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Portable computers supporting secondary school learning

Paul Newhouse
School of Education
Edith Cowan University
There are convincing arguments for the integration of computer applications into school programs but after more than 30 years of increasing investment there has been very little impact on the experiences of students in schools. In the 1990s, significant developments in computer technology have been the emergence of low-cost, high-powered portable computers, and improvements in the capabilities and operation of computer networks (e.g. Intranets and the accessibility of the Internet). It is not clear that these developments will have any more impact on school-based learning than any of the previous developments in computer technology. This paper discusses the findings of an initial three year evaluation of the use of portable computers in a secondary school in Perth, Western Australia, and information from a recent follow-up study. In particular the perceptions of students in their final year of secondary school will be presented. Most of these students have had a portable computer for all of their secondary school years.


More than two decades after the introduction of computers into schools, even though most schools in developed countries have significant numbers of computers, there has been little impact on school-based education (Plomp & Pelgrum, 1992). Educators have consistently claimed that for the potential of computers in education to be realised "major changes will be required in the day-to-day activity and interaction patterns in classrooms" (Plomp & Pelgrum, 1992). Will these changes come about due to the avalanche of computers into schools through schemes to provide one computer per student or is it a waste of resources?

Computer Saturated Learning Environments are those in which it is possible at any time for every student to access an adequate level of computer processing to allow them to apply software relevant to their learning needs. It concerns quantity and the term itself conjures the believe that perhaps this maximum quantity level may precipitate changes within the classroom. However, this does not imply that the focus should be on the quantitative. This needs to change from hardware and software, which Papert calls technocentric thinking (Rowe, 1993), to the processes of education, learning and students and teachers in classrooms.

A three year evaluation study

This paper uses some of the data collected by a three year study into the implementation of a portable computer program to discuss and investigate the impact of computer use on the overall school learning environment. The school is situated in a high socio-economic suburb and is regarded as one of the best and more expensive girls schools. It caters for students from Kindergarten, through primary school up to Year 12 at the secondary level. About half of the students in the secondary section of the school graduate through the primary section of the school. There were three separate cohorts of students involved in the study labeled using the letters A, B and C (Table 1).

Table 1: The three cohorts used in the study, number of students, when data
were collected for each cohort and the model of Macintosh computer used.

CohortStudentsData collectionModel of Macintosh computer

Year 7, 1993 Semester 1
Year 8, 1994 All year
Powerbook 100
Duo 230
Year 8, 1993 Semester 2
Year 10, 1995 All year
Duo 210
Duo 230
C103Year 8, 1995 Semester 2Powerbook 150

* Note: The study also collected data on a small number of students from this cohort in Semester 1 of 1994.

The purpose of the study was both investigative and evaluative and involved the researcher becoming immersed in the school environment. The study used both qualitative and quantitative data with each year focussing on those features of the environment which seemed to be important from an interpretation of data collected earlier. In 1995 the evaluation used aspects of the Concerns Based Adoption Model (CBAM) which is a model for implementing and evaluating any innovation in education. These data are not reported in this paper.

The computers

Each student in the three cohorts had a Macintosh portable computer which they either owned or leased (Table 1). Duo docking stations and various models of desktop Macintosh computers with networked laser printing facilities were made available at a number of locations throughout the school. The students had access to a technician to report technical problems and conduct maintenance.

The degree and severity of technical problems seemed to relate more to the model of portable computer issued to that cohort of students. Many technical problems were related to a lack of knowledge and general management issues which could be overcome. However, from the students' perspective there were problems such as: excessive weight, short battery life, excessive startup time, and faults concerning screens.

From the teachers perspective problems included: students who needed access to power points, students getting print outs when required, and students who did not have a computer when required because either the computer had been forgotten or was in for repairs. In Year Eight in 1995 on average about 13% of the students had a computer in for repairs, which is about three students per class group.

Amount of use

The amount and type of use of the computers by students was an important evaluative concern in the study. The relative use of the computers by the students was considered to be one of the best indicators of the success of the portable computer program. If the computers were being used by students in a sustained manner, on tasks related to their schoolwork, then it was likely that the use of the computers was significantly contributing to student learning.

Using teacher log sheets in 1993 the estimated average time spent in class using the computers per Year Seven student was 30 minutes per day. For the Year Eight students this was 50 minutes per day, except for the weeks when they were doing the computing unit. In 1995 Year Eight students estimated they would usually use the computers on average about 1 hour per day (large standard deviation).

Use at home was spread evenly over the week with estimates ranging between 0 and 9 hours in total with an average of between 2 and 5 hours per week per student (Table 2). The majority of Year Eight students used their computers regularly at home but a large numb er of students in Year Ten used the computers very little even at home (Figures 1, 2 and 3).

Table 2: Estimated time spent using portable computers at home by students.



Figure 1: Estimated amount of time spent using the computers at home by students from Cohort A in Year Eight.

Figure 2: Estimated amount of time spent using the computers at home by students from Cohort B in Year Eight and Year Ten.

Figure 3: Estimated amount of time spent using the computers at home by students in Cohort C.

Applications for the computer

Most students used a relatively small number of applications, principally word processors and games. Some used curriculum specific packages and produced graphics. Even the students in Cohort C used a relatively small number of applications (Table 3). Noticeably the use of spreadsheets and curriculum related programs increased. As with students from the other two cohorts most interviewed students regarded the use of Hypercard in Computing as being the most interesting thing they had done on the computers. A handful of students also used Hypercard and other graphics based software for some assignments in Social Studies and English.

In cohorts A and B the high level of game playing was an interesting phenomenon with most students who were interviewed admitting to an interest in computer game playing. There appeared to be a culture of computer game playing with game swapping over the network this was particularly the case with boarders. In most observed lessons a number of students played games at some stage, usually unknown to the teacher. However for Cohort C there was a relatively small use of games.

Table 3: Percentage of students using a computer application often at home.

Application Cohort C (Yr 8) %Cohort B (Yr 10) %Cohort A (Yr 8) %

Word processing 878282
Graphics 581417
Games 312750
Hypercard 121211
Spreadsheets 5410
MacGlobe 4610
Maths programs 445
Other uses 7-6 (Typing Tutor)

The students

The students were similar to other groups of secondary students in terms of computer attitude and computer knowledge. The backgrounds of the students tended to be more conducive to computer use and success at school than would be typical for secondary students. About 80% already had a computer at home with about 40% of these students using the computer often and another 40% using it sometimes. However, students had little other experience with computer systems such as ATM (Automatic Teller Machines) for banking. Over 60% expected to use a computer in their work and indicated that they would like to do so in the future. About 75% of the students indicated that they would like to learn more about computers while at school.

Attitudes to computers

Students generally had very positive attitudes towards computers, as indicated by an attitudes instrument (Newhouse, 1993), even before they received their portable computers. Less than 5% of the students recorded attitude scores below 60 on a 120 point scale, and were classified as having negative or under confident attitude towards computer use. This appears to be the students who will always have these attitudes no matter what is provided.

In Cohort B, about 20% of the students indicated a negative attitude to the use of the computers at the end of the year. When these students were in year nine it appeared that many had overcome their initial problems and only about a residual group of 5% remained. However, when this cohort was in Year Ten many of the students were not happy with the portable computer program (Table 4). Unfortunately it appeared that a significant number of the students had developed an undesirable attitude towards the use of computers. The interviews indicated that for many students this negative attitude was as a result of the perceived lack of use of the computers in class at school. There was also the opinion that students needed more computer training, which was seen as the responsibility of the school.

Table 4: Student attitudes towards the portable computer program.

Question/StatementStudents in affirmative

I couldn't do without my Macintosh.38%
Has it been successful where everyone has a computer at school?45%
I would like to use my Macintosh more at school.43%
I get worried when I have to use my Macintosh.11%

One of the 24 students who were interviewed, used the computer a lot, and enjoyed doing so, but made the following comments.

"Make compulsory for use in classes so that you don't have to carry books around as well."
"Teachers need to make allowances for computer use."
"Students need to experiment and make use of the computers by learning from other students. The majority of students are against it. It is a personal choice, the school can't do much about it. The facilities are really good."
In contrast, the students in Cohort C enjoyed using the computers and wanted to use them more (Table 5). Very few students were worried about using the computers and about half the students found the computers a necessary item. Most of these students appeared to develop a very healthy and helpful attitude towards the use of computers. They developed a sound appreciation for what they could and could not do on their computer and continually made decisions based on task related criteria to use, or not use, the computers. The successes of the program for Cohort C had been built on trials with the previous two cohorts. In interviews with 23 students some of their comments were:
"They are useful. Good for English. Work is neater and you can change things."
"Learn to use for workplaces."
"Easier to record notes. Can't lose work."
"It was risky at first but now it is easier than typing and saves on paper."
"I like it because I am good at computers and can fix my own problems. It is hard for some students."
"It is good and easier than writing, But I don't like being made to use computers. It should be a choice to use the computers."
"It is advanced but you need to get to know how to use them better.
"Last term my computer was being repaired for the whole term."
"It is OK but I am not good at typing."
"It is OK for projects but personally I don't like them and my friends don't."
"They are alright but are heavy and a hassle to carry on the bus."
"They are heavy to carry and might get stolen."
Table 5: Year eight student attitudes towards the portable computer program in 1995.

% of students in affirmative
Question/Statement AugustNovember

I couldn't do without my computer. 5742
Has it been successful where everyone has a computer at school? 8378
I would like to use my computer more at school. 4738
I get worried when I have to use my computer. 4 4

Computer knowledge and skill development

Data on initial level of computer knowledge using a standard Computer Knowledge Quiz showed no significant difference between any of the cohorts or a comparison group from three government schools. In general the students' perceptions of their own computer related skills improved for each successive cohort in Year Eight. Of the main tasks considered only those involving the use of disks caused difficulty to a significant number of students (Table 6). This ties in with the large number of students who did not make backup copies of their files and probably rarely used the external floppy disk drive.

The first cohort of Year Eight students (Cohort B) were not adept at working within the operating system but gained expertise as the need arises. No student backed up work every day and only 15% backed up a few times a week. By the end of Year Ten the perceptions these students had of their computer-related skills had improved they could perform most of the identified tasks independently (Table 6).

Clearly the perceptions of students in Cohort C of their computer-related skills is much improved on the other two cohorts. Of interest is the improved knowledge and skills in using Hypercard, spreadsheets and copying files. They were better at tasks involving the use of disks. This is not surprising since these students were the first to be provided with computers with built-in floppy disk drives. These students almost all backed up at least sometimes. About one quarter backed up a few times a week. In addition, 66% of the students claim to try to use all fingers to type, with about 68% suggesting they would like to learn to type well.

Table 6: Comparison between year eight cohorts in 1995 (and Year 10), 1994 and 1993 on the number of students indicating they are able to complete a task independently.

% of students able to complete task

Cohort CCohort ACohort B
Task to complete Nov '95Aug '95199419931995 (Yr10)

Open a new document 9993
Do a drawing on the screen 9992
Copy a floppy disk 96746286
Copy a file off the network 96947687
Copy a file off another computer 9692794171
Start a spreadsheet 96865374
Print a document 10086
Put a formula in a spreadsheet 6148652946
Use MacGlobe to get information 94879279
Change the sound volume 99989997
Line graph using a spreadsheet 8382753164
Put clip-art in a document 87817072
Draw a diagram in a document 97839580
Create a database 40
Include a header and footer 98
Create a table in a document 85
Create a Hypercard presentation 62
Colour in a graphic 88
Use tabs and indents in a doc 90

In 1993 the students in both Cohort A and B were fairly reliant on their teachers, but that was not the case in 1994 and 1995. For Cohort A it is almost certain that this is due, in part, to the students coming from the school's year seven classes where the use of these computers was frequent. It was clear that these students were informally passing on their skills to the rest of the student body. In addition, for both cohorts the students gained knowledge and skills from the Design and Technology (Computing) class and from those students in the Computing elective classes. Of the students who were interviewed, almost all nominated their source of information about using their computer as either one of the Technology Centre staff or a student who was either in the Computing elective class or had been at the school for Year Seven.

Successive cohorts of year eight students developed higher levels of computer literacy which was one of the fundamental aims of the program. This did not mean that they developed a comprehensive enough set of skills and understandings to make full use of their computers within the context of their classes and curriculum. Many students and teachers believed that there should have been a more formal approach to teaching the students how to use the computers.

Boarders and Year 7 graduates

A significant proportion of the students boarded at the school and about half the students completed most of their primary schooling at the school. Students who boarded at the school had access to printers and network connections at the boarding house and did not need t o transport their computers the long distances other students were required to. For students in cohorts A and C who had graduated from the school's primary section it could be assumed that they had used portable computers for at least Year Seven. In addition they had access to desktop computers for many years of their primary schooling.

On average students in Cohort C coming from the school's primary school estimated that they spent 1.45 hours per week out of class time using their computers this compares with 1.29 hours for students coming from other primary schools (Table 7). Those who boarded averaged 1.67 hours per week compared with 1.34 hours per week for day schoolers. Overall the computers appeared to be used most by students who were either boarders at the school or had graduated from the primary school section. Boarders also had a greater perception that the program had been successful, but that they would have liked to use their computers more at school. Students who had attended the school in year seven appeared to perceive the computer as being more valuable than other students.

Table 7: Percentage of Year Eight students answering in affirmative.

Year 7 grads
Other Year 7

I couldn't do without my computer. 38%42%50%39%
Has it been successful where everyone has a computer at school? 95%73%76%91%
I would like to use my computer more at school 57%33%37%46%
I get worried when I have to use my computer. 0%5%2%6%

The teachers

Before commencing the evaluation the school provided documentation about the objectives of the program and 12 participating teachers were interviewed and completed a questionnaire. The preparation for the program appeared to be thorough and comprehensive. This included the documentation, hardware/software plans, staff training plans and equipment/services requirements. There was also a strong, consistent and sound philosophical basis behind the program which was in evidence in all facets of the plan.

The 12 participating teachers had volunteered to be involved, were highly motivated and wanted the program to succeed. They had a good level of computer literacy, almost all used computers for personal and administrative tasks. All held some realistic reservations about the program, with some not sure how the computers would be of use in their subject.

In 1993 data were only collected on individual teachers whose classes were observed and the logs kept by staff who taught year seven and eight classes. Some teachers made significant use of the computers while others made little or no use of them. The graph in figure 4 shows the spread of proportion of available time teachers made use of the computers. Even within a particular curriculum area teachers varied markedly. For example, in one major teaching area one teacher claimed to use the computers about one-third of the available time while the others in the same curriculum area claimed to have not used the computers at all or at most about 5% of the time. The two teachers with very high proportion of time using computers were the computing teacher and a special language teacher.

Figure 4: Proportion of available class time teachers used the computers in 1993.

For one subject area one observed staff member was quite negative about the program feeling that it was "too much trouble for small return". She felt that she was being "forced to change the curriculum to suit computers" and that staff felt guilty about the cost. When her classes were observed very little use of the computers occurred. On the other hand, another member of the same department was keen to make use of the computers, had spied some useful software in a catalogue and students in her class were often observed using the computers.

Staff surveys

The staff (about 75) was experienced in terms of teaching, relatively computer literate but not experienced in terms of using computers in the classroom. In the final year 67% considered themselves to be intermediate computer users, 17% considered themselves to be novices while 15% indicated that they were "old hands" at using computers. A large majority (67%) claimed to have undertaken formal training in using computers. About 50% of teachers claimed to have been using the computers regularly in classrooms for only 1 or 2 years. About 10% claimed to have used computers for more than 4 years while 26% did not use computers in their classes.

Most of the staff agreed that by using computers on a learning task, it would help students to think in different and more interesting ways, lead to students helping each other and allow students to enjoy learning more. The staff were divided on whether this would lead to a better understanding of the content, be a faster way of learning or lead to a better use of the teacher's time.

About 40% used computers weekly in classes, with most of those claiming that it was successful. It should be acknowledged here, that often teachers' perceptions of the frequency of computer use were greatly enhanced on what was observed to actually happen during the evaluation, and also when compared with the perceptions of students. While many teachers had the perception that they made significant use of the computers, most realised that this use was supplementary to their learning programs. Only five teachers saw the computer as critical to the functioning of their class. However, 50% claimed that the computers had changed what they did in the classroom and 75% would like to make more use of computers with their classes. To the question, "What currently stops you from making more use of computers with your classes?" the most prevalent responses were: "lack of time" and "not relevant".

Computers were not used for demonstration, they were mainly used individually, with students quite often given the choice as to whether to use computers. Only five teachers used the computers often for group work but almost half said they tried to do so sometimes. The computers were usually used to complete a task and were rarely used to show a concept, experiment, investigate or provide a problem. Only four teachers felt the use of computers was rarely successful, the rest experienced varying positive levels of success.

It is interesting that very few teachers saw the computers as high order learning tools but preferred rather to see them as useful to complete only low order manipulative tasks. A number of teachers indicated in informal conversations that they could imagine more use being made of the computers in years ten and eleven. However this was not evident in the Year Ten classes in the final year of the study.

A majority of the teachers felt that the portable computer program had been successful although some teachers felt that the program had been introduced too quickly and they had felt pressured to make use of the computers.

CBAM analysis

In terms of evaluating the success of the PCP the actual use of the computers in classrooms, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, was seen to be of critical importance. In the previous years, a range of data had been collected on the use of the computers within classrooms had been collected using observations, questionnaires and interviews. In the third year it was decided to apply some of the techniques associated with the CBAM model. The m odel involves three key concepts called diagnostic dimensions: an Innovation Configuration is used to define the innovation and its satisfactory implementation; Stage of Concern (SoC) related to the involvement participants feel towards the innovation; and Level of Use (LoU) concern how a participant is making use of the innovation.

Each of the diagnostic dimensions has associated with it a designated method and an instrument to collect and present appropriate data. The IC uses existing documentation about the innovation and interviews with participants, including facilitators, to prepare a two-dimensional map of the innovation. The SoC uses a questionnaire with a set of scales to prepare a numerical and graphical picture of the type and strengths of participants' concerns. The LoU uses a structured interview and observations to place participants in an hierarchical level. All of them require the researcher to be immersed within the scene of the innovation and to continually refine judgements associated with the diagnostic dimensions.

Innovation configuration

An Innovation Configuration table was initially constructed for the PCP based upon school documentation. This IC, represented as a checklist table, was shown to two CBAM experts, Professor Shirley Hord and Dr David Carter, and the senior staff at the school and amended on their combined advice. The final IC, which is presented in Appendix A-5, had eight components each with three or four variations. This defines what is meant by "use" of the innovation. For the PCP "use" of the innovation meant that teachers facilitated the use of the portable computers by students to match the components listed on the IC checklist. All senior staff were asked to indicate on the IC what they thought should typify satisfactory implementation of the PCP. Based on their responses an innovation configuration of satisfactory implementation was constructed (see Table 8). A conservative approach was taken in combining the responses of the senior staff. For each component the highest numbered variation permitted by any of the senior staff was allocated as the point of satisfactory implementation. The variation of the IC in Table 8 represents the minimum position of the senior staff in terms of a measure of satisfactory implementation of the PCP. Collectively they felt that to be implemented satisfactorily in a classroom or learning program, the use of the computers needed to match the descriptions provided in Table 8. Therefore, this provided a benchmark against which teacher-class combinations may be compared.

Table 8: Innovation Configuration for adequate implementation of the PCP

IC componentVariation number and description

1.Access to computers (1)All students have a portable computer available at all times.
2.Student use of computers in a subject area (1)Students use portable computers at home and in many lessons, where appropriate.
3.Classroom organisation (1)Teacher uses a variety of teaching strategies based on computer use.
4.Independent learning (2)Students sometimes use portable computers to support working at their own pace and constructing their own knowledge.
5.Teacher-student relationship (2)Students often do not depend on teacher for knowledge acquisition or completion of tasks on the computer.
6.Learning activities (2)Students use their computers to complete practical activities which are relevant to their experience.
7.Nature of task environment (2)Students will be given tasks to complete on the computers which are motivating and students will receive regular feedback on those tasks.
8.Technological literacy (1)Students develop a level of technological literacy (confidence, independence, adaptability) relevant to the school and entry level workplace environments through the use of the computers. Students will improve the presentation of their work and use the drafting cycle.

The IC was used to assist in describing teachers' implementation of the PCP for those teachers selected for the case studies in Chapter Eight. Using the range of data available on the teacher and classes associated with that teacher the researcher selected a variation on each component of the IC. Then a comparison of the teacher's IC variation could be made, component by component, with the satisfactory implementation variation. This provided a means of describing their response to the PCP.

Levels of use interviews

Initially a sample of 20 teachers were interviewed using the structured interview, Level of Use Interview Recording Sheet, based on the model for the CBAM LoU structured interview. Later in the year another three teachers (Eliza, Barbara and Belinda) were interviewed because one of their classes was being observed. To assign a level to an interviewed teacher, the researcher started by using the ''decision point" questions built into the interview and then considered modifying this one level up or down if other data collected concerning that teacher did not fully support the initial level allocated. In particular, if a teacher had been observed with classes a number of times, had completed a questionnaire and included their name, or provided more information from other questions in the interview, these data were sufficient to change the allocated level if required. The full analysis process recommended by the CBAM model was used to allocate levels only to those teachers who were used as case studies. A summary of the estimates of LoU of the interviewed teachers is shown in Table 9.

Table 9: Estimated CBAM LoU of interviewed teachers for PCP

LevelName of levelNo. of teachers

IIIMechanical use6

An estimate of the LoU for all other teachers at the school was made by using data collected from questionnaires, previous interviews and lesson observations. There was not enough data on 18 teachers to make such an estimate. For example, in the teacher surveys many teachers had indicated that they had not used the computers, some because they did not teach the particular cohorts with the computers. These teachers obviously were at Level 0, Non-use. It was concluded that most teachers were in Levels 0, I and II (see Table 10). A few teachers were determined to be in Level III while a few appeared to be in Level IVA, and only two of the leading staff (Heidi and Peter) may have been beyond this level.

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Table 10: Estimated CBAM LoU of Teachers at Hillview for PCP

LevelName of levelNo. of teachers

IIIMechanical use6
Do not teach3

Clearly the level of implementation of the PCP and therefore use of the computers is relatively low with only nine teachers implementing the program to at least a Routine level. Twenty six teachers considered that they were either preparing to implement computer use or were finding out about what they could do.

Stages of concern

Results from the SoC questionnaire are summarised in Table 11 and indicate that about 50% of the staff represented the Awareness stage. For some this appeared to be a lack of interest in the PCP either because it did not fit their teaching style, they did not have the time nor inclination, or it was not seen as relevant to their curriculum area. It is likely that some of those in the Awareness group were simply "not worried" rather than being "not interested". Ten of those in this group indicated that they used the computers weekly with their classes and therefore it could be assumed that their apparent lack of concern was due to a high level of satisfaction with the current implementation of the innovation.

From the SoC data a staff profile was graphed (Figure 5) which indicated that the concerns of staff were relatively introductory. The profile for stages 0 to 4 is a typical non-use profile but clearly a few teachers have concerns at the Collaboration and Refocussing stages (5 and 6). It was not possible to determine who all the teachers with high Stage 6 values were since many questionnaires were submitted anonymously. For Stage 0 a mean percentile below the 40th percentile is considered low while above the 75th percentile is regarded as high. Therefore the awareness score is relatively high indicating that many staff were just becoming aware of the PCP innovation even though most had been at the school for the three years. These SoC data are used more comprehensively to discuss individual teachers in the case studies.

Table 11: Major stages of concern of teachers responding to CBAM SoC questionnaire

Stage of Concern (SoC)% of teachers


* Some of these teachers may have interpreted the term "concern" to mean "worried" and therefore
rather than lacking awareness or interest they may have been indicating confidence and lack of worry.

0 : Awareness
1 : Informational
2 : Personal
3 : Management
4 : Consequence
5 : Collaboration
6 : Refocussing

Figure 5: CBAM Stage of Concern profile of teachers as mean percentile for whole staff for each stage.

The curriculum

Very few teachers were able to integrate the use of the computers with their curriculum and thus implement significant computer use into their classrooms. However, some teachers were able to do this successfully. One factor which partially explained these differences was the nature of the curriculum itself. Teachers associated with particular areas of the curriculum were more or less likely to make use of the computers. This also appeared to be the case when considering various year and ability levels of the curriculum. There was a concern that in year eleven and twelve the students should not become dependent on computers since TEE exams did not permit computer use.

Most computer use involved word processing and therefore classes associated with areas of the curriculum requiring students to complete a substantial amount of writing were more likely to make use of the computers. These classes were English, Social Studies and Design and Technology(D&T). However, a few individual teachers incorporated the use of other specialist tool applications such as graphing, graphics and spreadsheet tools, and various databases and tools such as Maths Master and MacGlobe. These teachers tended to be associated with the curriculum areas of Social Studies, language and Science.

Over the three years the use of the computers had increased across the curriculum both quantitatively and qualitatively at the Year Eight level. The Year Eight students typically perceived that the computers were mainly used for Computing, Design and Technology, English and Social Studies and that they were not relevant in Mathematics (Table 12). A considerable amount of standard classroom work involved taking notes, reading textbooks and answering questions. These activities did not lend themselves to using a tool such as a computer and as a result the students tended to give up on trying to use the computers.

For Cohort C these data were analysed in terms of the four main class groups used for their major subjects of English, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies. Students in Class 1 estimated that they averaged about 8.5 hours of computer use in school per cycle with the other three class group averages around 6.5 hours per cycle (not significant). For this cohort it appeared that curriculum area was a more significant determinant of computer use with a class than the teacher.

The use of the computers deteriorated considerably in Year Ten, where the computers were mainly perceived to be used for D&T (Table 13). Even in English only a quarter of the students appeared to have used their computers regularly in class. The following quotes are taken from interviews with teachers of Year Ten classes who indicated little use of the computers with their students.

"Not sure [computers are the] best way to go. Students may not be able to write for exams"
"Uses teacher time too much. Doing at home is better but leads to too much work at home."
"Social atmosphere of classroom becomes less interactive between the teacher and students, too work efficient."
"I am teetering on the brink. Fairly positive but apprehensive because I keep hearing problems other teachers are having."
"TEE exam writing is a problem..... Computers are not a priority for me at the moment."
Table 12: Cohort C, Year eight student use of portable computers by subject area in 1995.

Percentage of students in relevant group

In classAt home
Subject class LotsSometimesLotsSometimes

English 75206926
Mathematics 08113
Science 33424048
Social Science 72277623
Design & Technology - other 72268415
Computing Elective 7975030
French 36423527
Japanese 8541538

Table 13: Student use of portable computers by subject area (Cohort B, Year Ten).

Percentage of students in relevant group

In classAt home
Subject class LotsSometimesLotsSometimes

English 28486730
Mathematics 133114
Science 11171534
Social Science 25433447
Design & Technology - other 79196626
Computing Elective 26111313
French 1055964

At this school the tertiary entrance exams dominated the curriculum for most teachers and students, even in the lower secondary school. This discouraged innovative uses of the computers and usually relegated them to the role of a writing machine. It was perceived that students needed practice at handwritten work in all subject areas to be prepared for these exams. This perception was applied to students right down to the Year Eight level and was used as an argument for not using computers more than was done at that time.

The classrooms

Data on classroom environments were collected using the NCEI classroom environment instruments, classroom observations, responses to questions in teacher surveys, responses to questions in teacher and student interviews. Results from classes in 1993 have been reported previously (Newhouse, 1994).

Comparison of classroom environments

In each year of the study comparisons were made between classroom environments, particularly using the NCEI. For example, differences can be seen between two classes labelled Class I and Class II of four Year Eight classes investigated in the first year of the study over two curriculum areas. On average students from all four classes preferred similar types of classroom environments and while it appears that students in Class I perceived the classroom environment for both curriculum areas to be fairly similar to that which they preferred this is not the case for one curriculum area for Class II (figures 6, 7 and 8).

Figure 6: Preferred environment for students in Cohort B while in Year Eight, taken as a whole cohort and as four separate class groups.

Figure 7: Comparison of preferred and actual environments for students in Class I of Cohort B while in Year Eight in two different subject classes.

Figure 8: Comparison of preferred and actual environments for students in Class II of Cohort B while in Year Eight in two different subject classes. The two classes were taught by different teachers in each curriculum area and each class had a different teacher (i.e. there were four teachers involved). From observation of the teachers with those classes and from discussions with them they could be characterised as in Table 14. The teacher for Class II in Subject 2 made a lot of use of the computers, encouraged students to use them, used one herself, adjusted her teaching strategies to take account of the presence of the computers and had a very student-centred approach to learning. This teacher was the only teacher where the difference between actual and preferred environment on the measure Innovation was not statistically significant.

Table 14: Descriptive characteristics of four teachers.

Class and SubjectCharacteristics

Class I Subject 1Accepted computers into classroom.
Students encouraged to use computers.
Didactic teaching strategies.
Class I Subject 2Accepted computers into classroom.
Students encouraged to use computers.
Combination of teaching strategies.
Class II Subject 1Not keen to accept computers into classroom.
Didactic strategies.
Class II Subject 2Accommodated computers in classroom.
Regularly used computers in classroom and home activities.
Student-centred and open-ended teaching strategies.

Clearly on average the students in Class II for Subject 1 perceived differences between what they preferred and what actually happened in the classroom for most of the attributes which were measured. It appeared that this teacher unconsciously discouraged the students from using the computers and on many occasions no students used their computers and many did not bother to bring their computers with them to class. The students negative perception of this classroom environment may have been heightened by the comparison with their classroom for Subject 2.

The computers were used less frequently in Subject 1 where both teachers tended to use a textbook and whole class presentations a lot of the time. Those students who used the computers used them almost exclusively for note taking and answering questions in these classes. Many students decided that because there were many tables and diagrams to copy out they would be disadvantaged by using their computers. This would account for the almost complete disappearance of the computers from one of the classrooms.

Creating supportive environments

These results appear to support the notion that the computers are only likely to be used reasonably valuably where the teachers are either prepared to change the way they do things in the classroom or are at least prepared to encourage and accommodate the use of the computers. Only where the teacher had actively tried to accommodate the use of the computers had students made substantial use of the computers and in these classes the environment created appeared to match student preferences. It appeared that teachers with classes could be classified into three groups.
  1. Those who actively built in the use of the computer to lessons. (
  2. Those who permitted the use of the computers but did not attempt to change.
  3. Those who uncon sciously or otherwise discouraged the use of the computers.
However this varied for teachers from class to class and from time to time. For example, one teacher for whom most students enjoyed the lessons commented that what stopped her from making more use of computers was, "Inertia! Also less access to my computer this year has made me more laissez faire about computer use in the classroom. Especially want to develop group use of computers." Students commented that there was no typical lesson, each lesson was different. One student said, "The teacher is nice and tolerant and lets us use the computers. Not all teachers let us do this."

Pedagogy and teaching style

It became increasingly clear that the computers were used most often in classes where the teacher attempted to adopt student-centred approaches to learning. Lessons which were dominated by the teacher or text, that is were instructive in nature, rarely required the use of the computers. This was particularly illustrated by the D&T classes, one Year Ten class and the Year Eight classes involved in the study.

Teachers were forced to take a student-centred approach to the D&T classes because the curriculum required students to work, in groups, independently on projects. The teachers role in these classes was mainly as facilitator and guide to the students. The use of the computers for the PEN was mandated by the coordinator although from interviews with students it appeared that most students would have chosen to use the computers for this task. Most teachers involved in this program commented on the value of the computers and felt that this had helped to facilitate the student-centred approach to the curriculum.

The teacher of one of the few Year Ten classes which appeared to make substantial use of the computers, experimented with a module of work centred on the computer. This class was a lower ability group doing a special program designed and run by the teacher. She said she would not try it with other classes because they were on track for the TEE in a few years time and she also was not prepared to risk their performance in year ten. She felt that in trying to use more student-centred approaches to learning, associated with the use of computers, she may risk not completely covering the content.

Figure 9: Comparison between preferred and actual classroom environments for one Year Ten class from Cohort B.

In most Year Eight classes which made substantial use of the computers the teachers attempted to use a number of student-centred approaches. Three classes investigated in Cohort C had teachers who all stated that they wanted to use the computers to support a greater proportion of student-centred teaching/learning approaches. Often activities required students to collect information, prepare reports and create literature on a topic over a number of sessions, sometimes working in small groups and sometimes individually. At times the teachers insisted that the computers be used, at times they allowed the students to decide and on occasions insisted that students did not use their computers. Most of the activities were based around open-ended focus questions or small group discussion techniques. The classrooms were always set up with desks arranged in groups of about six.

Generally the students responded positively to these classes and the use of computers in them. They perceived the computer to be useful in collecting research information and presenting their information for the teacher. A majority felt that the computer helped them in their work in class and at home. They felt that their teachers could not help them with their computers but this did not perturb them.

Follow-up study

This year I have gone back to the school to collect data from Year 12 students, Year 8 students and teachers. At this time I only have data from the Year 12 students. These students were in Year 8 in the final year of the original study. All the students were given a questionnaire and 21 students were interviewed.

Initial findings from questionnaires

Initial findings from interviews


The presence of the computers made an impact on the learning environment provided for students by the school but both in a quantitative and qualitative sense was relatively inconsistent in the first two years of the study. For the third cohort of Year Eight students this impact became more consistent and significant. For the students the outcomes of the program were increasingly positive for each successive cohort with 95% developing positive attitudes and increasing independence in the use of their computers. However, most students developed skills in a haphazard way relying on information gleaned from other students, particularly those students in computing classes. Although the portable computers were often inadequate in terms of robustness this did not appear to be a major obstacle.

The majority of students preferred to be given the choice of having a computer and did not like being forced to use their computers. Many would have liked either more classroom-based computers or some system of short term loan. The experiences of many of the students in Cohort B put them off using computers. Many did not like having to carry a file and computer and would like one or the other.

For most students the computer was used as a writing machine for assignments, essays and reports. For many students this was enhanced by including graphics with some students including graphs, animations and tables. A few individual teachers required or encouraged students to use a range of other software and to apply software such as the word processor to a wider range of tasks. For example, students from Cohort C were encouraged by a number of teachers to try note-taking and more continue to do so.

Most teachers require two or three more years of experience using computers to become facilitators of significant use of computers in their classrooms. Research has indicated that teachers need at three to five years of consistent experience in using computers to become proficient at integrating their use in the curriculum. In addition it is likely that the computers will only be used consistently in classes where the teacher attempts to make use of student-centred approaches to learning.


Newhouse, P. (1993). Are Australian Classrooms Ready for Computers? Paper presented at the Australian Computers in Education Conference, July 1993.

Newhouse, P. (1994). Creating computer supported learning environments: A three year study. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94. Canberra: AJET Publications. http://www.ascilite.org.au/aset-archives/confs/edtech94/mp/newhouse.html

Plomp, T. and Pelgrum, W.J. (1992). Restructuring of schools as a consequence of computers. International Journal of Educational Research, 19, 185-195.

Rowe, H.A.H. (1993). Learning with Personal Computers. The Australian Council for Educational Research Ltd : Victoria, Australia.

Author: Dr Paul Newhouse is a lecturer in the School of Education, Edith Cowan University, 2 Bradford St, Mt Lawley, Western Australia 6050. Ph: +61 8 9370 6469, Fax: +61 8 9370 6780, Email: p.newhouse@ecu.edu.au HomePage http://edresearch.ed.ac.cowan.edu.au/paul/

Please cite as: Newhouse, P. (1999). Portable computers supporting secondary school learning. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1999. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1999/newhouse.html

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