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Newton study backs laptops, smartboards for classrooms

Posted by Sarah Thomas  December 15, 2010 10:23 AM

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A yearlong experiment studying the effect of increased technology in two Newton classrooms resulted in more engaged and collaborative students with higher MCAS scores, according to a presentation to the school committee Monday night.

The study was a joint effort between the Newton school district and education researchers from Boston College.

"In summary, we saw technology use increase quickly, students collaborating more, and improved student growth," said lead researcher Damian Bebell, who presented the results of the study.

In the study, which took place last year, two 6th grade classrooms at Bigelow Middle School were provided with a laptop computer for every student, which were wi-fi enabled to permit the students to use cloud-based programs like Google Docs for study. Teachers also used a smartboard for lessons and received tech support and professional development, and researchers from BC's Lynch School of Education observed the results over the course of the year.

"This was a blinded study, which meant the researchers doing the observing didn't know what the experiment was," Bebell said. "What the researchers found was that the students appeared the most engaged when they were doing peer collaboration on their laptops. Teachers also said that they felt the laptops helped keep students on task."

Bebell said that both teachers and students adapted to the increased technology quickly, integrating it into both math and language arts lessons with much more regularity than students in other classrooms in the school.

Bebell and his team also compared the MCAS results of students in the laptop pilot with students in the rest of the district. They found that the student growth percentiles, or amount that students improved from year to year, were much greater for students in the laptop pilot classrooms.

"The way student growth percentiles work is that the average is a score of 50," Bebell said. "In the control classrooms without the laptops, the average student growth percentile score was 47. In the pilot classrooms it was a 69."

The largest gains were measured in English, with math growing at a lower rate. Bebell cautioned school committee members from reading too much into the MCAS results, given the small sample size of the pilot.

"Teachers overwhelmingly say that they would use technology more if there wasn't such overwhelming pressure to prepare students for the MCAS test," Bebell said. "And of course, the test is paper-based, so students need to be ready for it."

School committee members had many questions for Bebell and his team. Matt Hills wanted to know if there was any way to know for sure how much of the student's achievement could be credited to the computers, as opposed to the teachers.

"We had two extraordinary teachers for this pilot," Bebell said. "The fact that they were able to use the technology to further their lessons proves the concept. You can't look at any one element in isolation."

Geoffrey Epstein wondered if the disparity in math and English scores could be attributed to the software available for the laptops.

"There's not products as obvious for math as there are for word processing," said James Burraston, one of the project's researchers. "But there are classrooms in New York state where this problem is being looked at."

Bebell said that similar pilots were being tried in other states; Maine, for example, has provided laptops to all of its students since 2000.

"We've been looking into laptops for a decade, and one of the biggest problems is there isn't a sustainable model for keeping programs like this funded," Bebell said. "Some places try to give every student a laptop and manage to keep it, while some others can't make the funding work."

Superintendent David Fleishman said that the study's results would be carefully considered, and that the district was planning a larger overview of its technology use in January.

Sarah Thomas can be reached at

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