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One-to-One Computing and Learning: Has It Lived Up to Its Expectations?

By Renee Ramig - Posted Mar 1, 2014
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Some schools are moving into their second decade of one-to-one devices. Has this expensive and expansive educational resource lived up to the expectations?

A Glance at the Research

Research data is limited, and results are mixed. Most research is designed around single schools, with small groups of students in one or two classes, focusing on a short-term project or curriculum area. Often research relies on interviews and focuses on variables that are challenging to measure, such as engagement and motivation. And, of course, the difficulty of having a nontechnology control group in a live educational K–12 institution makes long-term, empirical data difficult to collect.

Maine has reported an increase in writing scores measuring after 5 years with laptops, but that score was modest at 4% (3.44 out of 80 points). Michigan schools with one-to-one programs found mixed results with some schools showing higher achievement, some lower, and one with no statistically significant change. Texas middle schools with one-to-one reported slightly higher math scores, no change in reading, and lower writing scores (data reported in ASCD Educational Leadership in February 2011).

Unlike empirical data, anecdotal data abounds. Ask teachers, students, parents, and administrators what they think, and they’ll all have an opinion about one-to-one programs. But as with the research results, their opinions are mixed.

Why the Mixed Results?

Why is it that some teachers report increases in student learning, engagement, motivation, communication, collaboration, and problem solving while other teachers say devices are only good for taking up valuable class time? Why are some educational administrators doing everything they can to get devices into the hands of their students, while others are trying to divert funds to nontechnology programs?

What schools that implemented one-to-one programs quickly found out was it is not about the technology. A teacher who is struggling does not become a better teacher by adding technology to the classroom. A student who is below basic does not suddenly become proficient because he is given a device. A worksheet moved from a piece of paper to a computer screen does not make it a better learning tool.

What makes a one-to-one program successful? What are the characteristics of a program that not only improves scores, but where teachers, administrators, students, and parents are enthusiastic about it?

Making It Work

Goals: There must be realistic goals for the program that are supported by teachers and administrators. It is important to have goals that are both easily assessed with traditional tools (such as increasing scores on a test) as well as goals such as better collaboration, improved communication, and increased engagement that require alternative assessments such as observation, surveys, and interviews. Goals should be reassessed each year, adding new goals as the program grows.

Professional Development and Coaching: Professional development needs to be a budgeted expense in a one-to-one program. This cannot be optional. Teachers need training and support to be successful with using technology. Training needs to be meaningful, relevant, adaptable, and ongoing. Onsite professional development, including coaching and one-on-one “just in time” training, is critical.

Research results show that coaching helps to improve instruction of new and struggling teachers and improves student outcomes (Edutopia, January 2014). These same systems of coaching should be used for teachers that are new to using technology in their classrooms or struggling to be successful.

Play is as important for teachers as it is for students. Built into professional development must be time to just play with the technology. Teachers will be much more excited about the technology and much more likely to use it in innovative and creative ways, if they are able to have fun with it. Give teachers time to use it personally—play some games to get used to the keyboard or touchscreen controls or create a slideshow of their family to learn how to work with pictures and multimedia. Encourage teachers to take the technology home and just play with it.

Tech Support: Tech support is another area that is often overlooked and under-budgeted in one-to-one implementations. The bottom line is, if the technology does not work, teachers are not going to use it. If it takes hours or even days to get support, teachers cannot rely on the technology for their day-to-day lessons.

Set in place a system that is easy to use for teachers to get tech support as quickly as possible. Ideally, create a phone-based system that allows teachers to call in for tech support. Asking a teacher to log in to a website or fill out a paper form and walk it across campus takes time away from their students.

In addition to teachers, there needs to be a system for students to get support, especially in a middle and high school. As with teachers, create a system that is easy and quick for students to use, such as a centralized help desk they can access for support.

There also needs to be an easy system to get a loaner or replacement device while in for repair. A good rule of thumb is to have 5%–8% of devices you keep in reserve to use for loaners.

Infrastructure: Infrastructure is key to a strong one-to-one program. A robust wireless system in conjunction with a reliable and fast internet connection is critical. Many devices such as Chromebooks work primarily online. If there is not a dependable connection, then instruction and learning can be disrupted.

IT/Teacher/Admin Communication: Often tech support, infrastructure, and access are set up and determined by the IT department. It is important to have regular dialog between the IT department and the teachers. Determining what should be filtered, how file access is set up, who has administrative access, and other tech setup decisions should have input from teachers that are using the technology daily. It is also helpful for the teachers to understand why the IT department has set up the system in a specific way. Regular communication helps to ensure technology is secure but also set up in a way that is as user-friendly as possible for the given environment.

Digital citizenship, information literacy, and appropriate use are often topics dealt with on an as needed basis. Frequently, this is after something inappropriate has happened. Thinking about and planning for ways to regularly teach and reinforce these skills is a much better approach than being reactive.

Don’t Block It, Deal With It: With the “always on” internet generation in our schools, it is falling to teachers to help students learn to make good choices with technology. Schools need to move away from blocking collaboration sites such as blogs, wikis, and social networks; they need to help teachers learn to use them. Copyright, appropriate use, being safe online, and finding, evaluating, and using information are all skills that need to be taught and constantly reinforced. Teachers need to understand, teach, and model appropriate use of the tools their students are using.

Resources, Resources: Another very important piece of a strong one-to-one program is a collection of learning resources and a system to move resources to and from the devices. Too often there is nothing budgeted for electronic resources, based on the false assumption that a free word processor (such as Google Docs) and the internet are all that is needed. In fact, it’s important to budget for, plan for, and choose a selection of tools that will help meet the goals identified for the one-to-one program. Often online educational resources that include student tracking and differentiation are not free. Software and apps that are more targeted for education also come with a cost.

Such learning resources must be identified both for their educational value and for their value in an electronic format. A worksheet moved from a paper format to the computer does not make it a better learning resource. In fact, it can actually slow down learning because the technology is just getting in the way. Are there textbooks that are available in electronic form that offer something the paper version does not? Can the electronic version better meet the needs of the students?

There should also be an easy-to-use system in place to get resources to students and back to teachers. How are students sharing their documents with their teachers? How are they sharing their projects and presentations? How can teachers quickly share a long weblink with their students? How are files moved to a borrowed device when needed?

So, can a one-to-one program truly live up to the hype? Can a device in the hands of a child improve learning, increase engagement, expand collaboration, and develop communication? The answer is … absolutely! But it is not easy. It takes a team of all stakeholders working together toward the same realistic goals. It requires ongoing professional development, strong tech support, a robust infrastructure, instruction and modeling of appropriate use, and learning resources designed for an electronic format.


Renee Ramig is director of technology at SevenHills School in Walnut Creek, Calif. Her email address is

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