Friday, February 22, 2008

Maine: Laptops + Middle Schoolers = Better Writing

Do school laptops help middle school students or are they distractions? All too often, we rely on anecdotal evidence or a gut feeling about laptops in school, but that kind of evidence is not enough to inform a teacher, school or district about the benefits or drawbacks of a potentially multi-million dollar program. Now, a comprehensive study asserts that Maine's first-in-the-nation laptop program for middle school students has improved their writing skills.

Maine's laptop program, called the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), began in 2002 and 2003 with the distribution of about 36,000 laptops to all seventh and eighth graders in the state's public schools. eSchool News reports on a study which focused on the scores of eighth graders on the Maine Educational Assessment to see if the positive views of the laptop program from parents, teachers and students held up to scrutiny. They do.

David Silvernail, director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine and one of the authors of the study, said, "If you concentrate on whether laptops are helping kids achieve 21st-century skills, this demonstrates that it's happening in writing."

The study compared 2000 Maine Educational Assessment writing scores to 2005 writing scores and found that whether they used computers or pen and paper for the test, eighth graders showed improvements: in 2000, 29 percent of eighth graders were considered proficient in writing, compared with 49 percent in 2005. (In that same period, math scores stayed the same and reading scores actually dropped a few points.)

Silvernail proposes that laptops make writing somewhat easier for students; with laptops, it is easier to edit and revise which encourages students to work longer or more intensely on their writing. The principal at Piscataquis Community Middle School, Virginia Rebar, agrees: "It's just a lot easier to edit, to self-critique. Our teachers engage students in a lot of peer editing. Not only are they helping themselves, but they're helping each other as they get to their final projects." She isn't surprised by the results because she has seen that the laptops encourage and develop language skills every time students use them, whether for math, social studies, language arts or other subject.

The study also explains that it is the actual use of the laptops that improves student scores:
A secondary analysis of the 2005 scale scores revealed that how the laptops are being used in the writing process influences writing performance. Students who reported not using their laptop in writing (No Use Group) had the lowest scale score, whereas students who reported using their laptops in all phases of the writing process (Best Use Group) had the highest scale score. The difference in Effect Size is .64, indicating that the average student in the Best Use Group scored better than approximately 75% of the No Use Group students.

You can find a PDF of the research brief at this link. Details on the MLTI can be found at In addition, you can check out the Maine Education Policy Research Initiative website that features other reports and related links. New updates to the site are coming soon!

SOURCE: "School laptop program begets writing gains" 02/04/08
photo courtesy of Shareski, used under this Creative Commons license


Steve O'Keefe said...

It's interesting that writing scores improved but not math scores. Computers first entered classrooms in the form of calculators to assist with math. Now they are more powerful at improving writing skills rather than math skills.

Dedra Johnson said...

True--computers in schools have done more to improve language arts than the hard sciences. This may be because every communication effort, be that instant messaging or downloading a file, requires use of the language and use of the language in an isolated way--without facial expressions or an easily-heard tone of voice to compensate and help, users have to focus on their word choice, grammar, etc. As a former English teacher, i find this really encouraging and exciting!