Free laptops don’t help students’ grades, worsen inequality

January 28, 2021

Free laptops aren't having the intended effect. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Providing schoolchildren with personal laptops does not lead to improvement in their standardized test scores and even worsens academic performance among students of lower socioeconomic status, according to a new study using data from Sweden. 

“We do not find that one-to-one programs enhance student outcomes in math or language,” said co-author Caroline Hall, an economist at the Institute for Evaluation of Labor Market and Education Policy and Uppsala Center for Labor Studies in Sweden. “Instead there are some tendencies of widening inequality. Students with less educated parents sometimes perform worse if involved in a one-to-one program.”

Hall wrote the paper, which will be published in the April 2021 issue of Labour Economics, alongside her Institute for Evaluation of Labor Market and Education Policy colleagues Martin Lundin and Kristina Sibbmark. 

While the study was conducted prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the findings are particularly prescient as teachers and children around the world have been forced over the past year to adapt to online learning with extremely mixed results

Sweden is an ideal subject to study, the researchers argued, because it has one of the world’s most digitized education systems, despite scant evidence that the expensive efforts lead to meaningful improvements for student performance. 

As of 2018, about 90% of high schoolers and 75% of middle schoolers in Sweden had received a personal computer from their school as part of so-called “one-to-one” programs, according to Hall. By having students use their laptops for academic work in school as well as at home, one-to-one programs involve far more intensive use of computers than other educational technology investments. 

“There has been a strong push towards digitalization in the Swedish school system -- as in many other parts of the world -- and one-to-one programs are becoming increasingly popular,” said Hall. “One motivation behind these types of programs is that they may enhance learning, not only when it comes to digital skills, but more generally. However, there is yet not much evidence to support this claim.”

In order to evaluate the merits of one-to-one laptop programs, the researchers reviewed data from all lower secondary schools in 26 Swedish municipalities from 2008 to 2016. They tracked the implementation of one-to-one laptop programs in each municipality along with scores from standardized mathematics and language tests pupils take at ages 15 or 16, comparing educational outcomes across schools that launched one-to-one laptop programs to those that did not. 

Using a differences-in-differences statistical design, the researchers found no significant positive or negative change in mathematics and language test scores. They also saw no differences in the likelihood of students choosing to attend additional school.

Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds given personal laptops experienced a “not negligible” decrease in standardized mathematics scores, as well as a similar but insignificant effect for Swedish language scores, the researchers also found. 

The difference could be attributed to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds having less help from their parents when using their laptops at home, or being more easily distracted by technology in the classroom, the researchers said. 

But despite concerns about technology’s effectiveness in classrooms, Hall said that schools with one-to-one laptop programs were probably at an advantage when the coronavirus pandemic hit. 

“Implementing distance learning should be far easier if all pupils have access to their own computer and know how to use it, and if teachers have experience of integrating computers in their teaching,” said Hall. “It is likely that it has been easier for one-to-one schools, compared to other schools, to manage the transition to distance learning. The type of digitalization process that one-to-one implies thereby has the potential of making the school system more robust to this type of crisis.” 

However, Hall added that she had “great concern” that the pandemic will lead to an overall worldwide increase in educational inequality. 

Hall and her colleagues were not the first researchers to examine the effects of technology, including one-to-one laptop programs, on education. Other studies have shown very mixed results

The Swedish researchers argued that the majority of other papers examining one-to-one laptop programs are “plagued with methodological shortcomings,” while papers examining the effects of technology on education more broadly are not applicable to one-to-one laptop programs because such programs are more intensive. 

Since the Swedish study relied on standardized test scores that pupils took when they were 15 or 16 years old as metrics of academic success, Hall said she would like to see further research on the effects of laptop policies on younger students. 

“The digitalization process in schools also involves much younger children,” she said. “It is important to study how the use of digital learning tools impacts their learning.”

The researchers first came up with their idea in 2016, then released a working paper in 2019, Hall said. The paper was accepted for publication in Labour Economics in 2020. 

The paper, titled “A laptop for every child? The impact of technology on human capital formation, will be published in the April 2021 issue of Labour Economics. The authors are Caroline Hall, Martin Lundin and Kristina Sibbmark of the Institute for Evaluation of Labor Market and Education Policy in Sweden. 

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