Internet Access as Vital as Devices to Boosting the Learning Experience

Access to both a tablet computer and Internet access at school and home makes learning "more fun and interesting" to most fifth graders, engages them more in their learning, and encourages them to read and write more and look up information online more frequently. Those are some of the findings from the second year of a 1-to-1 experiment being performed in a Chicago elementary school where 93 percent of families are low income and where 44 percent of students qualify as English language learners.

The project is being run at Falconer Elementary School by Project Tomorrow, a nonprofit known for its national Speak Up survey, which analyzes data from students, educators and parents, particularly regarding the use of technology in schools.

Project Tomorrow has been conducting a three-year study at Falconer to examine the impact on learning when every student in the class has a tablet with 4G LTE access at school and home. The latest findings, covering year 2 (the 2013-2014 school year), were just published in "Making Learning Mobile 2.0."

The study is being sponsored by Kajeet and funded through Qualcomm's Wireless Reach initiative. Kajeet sells SmartSpot, an education-oriented portable hotspot. The WiFi device ensures CIPA- and school policy-compliance and provides tools to manage student access and monitor usage and traffic.

Within the school 127 fifth grade students and their four teachers were outfitted with Samsung Android tablets and SmartSpots for personal use. Just over a third of the students told the researchers that they didn't have access to high-speed Internet at home.

As part of the study, the four teachers also received 56 hours of professional development, coaching and mentoring "to increase their effectiveness with using the tablets for instruction." Because this was the second year of the study, the researchers initially thought the educators would have a greater "comfort level" in their use of the device and online tools within their instruction. However, staffing changes meant that only two of the original four were part of the fifth grade class in the second year, which meant half the teacher team still had a learning curve. Yet, noted the report, "The teachers' strong commitment to professional development and their willingness to incorporate new strategies and resources into their classroom is a hallmark of a successful and maturing mobile learning project."

"We wanted to evaluate how access to these devices for communication with teachers and classmates increases comfort with technology, extends the learning day, and allows students to develop digital citizenship skills within a safe and secure learning environment," explained Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow, in a statement. "During the second year of the study, we were interested in learning how the teachers would integrate the devices into instruction and how that integration would help the students develop stronger research skills."

Data was compiled through surveys and focus groups, classroom observation and interviews with the teachers.

The project reported five key findings:

  • Access to a computing device and the Internet resulted in "greater student engagement in learning." Eighty percent of the students said having the tablet "made learning more fun and interesting"; 72 percent reported they "were more engaged in their lessons."
  • Sixty percent of students said they did more reading and writing during the school year because of having a tablet. In fact, teachers assigned more reading and writing homework because they knew home Internet access was available. "This resulted in increased reading and writing fluency, which is especially important for English Language Learners," the report noted.
  • Internet access shot up. Nearly 80 percent of students reported accessing the Internet on a daily basis in fifth grade, up from 4 percent in fourth grade.
  • Students became more independent learners. Almost all said they "used their tablet regularly to look up information on the Internet when they had a question about something."
  • With professional development, teachers changed their instructional practices. According to the report, this was evident "by the level of integration of the tablets into everyday instruction" and by "the new project based learning orientation within the classes."

But the greatest difference overall, the researchers stated, occurred because students could access online information anytime, anywhere. That access "transformed the classroom environment by allowing both students and teachers to bring additional resources into the learning process, at just the right moment to have the greatest impact on learning."

"Studies like this one show teachers, students, parents and administrators the value of not only the technology, but the necessity for connectivity as well," said Daniel Neal, CEO and founder of Kajeet.

Project Tomorrow and Kajeet will host a webinar that explores the results Feb. 18 at 4 p.m. Eastern.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.