As laptop scheme ends, what next for families and learning?



This article is by Jason Lodge, Research Affiliate, Science of Learning Research Centre, Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne. It originally appeared on The Conversation.

analysis The computers for schools program, which involved federal funding for the supply of laptops to high school students, is set to end in June. The program was a central piece of the former government’s “digital revolution” but is being discontinued by the current government.

The end of the program is already having consequences for schools and for families. Without funding for computers, schools are being forced to find other ways to fund educational technology. Often this means shifting the cost onto families or requiring students to “bring your own device”.

The end of the program has two main implications. The first is related to the access all children have to the basic technologies needed for 21st-century learning. The second involves the pedagogy that underpins the use of these tools for learning.

Inequalities may arise in schools if families are unable to get the newest and best devices due to the often high cost. The newest and best technology is often expensive and the daily journey to school and back can be devastating to some devices. Purchasing, repairing and upgrading devices can become a significant drain on the family budget.

As not every family is able to supply their children with the latest technology, there is a risk that placing the onus on families to obtain these devices for their children will lead to a “digital divide”. The children from well-off families will have access to the latest and supposed best tools for learning while everyone else will have either no access to technology or be lumped with using older and often outdated technology.

The more critical issue is whether the newest and best devices are actually the best options for enhancing learning.

Professor John Hattie from the University of Melbourne conducted a large meta-analysis of meta-analyses, which involves looking at the results of a very large pool of studies to determine what factors have the greatest impact on student learning. His findings suggest that technology or, as he put it, computer-assisted instruction, has only a marginal effect on student learning outcomes.

The issue is really then more about whether these devices are the best option for learning at all, than whether newer is better. Families shouldn’t be put in a position where they need to fork out a lot of money they may not have for technology that has a dubious effect on enhancing their child’s learning.

Underpinning the uncertainty surrounding the role of digital technologies in schools is that our understanding of these devices and how they can be best incorporated into teaching practice is far outpaced by the evolution of the devices themselves. No sooner do we come to understand how best to use a technology in classrooms than the technology has already become obsolete.

The research being conducted into the ways in which technology can be used to enhance learning is therefore unable to keep pace with the development and use of new devices and applications. While it is perhaps cliché for a researcher to call for further research, in this case the cost to families, and the potential to create further inequalities in our education system would seem to warrant it.

As I have argued previously, throwing money at quick fixes is not the answer to improving education. This applies to technology more than anything else in the sector.

A greater emphasis needs to be placed on professional development for teachers and on educational design so that the maximum benefit of these new tools can be realised. The tools themselves are useless if the learning activities designed to utilise the tools are not up to standard.

Jason Lodge works for the Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC) at the University of Melbourne. The SLRC receives funding from the Australian Research Council. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation


  1. I don’t doubt the Professor’s results of computers as a teaching tool. But they are hard to beat as a productivity tool for writing the required essays in Year 11 and 12 — of which there are substantially more these days due to continuous assessment. I wouldn’t want to do the current SACE without 24×7 access to a laptop, email and the Internet.

    • I despise laptop keyboards as they are too small for big hands. I also have to disable to touch pad since I always bump it. In saying that, I accept that laptops have their place. I just wouldn’t want to use one all the time.

      My thoughts would be to get the Education Departments to consult with a hardware vendor to create a sturdy, kid proof chassis, with reasonable specs, and at a good price. Maybe even make the basics easily upgradeable every year or 2.

      • Manufacturers do make notebooks aimed at schools. For example, Dell Latitude 13 Education Series. These often have features not required outside of education, such as fold flat hinges, all-day batteries, and robust connectors which allow charging within a laptop cart accessory.

  2. Federal funds will not be forthcoming for “Digital Schools”. This Federal Government does not even wish to create vital digital infrastructure such as the NBN (FTTP). BUT if you can afford to pay well…BUT still no digital infrastructure. So even an ability to pay will still require connectivity options that are currently not available to many Australians. If you have (digital/internet) connectivity you will probably only be able to download, sending (uploading) will be problematical (very slow).

    The key to addressing much of this digital – educational/medical etc needs is a modern and fully functional IT/IP infrastructure that is available to ALL Australians.

    The path is towards a digital/educational/medical/social ….. backwater (for most). New Zealand is looking better every day.

  3. It is a matter of denying the peasants the opportunity to become proficient with technology, thus denying them both knowledge and employment opportunities, knowledge is power and the ability to see through the spin and deception regardless of by who’m.
    The twitter storm over the twitter campaign by the coal industry, destroying and exposing their less than honest statements is a wake up call for the people in power, lobbyists and media.

  4. Why the strong drive for individual laptops especially in early years. They have as many disadvantages as advantages.

    IT resources should be available in every school but to make laptops a required part of normal class is wasteful and will inhibit learning. Currently all exams are handwritten and with practice writing neatly and regularly children will struggle at exam time. (Not to mention spell check or lack of).

    • I understand what you say, I predated calculators and do most calculations in my head quicker than it can be entered as can many others of my era, spelling and writing has become atrocious creating issues in customer service and many other areas.
      However that almost instinctive naturalness with modern technology with the young that have weaned on it and are immersed in it enables so much more, just needs to be better integrated with basic communication and reasoning skills (3R’s)

  5. A waste of money pure and simple. Another election winning money throw around that is now just adding to the accruing interest on the government’s books. It lasted for 2 school years at the public schools of which I am familiar. The repair and support costs were also never accounted for. Also now the social support sections have become larger to handle the now existing social media trauma problem. I’ve talked to teachers and there is a common response which I paraphrase as – if you see them smiling behind the screens then they are playing games or on social media. Most of the kids are normally smiling unless the teacher does the rounds. Have grades gone up – not in the opinion of teachers I’ve discussed this with.

    • Hi Northern Blue,

      I can only speak for Queensland (I’m not sure about how the program works in other states), but repair costs and support costs are most definitely accounted for during the purchasing decision. Most support is provided by the vendor in the form of on-site repairs, with very little actually being left to the schools (other than to report it to the vendor and say “fix it”). Also, every school also gets a decent sum of money each year from the program called “on-costs” which can be used at each schools discretion to supplement whatever support costs the schools may run into.

      Some decide to offset the cost of Accidental Damage repairs
      Some decide to hire or contract a technician for the school to help students with day-to-day issues (much like a teacher-aide would).
      Some decide to purchase extra resources (additional infrastructure like WAP’s, or Interactive White Boards)

      Being on the * side of the fence, there is a lot that people on the outside don’t see — which is the radical transformation in learning styles in the past few years. Textbooks have gone from paper to digital. Some classes are now taught entirely via distance education. Teachers can now properly supplement their learning resources with interactive materials because of the whole notion that theres going to be a laptop in every childs hand (or at least, that they will have easy access to one).

      Be sure though, that instead of the cost being borne by the school and the government, each parent in the future will have to purchase their own students device as it will soon become a requirement. While some may see technology as becoming cheaper and cheaper (with things such as iPads), these aren’t suitable for learning on (in 8-12). The devices that parents will have to buy will be business-grade (as the ones purchased by schools currently are).

      This won’t be cheap in any way, shape or form for parents that have multiple students at the same school (some parents have twins, or a child in Year 12, with one in Year 9). It is simply cost prohibitive to pass the cost onto parents without some sort of government subsidy (which I believe was called the “Smart Start Allowance”). That was cut by the coalition late last year. Hell, even with a subsidy it is still too expensive for some people in the lower socioeconomic income bracket — which is entire communities in some instances.

      Cause and effect — to better increase a nations competitiveness in the 21st century, you first have to invest in education. It’s not something that can be bought overnight, It’s something that is a long-game that takes years to quantify the effects from. The transformation that schools have done to accommodate e-Learning will simply be undone now because of this governments short sightedness.

      • “Being on the * side of the fence, there is a lot that people on the outside don’t see — which is the radical transformation in learning styles in the past few years. Textbooks have gone from paper to digital. ”

        Yeah see – that is what was said. But the reality is the teachers, and these are QLD EDU teachers, insist on the old textbooks being used. I continually ask teachers at every student-teacher night why one of my kids has to carry around about 12-15 kg of useless paper books everyday when there is a laptop in the bag. The books were required. No book and they are in trouble,. “What about an Ebooks?” I usually query. A what? Only one techer, in all the time I’ve questioned, thought there was one for their subject but then couldn’t nominate where it could be located for downloading.

        Aside from all this, the reality is that except for those 2 years there are no more laptops at the school. Those that are still getting around are now on their 3rd year. There is no money to replace them. Those that parents that no longer wish to pay a levy for a loptop have the laptop added to a “pool” which is strangely not even overly subscribed. Any claims to improved performance are very hard to demonstrate from the teacher feedback to me. Google is the tool that best improves their research ability and then they are easy targets for distraction and plagerism if they are lazy – and what high school kid isn’t inherently lazy?!

        • I wouldn’t be so hasty to blame teachers for the lack of e-textbooks. The traditional publishers see e-texts as a revenue opportunity. Schools which are cost-sensitive remain with the paper texts.

          It’s not at all clear that transferring textbooks to an electronics format is necessary. Teaching materials and plans are much more important than texts and the Internet can enables ready sharing of those between teachers. Making that occur is really about the recognition and rewards available to teachers who create and share their materials.

        • Hi Northern Blue,

          As Glen says below, publishers do see textbooks as revenue opportunities. It’s extremely hard to conveniently push out textbooks to student machines without violating some sort of licensing restriction (which we get strung up for if we violate).

          Publishers need to loosen their restrictions to enable schools to utilise these eBook resources. Schools are able to subscribe to some things that make this easier. I know a lot subscribe to a service called “ClickView” which has the VEA videos that used to be on VHS in a digital format, all fully licensed — but it’s very expensive per year for a decent sized school.

          Though, that’s getting sidetracked. The whole discussion here is “what happens when the laptop money dries up”. The simple answer is: Parents pay. You either pay through your taxes and let education departments negotiate good bulk purchase agreements with vendors, or get screwed when you go to buy your own machine from JB/Harvey Norman. I can forsee having a discussion “Your iPad is a content consumption device, not a content creation device — so it’s unsuitable for your childs learning. You wasted your money”.

          BYOD is coming, and coming fast, and a lot of people aren’t prepared for it.


  6. I don’t see computers raising grades, it isn’t like a computer changes how a teacher teaches, our changes how a parent supports a child’s education.

    But what a computer and familiarity with a computer provides a student is not a more intelligent student, but one that had experience working with one of the most ubiquitous tools used by business.

    Using a computer is almost necessary. ( I work in IT sometimes supporting sone of the most intelligent people in the country – lawyers we can agree are smart, even if we can also agree an [un?]necessary evil – those that know how to use technology are no smarter, but far more efficient)

  7. “… computer-assisted instruction, has only a marginal effect on student learning outcomes. …” Call me conservative, but let me put it this way: if that former government had started a “mobility initiative” and given every under-age student a car – wouldn’t everyone have called them nuts? Next: give cars to toddlers before they can walk. That’s laptops for everyone, in my humble opinion.

Comments are closed.