Laptops for school students may not be cost effective

A report today confirms the Federal Government’s laptops in schools program is a large burden on schools across Australia, which are struggling to find technical staff to maintain the laptops (Shortfall of information and communications technology technicians hits schools). As alluded to by Queensland’s Director-General of Education and Training, Julie Grantham, this is partly related to the resources boom which is creating skills shortages in regional areas.

This report and an article in the latest Economist (Error message) raise questions about the cost effectiveness of  laptops for students programs and whether money would have been better spent on other education initiatives. The Economist observes:

GIVING a child a computer does not seem to turn him or her into a future Bill Gates—indeed it does not accomplish anything in particular. That is the conclusion from Peru, site of the largest single programme involving One Laptop per Child, an American charity with backers from the computer industry and which is active in more than 30 developing countries around the world…

…An evaluation of the laptop programme by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) found that the children receiving the computers did not show any improvement in maths or reading. Nor did it find evidence that access to a laptop increased motivation, or time devoted to homework or reading.

In my view, given the strong evidence that exists regarding the impact of teacher quality on educational outcomes (see my previous post on performance pay), governments would be better off directing their scarce resources at improving the quality of teaching, perhaps through implementing a performance pay system. Indeed, by improving teacher quality, governments may improve the likelihood of success of future 1:1 laptops for students programs, as noted in a recent US literature review (Educational Outcomes and Research from 1:1 Computing Settings):

Across the four empirical studies, it is evident that teachers play an essential role in the effective implementation of 1:1 initiatives and that the onus of responsibility for implementation often falls to the teacher. For example, Bebell and Kay (2010) concluded that it is “impossible to overstate the power of individual teachers in the success or failure of 1:1 computing” (p. 47) and that “teachers nearly always control how and when students access and use technology during the school day” (p. 47).

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