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Sharing iPads Helps Kindergartners Learn

A new study is the first to examine how the kid-to-computer ratio affects early childhood education.
(Photo: Thijs Knaap/Flickr)

(Photo: Thijs Knaap/Flickr)

From film strips to laptops, American education has had a long love affair with technology in the classroom. The latest trend is to put tablet computers in the hands of college student and kindergartners. In the latter case, though, there generally hasn't been much evidence on how effective that tactic is. But now, new research suggests that iPads can indeed be a godsend to kindergartners—particularly if they share.

Computers have been in the classroom almost since the start of the personal computing revolution in the early 1980s. (If you're of a certain age, you might remember going to the computer lab to play around on an Apple IIe.) But whether that technology has helped students learn anything other than computer skills remains uncertain, especially when it comes to new devices and new applications—to wit, using iPads in kindergarten classrooms.

"While technology has been thought of as a key contributor to increasing student achievement, little evidence exists on whether this sentiment is wide-ranging across different age groups and different technologies," writes Courtney Blackwell, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University's School of Communication, in a paper to be presented in May at the International Communications Association's annual conference. Evidence is mixed on the use of laptops, she notes, and there have been few studies of tablet computers, or how the kid-to-computer ratio affects student outcomes.

Blackwell's analysis showed that kids in the shared-iPad classrooms gained around 27 more points on the spring test than those in classrooms with no iPads.

To begin tackling that question, Blackwell looked at reading and literacy test scores in 19 kindergarten classrooms across three suburban elementary schools during the 2013-14 school year. Each school was at a different phase of its own district-wide programs to give each kindergarten kid an iPad in class: One elementary school already had iPads at the start of the school year, another had none, and one was using them at a ratio of about two kids to one tablet. Blackwell was thus able to look at the effects of using different iPad-to-student ratios by comparing changes in test scores across the three schools.

Using the fall test scores as a baseline, Blackwell's analysis showed that kids in the shared-iPad classrooms gained around 27 more points on the spring test than those in classrooms with no iPads. Not only that, but kids who had to share also gained about 32 points on kids in classrooms where students had their own iPads and didn't have to share. While those effects aren't huge relative to overall test scores, they nonetheless point to an important and somewhat unexpected effect of tablet use on English language skills, Blackwell explains.

So why does sharing iPads have the biggest impact on test scores? Probably because it forces students to collaborate, which in turn emphasizes communication, and forces kids to share alternative viewpoints, Blackwell argues. Teachers, school districts, and policymakers would do well to take note: Given the cost of providing every student with a tablet computer, it's probably better for everyone to share.

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