March 1999 // Case Studies
Laptop Computers and Their Impact on Sixth-Grade Learning
by Ken Stevenson
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Ken Stevenson "Laptop Computers and Their Impact on Sixth-Grade Learning" The Technology Source, March 1999. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Two years ago, the Beaufort County (South Carolina) School District initiated a new and exciting era for the use of computers in learning. Its cutting-edge initiative provided approximately 300 of the district's sixth graders with their own laptop computers. Unlike computers in traditional instructional settings, these new laptops were intended to be in the constant possession of each sixth grader—in effect, they were replacements for the students' customary three-ring school binders. Each of the laptops included sufficient hardware and software to support word processing, spreadsheets, graphic applications, creation of databases, and electronic communication. Students now had an electronic notebook to use both at school and at home. And with the laptop's modem, students had access to a world of information via the Internet.

Purpose of the Project

By putting laptop computers in the hands of the sixth graders, the Beaufort County School District sought to accomplish several things. In particular, the district hoped that introducing the laptops as part of the sixth-grade learning experience would expand and enhance student learning opportunities; improve student achievement, creativity, and motivation; further integrate advanced computer technology into classroom instruction and learning at home; and better prepare students for a lifetime of success in a technology-rich world. Because of the uniqueness of the project, the school district established a formal evaluation to monitor the success of the project in accomplishing its goals.

Measuring the Impact of the Laptops

Evaluation of the project in its first year focused on attitudes and perceptions of students, parents, and teachers involved with the laptop project. This was done for two reasons. First, with only a partial year of test and attendance data to consider, no meaningful output data would yet be available. Second, perception is important. How students, parents, and teachers perceived the project in the first year would dramatically affect the ultimate success of the project. Furthermore, input from these three groups could prove very helpful in refining and improving the project in subsequent years.

In order to measure the impact of the laptops the first year, student, parent, and teacher perceptions of the project were gathered using a pre- and post- survey approach. Teachers, parents, and students involved in the Schoolbook Laptop Project each filled out a questionnaire before the project actually began in the fall of the first year, and then completed another approximately six months later in spring, near the end of the academic year. The pre- and post- assessment instruments were designed to determine perceptions of how students and teachers used computers, what impact the Laptop Project had on academic achievement, the impact the Laptop Project had on the human dimensions of the classroom, including student communication and behavior, concerns about using a computer, and what purpose computers best served in a classroom.

The Results of the Laptop Project—Year One

Two hundred sixty-five students, 280 parents, and 17 teachers completed the pre-survey instrument. Slightly fewer responded to the post-survey instrument, including 215 students, 145 parents, and 18 teachers. The findings from the pre- and post- survey analysis are presented below.

Impact of Laptops on Academic Knowledge and Skills


Percent of Students Crediting Academic Gains to Use of Laptops









Four Academic Areas Most Often Reported by Students as Being Positively Affected by Use of Laptops

Students, parents, and teachers felt after the first cycle of the laptop project that the computers were definitely related to improvement in certain skills and knowledge of the sixth graders. A substantial majority of students felt that using the laptops was a contributing factor in improving their spelling skills (66%) and writing skills (60%). About half (48%) of the students attributed their improvement in math and reading to using their laptop computers.

Teacher and parent responses reinforced the perceptions of the students. Most teachers (89%) believed that the laptops had contributed to improved student writing skills, and a majority of parents (54%) agreed. Furthermore, a majority of teachers (53%) thought that the computers were a factor in students' improved reading skills. Many of the project's students, parents, and teachers also felt that the use of the laptops contributed to improvement in other academic areas, though not to the extent it did in spelling, writing, math, and reading.

Impact of Laptop Project on Student Behavior and Communication

Before the project began, over one-third (37%) of the students believed that using the laptops would reduce their communication with their friends and other students. Only 13% felt that computers would enhance communication. By the end of the first year, 85% of the students felt that the laptops either enhanced communication or, at least, did not detract from it. Parent responses were very similar to those of the students, both before and after the first year of the project.

From the beginning of the project, teachers had a positive attitude regarding the impact of the laptops on student interaction. Originally, one-half (50%) felt that the Laptop Project would enhance student communication. By the end of the first year, over three-fourths (76%) of the teachers believed that student interaction with friends and other students was better as a result of the project.

The perceived impact of the Laptop Project on student behavior was not quite so definitive. Over fifty percent of the participating students (53%), parents (54%), and teachers (53%) initially believed that the computers would improve student behavior. After the first year, however, most teachers, parents, and students felt that the Laptop Project had not affected student behavior either for better or for worse.

Student Use of Computers—Obvious but Encouraging Findings

The results of the data analysis indicate that the Laptop Project was successful in encouraging students to use computers for schoolwork. Before the project began, less than one-quarter (15%) of the sixth graders reported that they used a computer frequently at school. After the first year of the Laptop Project, three-fourths (75%) reported using computers a lot at school.

Before Laptop Project

After Laptop Project

Use a computer a lot at school



Use a computer at home for school work



Student Use of Computers (% students reporting use)

Similarly, only about one-third (30%) of the students used computers at home to do schoolwork before the Laptop Project. By the end of the first academic year, nearly all of the students (97%) indicated they were using the laptop at home for schoolwork. Equally as interesting, around two-thirds (65%) of the students responded before the Laptop Project that they used computers primarily for games. By the end of the first year, over three-quarters (80%) of the students reported that they now used computers primarily for schoolwork.

Parents confirmed this increased use of computers for schoolwork. Before the project, only around fifteen percent (17%) of the parents reported that their children used computers at school for schoolwork and only slightly more (20%) indicated that their children frequently used a computer for schoolwork at home. In fact, 63% of the parents stated that their children used computers primarily to play games before the laptops were introduced.

However, by the end of the first year of the project, over three-quarters (83%) of the parents felt that their children were using a computer "a lot" at school for schoolwork, and two-thirds (67%) indicated their children now were frequently using the laptop at home for school purposes. As importantly, three-quarters (75%) of the parents reported that their children were now using the computer primarily for schoolwork instead of games.

Impact of the Laptops on Teachers

As part of the program evaluation, teachers were asked about their own use of computers. Before the project, about two-thirds (65%) indicated they used computers "some" in teaching, 18% responded that they did not use computers at all, and another 18% stated that they used computers "a lot." By the end of the first year of the Laptop Project, the response pattern had changed dramatically. No teachers responded that they did not use computers in teaching. Twenty-eight percent were now using computers "some" in instruction, and nearly three-quarters (72%) of the teachers replied that they were now using computers "a lot" as part of their teaching.


Reinforce Lessons


Personal Research


Preparation of Materials


Three Ways Teachers Were Most Often Using Laptops at End of Year One
(teacher self-report data)

When teachers were originally asked how they would use the laptops in instruction, 44% indicated the computers would be used primarily for preparing materials. Another 12% indicated they would use the computers for reinforcing lessons, while a similar number (12%) replied that they would use the computers for personal research. Another 12% indicated they would use the computers as a reward for students. However, by the end of the first year, the responses had changed noticeably. Over half (56%) of the teachers stated that they actually used the computers primarily to reinforce lessons. Another 22% indicated that they now chiefly used the computers for personal research, and 11% were using computers largely for preparing instructional materials. No teachers indicated that they were using computers primarily as a reward for students.

What Does It All Mean?

As with any study, some caution must be used in interpreting the results of the impact of the laptops on sixth graders. First, the data are perceptual in nature. They represent what individuals said they did, believed, or felt. In practice, they may well have acted or felt otherwise. Second, the project had been in effect only six months when the first-year evaluation was completed. Whether the response trends after six months will be maintained over time is difficult to judge. In this sense, the first-year evaluation cycle is more formative than summative. It is too early to judge the ultimate effect of the Laptop Project. However, consistency in the responses of students, parents, and teachers who were surveyed separately about the project tends to lend a high degree of credibility to the first-year findings.

While no summative conclusions can be drawn from the initial year of implementation of the Laptop Project, several initial findings are encouraging:

  • As expected, both teacher and student use of computers have increased appreciably as a result of the project.
  • Students have come to use computers much more for learning and studying than for games and recreation.
  • An appreciable percentage of students, parents, and teachers give the laptops part of the credit for gains in academic skills and knowledge of sixth graders in the project, especially in the areas of spelling, writing, reading, and math.
  • Teachers have discovered multiple uses of the laptops; no longer is the primary use of computers to reward students for completing standard classroom work. The laptops have become valuable to teachers in preparation of instructional materials, reinforcement of lessons, and personal research.
  • Computers do not seem to inhibit communication and interaction among students; in fact, the laptop project may have created new avenues and topics for communication among students, parents, and teachers.

While much more research over time is needed to determine the exact impact of the use of laptops as electronic notebooks, the initial findings from the Beaufort Project certainly indicate that students, parents, and teachers see value in the computers and what they bring to the learning environment. Few would argue that laptops, or computers in general, are the final answer or ultimate tool for ensuring student learning and academic achievement. However, the early results of the Beaufort Project suggest that laptops as electronic notebooks may be a very effective tool in the instructional arsenal of educators.

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