Being Mobile Blog

Do Low-Achievers Benefit More from Technology?

Singapore is known worldwide for the quality of its educational system. The Singaporean system consistently produces students who rank at the top of the international tests. There are 366 schools in Singapore, with 182 being primary, K-6 schools. And in Singaporean primary schools, students are grouped into HA, MA, LA classrooms: high-achievers, middle-achievers, low-achievers. And the children know what class they are in. Ouch. 

While the curricular goals for all three groups are the same, because there are clear differences in learning capacities amongst the groups, teachers need to employ instructional strategies that resonate with a particular group.  For example, the HA children tend to be more comfortable reading and writing when compared with the LA children. Addressing the differences is where it gets really interesting for us as educational technology advocates in general, and mobile technologies advocates in particular.

Some background We have been working with educators, administrators, IT specialists, parents and students at Nan Chiau Primary School, a neighborhood school in Singapore, and with researchers at the National Institute of Education (NIE) since 2008 to explore the role that mobile-technology-enabled curricular activities can have on teaching and learning. In 2011, with support from Qualcomm Wireless Reach, the use of mobile devices at NCPS was significantly scaled up. For example, in 2015 all 325 third-graders and all 325 fourth-graders are 1-to-1 with either smartphones (Windows Phone 8) or tablets (Windows 8).

 In 2012, we conducted a survey of the fourth-graders that included the following four questions; students provided their answer on a five-point Likert scale.

  1. Would you like to use a smartphone for your schoolwork?
  2. Does using a smartphone in the classroom help you learn?
  3. Would you spend more time on your schoolwork if you used a smartphone to do the schoolwork?
  4. Would you like to have more mobile technology activities in your schoolwork?

Interestingly, the lower academic groups (LA students) tended to be more positive toward the prospect of using mobile technology for learning than the higher academic groups (HA students). You can check out the abstract of the article for more details.

Why might the LA students be more positive about the value of using mobile technology in school than the HA or MA students? In talking with the teachers and with the students, the following emerged: The LA students felt that the mobile technology enabled them to express themselves more effectively.

For example, the LA students felt less comfortable writing text because they felt that the teachers were judging their responses as either being “right” or “wrong,” but these same LA students felt that their understanding was richer, more nuanced than simply “right” or “wrong.” Instead of using just words, they preferred to use Sketchy, a drawing/animating tool on their mobile devices. Sketchy enabled the students to draw pictures and write words. That tool, they felt, enabled them to better display to the teachers what they were thinking.

Now the proof is in the pudding, so to speak: The LA students may have felt that technology gave them a leg up on learning, but did it?

(Cue the trumpets.) YES! When it came to comparing achievement over the course of the school year, the LA students improved by a whopping 23 percent, while the HA students improved only 5 percent. Now, the HA students were already scoring very well, so the 5 percent may have been the result of the ceiling effect — the HA kids couldn’t get much higher. But the MA children, who did have lots of room to grow, only improved by 8 percent.

Of course, causality cannot be inferred from these data; we cannot conclude that using mobile devices caused the scores of the LA students to go up. There is a correlation: When X happened, Y happened. And the reported data are from one year only (2012). What were the scores for 2013 and 2014?

That said, these are “interesting” data that warrant our taking a deeper look at the role that mobile technology has played in the classrooms in Nan Chiau. It’s long been conjectured that children — be they from Singapore, Missouri or the Isle of Skye — who have problems learning through more traditional methods find technology to be a powerful tool, a powerful medium through which to learn. Inasmuch as what we learn in Singapore can impact what we do here in the U.S., it would be wonderful to get some solid empirical evidence to support that conjecture. Stay tuned!!

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at