Laptop Computers and Their Impact on Sixth Grade Learning



Two years ago the Beaufort County School District initiated a new and exciting era in the use of computers and learning. Originally called the Schoolbook Laptop Project, this cutting edge initiative provided each of approximately 300 sixth graders at the district’s three middle schools with his or her own laptop computer. Unlike computers in traditional instructional settings, these new laptops were intended to be in the constant possession of each sixth grader — In effect, they were replacements for the sixth grader's customary three-ring school binder. Each of the laptops included sufficient hardware and software to support word processing, spreadsheets, graphic presentations, data bases, and electronic communication. Students now had an electronic notebook to use both at school and at home. And, with the laptop’s modem, students had access to a world of information via the Internet.


Purpose of the Project

By putting the laptop computers in the hands of the sixth graders, the Beaufort County School District sought to accomplish several things. In particular, the district hoped that introducing the laptops as part of the sixth grade learning experience would a) expand and enhance student learning opportunities; b) improve student achievement, creativity, and motivation; c) further integrate advanced computer technology into classroom instruction and learning at home; and d) better prepare students for a lifetime of success in a technology-rich world.

Because of the uniqueness of the project, the school district established a formal evaluation component to monitor the success of the project in accomplishing its goals. The primary purpose of this article is the share the findings of the initial assessment of the impact of laptop computers on the educational experiences of sixth graders. However, before presenting the evaluation findings, a brief overview of the logistics of getting nearly 300 computers in the hands of the students is in order.


The Challenge of Equipping Students With Laptops

From the conception of the project, great enthusiasm abounded in support of the idea of sixth graders gaining more experience with computers. However, this enthusiasm was soon dampened by the realization that the district could not afford to buy sufficient laptop computers to initiate the project on a large scale. However, working with the community, the Beaufort County School District developed a creative alternative for securing the laptops — The Beaufort County SchoolBook Foundation.

The Foundation established a lease contract with Hewlett-Packard Finance that enabled the school district to offer a $2,000.00 Toshiba Satellite 400 CS computer — complete with 14.4 Kbps modem, 75 MHz Pentium processor, a three year warranty, Windows 95, Microsoft Office Pro, Microsoft Plus!, theft and damage insurance, and a padded backpack carrying case — for a base lease price of $57.00 per month. But, realizing that this price might well be out of the range of many families, the Foundation and the school district raised sufficient funds to reduce the cost of the lease package to a monthly payment of $35.00.

However, even this amount for some families was unaffordable. Therefore, the Foundation and the school district provided further funding to the project so that students qualifying for reduced-price lunch could lease a laptop for only $25.00 per month and those qualifying for free lunches would pay only $10.00 per month. Establishing the Foundation insured that socio-economic status of a student would not preclude him or her from the laptop project experience.


Measuring the Impact of the Laptops

The ultimate answer to whether the laptops make a significant difference in the educational experience of students literally will take years to determine. And, the Beaufort County School District is committed to gathering and analyzing output measures such as student achievement data and student attendance trends over time to determine the impact of the computers on learning. In fact, year two of the project and its evaluation, which are now in progress, focuses on these output measures. However, evaluation of the project in its first year focused on attitudes and perceptions of students, parents, and teachers involved with the laptops. This was done for two reasons. First, with only a partial year of test and attendance data to consider, no meaningful output data were available. Second, perception is important. How students, parents, and teachers perceived the project in the first year would dramatically affect the ultimate success of the project. And, input from these three groups could also be very helpful in refining and improving the project in subsequent years.

Thus, to measure the impact of the laptops the first year, student, parent, and teacher perceptions of the project were gathered using a pre- and post- survey approach. Teachers, parents, and students involved in the Schoolbook Laptop Project filled out a questionnaire before the project actually began in fall of the first year of the project, and then completed another approximately six months later in spring near the end of the academic year. The pre- and post assessment instruments were designed to determine student, parent, and teacher perceptions of the following: a) how students used computers, b) what impact the Laptop Project had on academic achievement, c) the impact the Laptop Project had on the human dimensions of the classroom including student communication and behavior, d) concerns about using a computer, and e) what purpose computers best served in a classroom.

Approximately 265 students, 280 parents, and 17 teachers completed the pre-survey instrument. Slightly fewer responded to the post-survey instrument including approximately 215 students, 145 parents, and 18 teachers. The findings from the pre- and post- survey analysis are presented below.


The Results of the Laptop Project—Year 1

Caution must be used in interpreting the results of the impact of the laptops for at least two reasons. First, the data are perceptual in nature. They represent what individuals said they did, believed, or felt. In practice, they may well have acted or felt otherwise. Second, the project had been in effect only six months when the first year evaluation was completed. Whether the response trends after six months will be maintained over time is difficult to judge. In this sense, the first year evaluation cycle is more formative than summative. Said differently, as noted above it is too early to judge the ultimate effect of the Laptop Project. However, consistency in the responses of students, parents, and teachers, who were separately surveyed about the project, tends to lend a high degree of credibility to the first year findings.


Student Use of Computers

The results of the data analysis indicate that the Laptop Project was definitely successful in encouraging students to use computers for school work. Before the project began, only fifteen percent (15%) of the sixth graders reported that they used a computer a lot at school. After the first year of the Laptop Project, over seventy-five percent (75%) reported using computers a lot at school.


Before Laptop Project

After Laptop Project

Use a computer a lot at school



Use a computer at home for school work



Table 1: Student Use of Computers
(% of students reporting use)

Similarly, only thirty percent (30%) of the students used computers at home to do school work before the Laptop Project. But, by the end of the first academic year, nearly one-hundred percent (97%) indicated they were using the laptop at home for school work. As interestingly, sixty-five percent (65%) of the students responded that, before the Laptop Project, they used computers primarily for games. By the end of the first year, eighty percent (80%) of the students reported that they now used computers primarily for school work.

Parents confirmed this increased use of computers by students for school work. Before the project, only seventeen percent (17%) of the parents believed their children used computers at school for school work and only twenty percent (20%) reported that their children used a computer a lot at home for school work. In fact, sixty-three percent of the parents indicated that their children used computers primarily to play games.

However, by the end of the first year of the project, eighty-three percent (83%) of the parents felt that their children were using a computer a lot at school for school work. Further, two-thirds (67%) indicated their children now were using the laptop at home a lot for school purposes. And, interestingly, seventy-five percent (75%) of the parents reported that their children were now using the computer primarily for school work instead of games.


Impact of Laptops on Academic Knowledge and Skills

Students, parents, and teachers, after the first cycle of the laptop project, felt that the computers had definitely improved certain skills and knowledge of the sixth graders. Ninety-three percent (93%) of the students reported that their computer skills had increased as a result of the laptops. And, a significant majority of students indicated that using the laptops had improved their spelling skills (65% reported improvement) and writing skills (60% reported improvement). Further, about fifty percent (50%) of the students felt that both their math and reading scores had improved as a result of using their laptop computer.


Percent of Students Reporting Improvement After First Cycle of Project

Computer Skills










Table 2: Top 5 Areas of Reported Improvement in Skills/Knowledge
(% of students reporting improvement)

Teachers (100%) and parents (94%) also felt the sixth graders had enhanced their computer skills as a result of the project. Further, most teachers (89%) believed that the laptops had improved student writing skills. And, majority of parents (54%) surveyed agreed that the laptops had improved their children’s writing skills. Further, a majority of teachers (53%) thought that students had improved their reading skills using computers.


Impact of Laptop Project on Student Behavior and Communication

Before the project began, over one-third (37%) of the students believed that using the laptops would reduce their communication with their friends and other students. Only thirteen percent (13%) felt that computers would enhance communication. By the end of the first year, eighty-five percent (85%) of the students felt that the laptops either enhanced communication or, at least, did not detract from it. Parent responses were very similar to those of the students, both before and after the first year of the project.

Interestingly, teacher responses were even more positive than that of parents or students. Originally, about one-half (50%) felt that the Laptop Project would enhance student communication. By the end of the first year, over seventy-five percent (76%) of the teachers believed that student interaction with friends and other students was better as a result of the project.

The perceived impact of the Laptop Project on student behavior was not quite so positive. Over fifty percent of the participating students (53%), parents (54%), and teachers (53%) initially believed that the computers would improve student behavior. After the first year, however, most teachers, parents, and students felt that the Laptop Project had not affected student behavior — either for the better or the worse.


Impact of the Laptops on Teachers

As part of the program evaluation, teachers were asked about their own use of computers. Before the project, about two-thirds (65%) indicated they used computers "some" in teaching, eighteen percent (18%) responded that they did not use computers at all, and another eighteen percent (18%) stated that they used computers "a lot." By the end of the first year of the Laptop Project, the response pattern had changed dramatically. No teachers (0%) responded that they did not use computers in teaching. Twenty-eight percent (28%) were now using computers "some" in instruction. And, nearly three-quarters (72%) of the teachers replied that they were now using computers "a lot" as part of their teaching.

When teachers originally were asked how they would use the laptops in instruction, forty-four percent (44%) of the teachers indicated the computers would be used primarily for preparing materials. Another twelve percent (12%) of the teachers indicated they would use the computers for reinforcing lessons, while a similar number replied that they would use the computers for personal research (12%). Another twelve percent (12%) indicated they would use the computers as a reward for students. However, by the end of the first year, the responses had changed noticeably. Over half (56%) of the teachers stated that they actually used the computers primarily to reinforce lessons. Another twenty-two percent (22%) indicated that they now chiefly used the computers for personal research. Eleven percent (11%) were using computers largely for preparing instructional materials. No teachers indicated that they were using computers primarily as a reward for students.



To Reinforce Lessons


For Personal Research


In Preparation of Materials


Table 3: Three Ways Teachers Were Most Often Using Laptops at end of Year 1 (teacher self-report data)


What Does It All Mean?

While no summative conclusions can be drawn from the first year of implementation of the Laptop Project, several initial findings are encouraging. First, both teacher and student use of computers has increased appreciably as a result of the project. Second, students have come to use computers much more for learning and studying than for games and recreation. Third, students, parents, and teachers see an initial positive relationship between use of laptop computers and development of academic skills and knowledge — especially in the areas of computer skills, spelling, reading, and writing. Fourth, teachers have discovered multiple uses of the laptops. Not only are computers be used as reward to students for completing work, they have become valuable in preparation of instructional materials, reinforcing lessons, and personal research. And, fifth, computers don't seem to inhibit communication and interaction among students. In fact, the laptop project may have created new avenues and topics for communication among students, parents, and teachers.

While much more research over time is needed to determine the exact impact of the use of laptops as "electronic" notebooks, the initial findings from the Beaufort Project certainly indicate that students, parents, and teachers see value in the computers and what they bring to the learning environment. Few would argue that laptops, or computers in general, are the final answer or ultimate tool for assuring student learning and academic achievement. However, the initial results of the Beaufort Project suggest that laptops as electronic notebooks can be a very effective tool in the instructional arsenal of educators.



PostScript: The project has just begun its third year, with a new name — "Anytime, Anywhere," in recognition of the versatility of the laptop computer in supporting learning, wherever it may be occurring. In October 1998, a third cohort of approximately 700 additional students, the largest number so far, excitedly received their new laptops. And, the sixth grade students who participated the first year of the project have now completed the seventh grade, and are beginning the eighth grade. Outcome data including standardized test score results, attendance, and discipline patterns for this original group are now being analyzed to determine if the laptops made a measurable difference in the educational outcomes of these students after two years of use. The new question has become — will the reality of hard data support the positive perceptions of the laptop participants?

Critical Reviews


Publishable as a Case Study. Very good description, all components for a Case Study are well documented. Initial analysis shows the intent and purpose of the article (project). Hope to see a full research report soon from the project management or the author(s) of this article.