suggests that when considering ways to change teachers' practice, it is impossible to overestimate the influence of teachers' beliefs. In one US middle-school trial where students received laptops, Windschitl and Sahl (2002) describe the process whereby three teachers each developed quite different pedagogical solutions within the same setting. Two of the three case-study teachers explored a more constructivist compatible approach; one succeeded in integrating the laptops into classroom practice but the other (who actually moved much further) had largely abandoned the use of the laptops by the end of the study. Windschitl and Sahl concluded that teachers are more likely to consider and be guided by what is proper and possible in classroom settings than by instructional strategies. While what is proper and possible is shaped by teacher beliefs, it is also shaped by prevailing social dynamics and the institutional culture of the school.

The Scottish report (Simpson & Payne, 2004), a summary derived from three surveys taken over time, suggests that it is difficult to discern any clear impact of ICT on pedagogy. There is evidence of change in the activities teachers and pupils undertake, but whether this means a fundamental change in pedagogical strategies deployed is unclear. There are some excellent examples of good practice in schools where technology has had a fundamental impact on teaching and learning. Simpson and Payne also suggest that over time there has been a discernible change in focus from learning about ICT to learning with the support of, or through, ICT. Many teachers were unsure of how to use ICT for the benefit of students and were looking for guidance.

In the New Zealand context, Schagen and Hipkins (2008) found in national surveys of primary and secondary schools that the use of ICT had increased considerably since 2003. This suggests there has been a gradual change in use since the inception of the TELA laptop scheme into secondary schools in 2003. What the study also found was evidence that teachers held, and expressed, a range of different views about the value of ICT in learning. Cowie et al (2008b) found evidence that the laptop ownership was slowly beginning to expand the learning opportunities, especially in Years 7 and 8, and that laptops had by 2006 begun to influence teaching practices indirectly. Teachers were beginning to take technology into account.

According to Schagen and Hipkins (2008), a majority of primary teachers felt ICT use was an essential and routine aspect of learning, that it was helping students' ICT skill development, and that it made learning more engaging/motivating. It was important to note that for nearly half of the primary teachers, ICT use in their classroom was still only occasional and only for a specific project or purpose. They found that secondary teachers were generally less enthusiastic than their primary counterparts about the benefits of ICT. A lower percentage of secondary teachers said that it was helping ICT skill development and that it made learning more engaging or motivating; almost two-thirds (a higher proportion than primary school teachers) said that their use of ICT was only occasional.

The current assumption is that improvements in teachers' confidence and competence with ICT, access to and support for ICT will eventually see the emergence of constructivist compatible pedagogies and a shift to more student-centred pedagogy. Schagen and Hipkins (2008) report that two-thirds of secondary school respondents in the national surveys felt that better integration of ICT into learning had been achieved and better integration was being considered by most of the rest. They also report that a majority of primary schools had integrated ICT into learning and implemented inquiry learning and thinking skills approaches; nearly all others were considering their introduction. This suggests that in practice there are some moves being made towards more widespread adoption of student-centred pedagogies but that there may be a raft of strategies that are contributing to this change, of which ICT and TELA teacher laptops may be only a small part. Evidence to date is still inconclusive, although what is clear is that any change takes time.

Changes in attitudes, beliefs and values

There is some evidence in the literature available, however, that quite wide-ranging change in attitudes, beliefs and values are indeed occurring. One key change evident in almost all the international and national literature on teacher laptop ownership is the streamlining of administrative tasks and school administration processes. The effect of this on teaching and learning and time-space configurations appears to be considerably underestimated in the literature. Significant changes in breadth of curriculum choice and student options are already evident, especially in the senior secondary school. In one emerging new reality, Pullar and Brennan (2008) describe a hybrid senior secondary learning context that involves a mixture of classroom, vocational and distance education modes for students, and the changing teaching styles that occur. Our experience with the schools involved in the OtagoNet videoconference cluster suggest that the case described by Pullar and Brennan is not altogether unique.

While much of the laptop use reported in classrooms tends to confirm that the technology may well be supporting traditional teacher-centred approaches, teachers also reported that they were able to meet a greater range of student learning styles. Cowie, Harlow, and Jones (2006) reported much higher use of laptops by TELA secondary science teachers than by teachers in other curriculum areas. Science teachers used their laptops to stimulate interest and engage students in lessons. They found that laptops facilitated discussion, could be used for generating graphics, for data logging during experiments and to demonstrate concepts or show reactions that would be otherwise difficult to illustrate in the laboratory.

By the end of the TELA evaluation period, some 13% of primary teachers reported that the main benefit of laptop ownership was to 'kick-start' them into thinking about using ICT in the classroom to a greater extent (Cowie et al 2008b). These are not substantial numbers, but Cowie et al suggest there have been observable changes in the learning environments in Years 7 and 8 classrooms as a consequence of teachers having laptops. Particular changes identified are greater connection to the world outside the classroom and increased availability of information to students. Also identified was evidence of group learning work, providing greater flexibility and allowing teachers greater scope to cope with the complexity of learning needs.

The extent and importance of institutional support for progressing teachers' ICT integration

Institutional support and work culture

The links between institutional support and work culture and teachers' progress with ICT integration have been explored quite widely. Teacher learning and instructional innovation thrive in environments where there are others who are experimenting with technology. Becker (1994) suggests that teachers "must have access to other people from whom they can learn, either experts who have already mastered the resource or a community of teacher learners who pool their efforts and share exploratory findings" (p. 303). Cowie et al (2008a, 2008b) found much support for this notion from both primary and secondary teachers. Departmental leadership, mentoring and collegial support was vital for TELA secondary teachers. In some secondary schools departmental workspaces were being reorganised to include opportunities for collaborative use of laptops. Principals and more particularly ICT lead teachers were vital supports for primary teachers. The reasons given were the just-in-time nature of any help required, the relevant nature of assistance requested and the sharing of tips and ideas for classroom use.

Windschitl and Sahl (2002) explored the relationship between laptop use and the social dynamics of the setting in which three American middle school teachers were working during the school's implementation of a laptop programme. They noted that, although classroom technology use appeared to be influenced by individual participants' institutionally-situated beliefs about learners and learning, much of what the teachers actually learned took place in the context of social or professional interactions with others. Many of the interactions that occurred in hallways, during lunchtimes, joint planning periods, meetings, professional development sessions, student interactions, parent-teacher interactions, and conferences, were influential in the creation or revision of mental models for the role of technology in teaching. In other words, these interactions were heavily mediating how technology was being used, and beliefs about what constitutes "good teaching", within the specific contexts of each institution.

School leadership

The role of leadership in any school change effort has been extensively documented (for example, Fullan, 1992, 2001; Hopkins, Ainscow & West, 1994; Lai, 1999). Although grass-roots initiatives and teacher champions in ICT within a school can be effective, leaders who have ability and vision to direct positive change are believed to be a key factor in settings where embedding technology into learning has been successful. Baylor and Ritchie (2002) suggest that leaders of successful settings not only model technology use, but also plan and articulate their vision, and reward teachers as they strive to incorporate technology. Simply having policies and plans in place does not necessarily mean that teachers will embrace technology integration.

The New Zealand Education Review Office (2005) included an assessment of school leadership in a review of e-Learning in 121 primary schools nationwide, and concluded that 79% of school leaders in the sample were promoting e-Learning effectively. In most schools, governors and principals could describe a coherent vision and rationale, as well as a planned direction for e-Learning which was in turn supported by school policy and planning documentation. The ERO report also found that the schools' infrastructure supported e-Learning effectively. However, tangible links between schools' vision and teachers' classroom practice were not always evident.

In focus group interviews, TELA secondary teachers recognised the importance of school leadership in the form of senior management teams working at the whole-school level and departmental heads that were working at the specific subject level, for progressing the uptake of ICT among the staff of a school (Cowie et al, 2008a). TELA primary teachers did not appear to consider the influence of school leadership in technology adoption and integration as important as many other factors such as ability to network, prompt technical assistance and time to experiment (Cowie et al, 2008b).

School networks and technology

Cuban et al (2001) reported that one of the reasons for limited use of technology in schools was that teachers found the technology unreliable. Ambivalence was expressed about machines that constantly broke down. Even with support services available, technical problems often could not be fixed immediately, or support personnel were overwhelmed by teacher requests. Cuban et al maintain that the cumulative effect of unreliable technology erodes confidence in the worth of the technology and contributes to sustaining current practices. The ERO report (2005) mentions teachers' concerns about the challenges presented by unreliable ICT equipment and other technical problems. Also mentioned is the challenge for school leaders to maintain sufficient, appropriate, good-quality hardware, and reliable software. Many schools needed ongoing technical support and had experienced unreliable telecommunication links. Many schools were, in general, experiencing problems accommodating ICT.

Technical problems that were believed to impede the progress of some teachers were noted in the first BECTA subsidised 'Computers for Teachers' initiative. These included initial and sustained hardware problems, and lack of access to the Internet, exacerbated by logon and password problems, technical issues and little available support (Harrison, Youngman, Bailey, Fisher, Philips, & Restorick, 1998). Under the TELA scheme, schools were required to manage the integration of laptops into the school environment. Cowie et al (2008a) found that teachers identified infrastructure as a key constraint on their use of the laptops and this dissatisfaction increased over time. This may be an indicator of increased use and developing higher expectations for use.

Laptop use in the secondary classroom appeared to be severely restricted by lack of, or limited access to, school networks (Cowie et al, 2008a). In 2005 only one in every two teachers indicated they had access to the school network and Internet in allthe classrooms they taught in, while three-quarters had access in some classrooms they taught in. For primary teachers there was a steady increase over time in the proportion of teachers who could access the Internet from their classrooms. By the end of the study, 83% of teachers had access to an Internet connection in their classroom.

Access to peripherals was an increasing expectation (Cowie et al, 2008a). Just over half of the secondary teachers felt a data projector was important to effective use of a laptop in the classroom. Teachers were not prepared to use electronic resources in the classroom unless they had ongoing access to a data projector. For primary teachers, there was increasingly easy access to printers, data projectors and cameras over time.

Access to technical support improved for primary and intermediate teachers over the three-year period (Cowie et al, 2008b). Support of colleagues was the most frequent action when technical help was needed, an increasing number of teachers reported receiving help from the ICT lead teacher or even a member of the school's computer committee. Access to external support was more important in small schools that did not have technical expertise inhouse.

Any constraining aspects of technology on teacher use appear to be less evident in later reports. The reasons for this are not clear, but it is possible that improvements in infrastructure and technology have resulted in greater stability in hardware and software. Certainly the influence of such schemes on improving school infrastructures and extending access to peripherals appears to be considerable. What is not clear in any of these reports is the extent to which further technology has been purchased to support student learning.


What is clear from the literature is that ICT can enhance student learning within traditional curricula subjects and within traditional teaching and learning frameworks. ICT generally has a positive impact on student motivation and has the potential to change both how and what students learn. To date, however, the impact of ICT technologies on education and schools has lagged behind what is possible, and what had been expected. The current research aims to explore this issue further, through an indepth and longitudinal study of the impact of the TELA scheme on five primary schools in Otago.

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