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More than twice as many principals in 2017 said students in their schools were assigned some type of mobile device, like a laptop or tablet, than in 2015. That’s according to the Speak Up Research Project for Digital Learning, which found that 60 percent of principals who responded to its latest survey say they assign these devices, compared with 27 percent two years earlier.
So what does that mean for classrooms? The Speak Up survey, a national initiative of Project Tomorrow, an education-focused nonprofit, also reached almost 341,000 students in 2017, and it found some distinct differences in what students with and without mobile devices said they did in school.
High schoolers assigned a laptop or a Chromebook were more likely to take notes in class, do internet research, create documents to share, collaborate with their peers on projects, check their grades and get reminders about tests or homework due dates. Among high school students assigned these devices, 60 percent said they had emailed their teachers with questions. That’s compared to 42 percent among students without an assigned device.
In focus groups, students explained that emailing their teachers was somewhat of an anxiety release, said Julie Evans, Speak Up’s CEO and the author of a brief about the findings.
“It isn’t as if they need the teacher to respond to them in that moment,” Evans said. “It’s more that they want to share the problem with someone.” And when they go to class the next day, they can arrive knowing their teacher is already aware of the problem.
Most high schoolers have a way to send an email from home, whether it’s from a smartphone or a family computer. But students with assigned devices from their schools are more likely to actually draft those emails and hit send.
Evans said sending those emails indicates students are independent learners who have the benefit of a school support system. She connected it to the portion of students who get electronic reminders about tests and homework due dates. Among high schoolers with assigned laptops or Chromebooks, 53 percent get those electronic reminders, compared with 39 percent of students who don’t have school-assigned devices, the survey found.
“The student can be responsible for their own learning and feel good about being responsible for their own learning,” Evans said. This can make students more confident in their own capabilities and perhaps create an environment where they are more willing to take educational risks, she said.
Schools that distribute mobile devices to students more often lay this foundation, the survey shows. They also give students chances to collaborate with their peers on projects. Nearly half of high schoolers with an assigned laptop or Chromebook say they get to do this, while just one-third of high schoolers without those assigned devices say the same.
In focus groups, students say they really like the idea of peer-to-peer learning, Evans said. Sometimes teachers can’t explain things in ways they understand. Their peers can fill in the gaps.
Schools that distribute mobile devices to all students seem to create opportunities for this type of work more than schools that don’t. It’s not that a 1:1 student-to-device ratio necessarily means more group work for students or better peer leadership. But technology can help facilitate these classroom experiences, Evans said.
Still, Evans, who has been asking about how technology is used for learning inside and outside of school through 15 years of Speak Up surveys, emphasizes that the technology is only a contributing factor.
“Just like anything else, it has to be supported well, and it has to be in the right hands and the teachers have to be really effective,” she said.
This story about digital learning devices was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.