Researchers like laptops in Calgary classroom

A study suggests laptop computer use can improve the way students learn if it's coupled with engaging teaching.
A new study from the University of Calgary says computer technology can help students learn, as long as it's coupled with engaged teaching. ((CBC))

Researchers at the University of Calgary have some encouraging words for parents concerned that their children are glued to computer screens.

Michele Jacobsen and Sharon Friesen of the university's faculty of education just completed a research study at Calgary Science School in which students were provided with laptops and then observed over a three-year period.

Their results indicate computer technology can dramatically improve the way students learn — but only if coupled with engaged teaching.

Students armed with laptops aren't just going to take information from the classroom, they are going to seek it out, Jacobsen said.

"Our eight- and nine-year-olds can be involved in studies where they are sharing data with students from across Canada or even from around the world," she told CBC News.

In a Grade 9 science class at Calgary Science School on Thursday, students used their laptops to work on a circuitry simulator. Safety is one of the benefits of laptop learning for this experiment.

Students in a Grade 9 class at Calgary Science School learn about the scientific method by trying their hand at a circuitry simulator.

"If we were actually making a circuit and we changed the resistance, say, to zero, then everything would blow up," said student Gabriella Wong Ken. "But on a laptop it's just demonstrating that. You can still play around with it, but nothing will actually happen."

Teacher Jon Hoyt-Hallett said the ability to brainstorm ideas and share information online is a big bonus for his students.

"We use things such as wikis and blogs for students to catalogue all of their research and interests, some of the conclusions that they're drawing from labs," Hoyt-Hallett said.

The constant feedback this provides from other teachers, students and parents "is huge for learning," he added.

"The technology is amazing at facilitating that. However, it doesn't replace the planning and the organization and the thought that goes into the lesson plan."

Hoyt-Hallett suggested a solid lesson plan helps keep in check kids with internet access in the classroom. If the students are interested and focused on their work, there won't be the accompanying behavioural problems some people expect from a classroom in which there are 25 personal computers, he said.

Jacobsen said she and her research partner have suggested that parents require children not to keep their computers in a private space when brought home.

"If it's hidden away in their room … you might have some concerns about how they're using the technology," she said.

Over the course of the study, researchers and teachers used a wide range of technologies, including Flash animations, GarageBand, iMovie and digital photography.