The Power of 1-to-1 Computing for Education

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Is he learning? The month of February played host to the OECDInter-American Development Bank– World Bank’s international knowledge sharing on '1-to-1 computing' in Austria. This was the first event of its kind looking specifically at the idea that, if technology is to fundamentally help transform educational practices, this can only be done where each  student has her/his own personal computing device. 

1-to-1 computing is not only happening in OECD countries: every student in Uruguay has her/his own laptop.  Peru and Rwanda have made massive commitments to purchase laptops for students, and pilots are underway in many additional developing countries.These interventions are based on the belief that by enabling every pupil to connect to the Internet, and to each other, to access valuable resources irrespective of place and time, countries  can help to bridge the digital divide while at the same time transforming education and increasing learning through the use of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs).

Given the context of this event, I thought I would provide a timely survey of the existing research on their use in education. I also advise you to check out  Michael Trucano’s one year old blog, Edutech which provides incisive analysis on a wide array of ICTs in Education topics.

The promise that ICTs, can expand access to education and improve teaching and learning processes has contributed to their rising profile in education policy circles
among developing and developed countries alike. However, little is actually known on their impact on educational outcomes and how results from impact evaluations can
be effectively channeled into policy decisions to produce learning outcomes.

Early 2000s - What InfoDev Reported

Installing ICTs, namely computers, in classrooms is of course not enough to make an impact on student learning. Indeed the most pronounced finding is that there is
not really a consistent relationship between the mere availability or use of computers and student learning.

  • Two major studies in the U.S. found a positive relationship between availability of computers in schools and test scores. (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2001a, 2001b).
  • A 2001 study in Australia found no relationship between computer availability in schools and test scores. (Banks, Cresswell, & Ainley, 2003).
  • Two further older studies – one by Fuchs and Woessmann in 2004 involving 31 developed (and only Mexico and Brazil as the emerging countries), and the other study by Wenglinsky surveying U.S. schools in 1998, found a negative relationship between the availability of computers in the home and achievement scores.


  • More recently, the World Bank’s Felipe Barrera-Osorio and Leigh Linden of Columbia University have provided a useful synthesis  in their publication, of the ongoing studies on ICTs in education for the developing world, which present generally positive but still mixed conclusions.

The Positive…

  • MIT’s Poverty Action Lab designed an impact evaluation of a computer assisted learning program in Vadodara, India, on cognitive skills using mathematics and language tests. Implemented by Pratham, a large NGO, operating in conjunction with government schools, children in the fourth standard were offered two hours of shared  computer time per week during which they played games that involved solving math problems. The students who used computers scored significantly higher than the  comparison students in the subsequent math test conducted. The bottom group of students made the most gains and girls benefited as much as boys.
  • Similarly, Leigh Linden found positive effects from the use of computers when implemented on a supplemental basis in India, but not when used as a substitute to actual teaching, and as a replacement for the teacher.
  • An evaluation of the World Bank assisted NGO, World Links program found positive impacts for both students and teachers. This program prepares students and teachers  on communication, collaboration and Internet skills in African and Latin American countries. In Uganda, a specially designed performance assessment found that World  Links schools outperformed the non-World Links schools on measures of communication and reasoning with communication.

And The Not So Positive…..

However, other evaluations do not find such consistently positive results.

  • Angrist and Lavy failed to record any effect in their 2002 evaluation of the ‘Tomorrow-98’program, which placed 35,000 computers in schools across Israel between 1994 and 1996. Some children receiving computer-assisted learning actually performed worse in tests than those who had not received such instruction. This finding may be  due, however, to the fact that computers in Israel were replacing time spent in well equipped classrooms with well trained teachers.
  • Barrera-Osorio and Leigh in their randomized study on Colombia looked at 97 schools and 5,201 children over two years of participation in the Computers for Education  Program. The program is an alliance between the public and private sector to refurbish computers donated by private organization, install them in public schools, and  run a program that instructs teachers to use computer in specific subjects, especially in Spanish. They concluded that the use of computers had “little effect on  students’ test scores and other outcomes,” but posited that the deficit lay in the non-incorporation of computers into teaching practices and the curriculum, and were  treated more as an adjunct.

1-to-1 And On And On and On

To sum up, most studies have been conducted in OECD countries, and these represent the particular circumstances and concerns of policymakers and researchers in these  (largely) industrialized regions. However, the OECD-IDB-WB forum has given an insight into what are the useful lessons and models emerging for the developing world too. Important questions still need to be asked and the lessons learned need to be documented so that education through ICT really can change lives:

  • How much does ICT in education cost a government?
  • What useful implementation and procurement models are emerging?
  • What challenges do these sorts of initiatives present for policymakers, and
  • What are some useful policy responses?
  • What technologies should we be considering?
  • To what extent -- and how -- do we need to re-engineer our education systems (teacher training, curricula, content, assessment) if we want to take advantage of such investments?


Thanks to Mike Trucano for input and comments. 

Photo credit - the image ("Is he learning") was taken byTrevor Samson of the World Bank. It shows IT training for kids who live in the surrounding farm areas of Stutterheim outside East London in the Eastern Cape. South Africa. It is available on the World Bank's Flikr site  and is used according to the terms of its use.


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