Literature Review

One-to-one computer programs, where schools provide students with their own wireless devices, are often the topic of educational news briefs and journal articles. These reports range from stories about school systems dismantling laptop programs to other districts preparing to launch similar initiatives.  This indicates that despite failed attempts, there are leaders who believe that providing students a personal device enhances the learning environment.  Schools leaders in Maine and Texas were forerunners in one-to-one initiatives, and a number of studies on those first models are providing insights to newcomers beyond the technical considerations of infrastructure and device capabilities. While being able to connect to the web and having working machines is essential, the groundwork to a successful one-to-one program begins with understanding and investing in the people who will use the technology.

The Promise of One-to-One Computer Programs in Schools
Inspired by the transformational potential of technology, growing numbers of policy makers and educational systems around the world have invested their resources in one-to-one computing programs that provide every student and teacher ubiquitous access to mobile computers (Holcomb, 2009; Weston & Bain, 2010). Consider the radical changes that everyday use of mobile devices, e-commerce and ever-present internet access have already had on society.  These changes inspire educators to advocate for the adoption of educational technology and one-to-one programs for improving teaching and learning practices (Bebell & Kay, 2010).  Despite noteworthy obstacles and the inherent challenge that technology itself is ever changing at a rapid pace, the scale of implementation and the disruption to the status quo have essentially secured what Weston and Bain (2010) describe as “a potential foothold for change and a distinct driver for going further” (p. 10) than any other educational reform efforts of the past.

Regardless if the goal for the laptop program is economic competitiveness, reducing the inequity of access to technology or educational reform, the key to a successful program is aligning policies to the goals.  Although the scale of programs may vary widely, the consensus is that an all-inclusive approach that takes into consideration curriculum and content, culture of the building, and technical needs is necessary to build a solid foundation when implementing a one-to-one program.  The need to focus on the students’ learning and the capacity building in the schools rather than on the technology itself has been somewhat of a challenge (Zucker, 2005).  Weston and Bain (2010) assert that a school initiating one-to-one computing may inadvertently create self-organizing schools where technology is not the emphasis, yet that is the determinant for shifting the educational paradigm. Becoming a one-to-one school demands more than substituting word processing notes for paper and pen or trading digital presentations for traditional speeches.  It requires redefining what school, classrooms, and teacher and student interactions look like. When leadership and teachers recognize the one-to-one device as a cognitive tool and not merely a piece of technology, then educational practices reflect that in the way that lessons are designed, delivered and managed.  A school is said to achieve the distinction of “self-organizing” when technology becomes so integrated that it is inseparable from the teaching, learning, creating and communicating that occurs daily among all participants (Weston & Bain, 2010).

Student-centered practices emerged as a key component in successful one-to-one settings.  Teachers expressed a stronger affiliation with constructivist practices and an emphasis on experiential learning in one-to-one classrooms (Shapley, 2009). While Shapley asserts that applying technology to teaching core content largely determines the impact of academic achievement, (2009), the success hinged on how the technology was being used within the learning setting; primarily as an enabler for 21st century skills. Shifting from 20th century compliance in the classroom to 21st century competence occurs, according to Prensky (2009) when educators grasp that we need to separate the “nouns,” netbooks with 2.0 tools, from the “verbs,” the knowledge driven, life-long skills, in conversations about teaching with technology.  Though it is not a linear process, there exists a gradual release of teacher responsibility of providing students extensive directions to having students assume responsibility for their learning (Frey, Fisher & Gonzalez, 2010).

Distinctions Placed on Today’s Learners in the Connected Classroom
A collection of phrases is used to identify students currently in the classroom based solely on the fact that they born after the emergence of the Internet.  Prensky (2001) designated the term Digital Native in reference to today’s generation of students who believe digital technology is effortless, convenient and benign. Over time the term’s usage moved away from its original context of describing user comfort with technology to being connected to the capability of the user to apply digital tools to their work.  Similar labels include The Net Generation (Tapscott, 1998) and Millenials (Howe & Strauss, 2000), which are prevalent in political, business and educational conversation.

Labeling students can be counterproductive. While Prensky (Martinez & Prensky, 2011) defends his metaphor of the digital native and immigrant, he concedes that the labels have been used by some educators to qualify their inaction when it comes to developing digital capabilities. With so many students entering school with sophisticated technology in their back pocket, their adoption of multi-functioning cell phones has lead some teachers to conclude that this generation can employ technology to other aspects of their lives with little or no instruction.  Martinez (Martinez & Prensky, 2011) notes that while today’s students are less trepid about technology than previous generations, it does not “translate to intellectual curiosity or comprehending boundaries” (p. 6).  This echoes what Bennett et al. recount about students experiencing frustration and adopting a “snatch and grab” philosophy when not immediately successful in a search for information (p. 781) and what Ferriter and Garry (2010) call “professional infosnackers” (p. 3).  Seemingly, both Martinez and Prensky agree that today’s students need informed adults to guide them to use digital tools purposefully and to develop what Prensky defines as “digital wisdom” (2011 p. 6-7).

One might warn those educators claiming that today’s generation of students has a natural inclination for understanding and employing new technologies that they tend to ignore a few critical facts.  It has been suggested that the term “Web 2.0 Student” identifies a new generation of learners.  These students are no longer satisfied at being mere consumers of information, but rather are enthusiastically engaged in using collaborative technologies to participate in the World Wide Web as creators of new information (Rosen & Nelson, 2008).  Connecting today’s learners to the evolution of the web has led some to assume that students can intuitively and effectively use these new web applications.

Rosen and Nelson’s experience tells a different story. Despite students’ familiarity with social media platforms, many of today’s students remain unaware of many of the functions, features and settings of collaborative production and communication tools like blogs and wikis. The skills students acquired through their use of cell phones and video games fail to naturally transfer to applications in a learning setting. Even when the digital divide that prevents many youth from being connected is addressed with an established one-to-one computer setting, there exists a secondary divide as students lack uniformity to their experiences (Rosen & Nelson, 2008). With nearly a decade of research to their credit, Bennett, Matton and Kervin draw the conclusion that these gaps make it imperative that educators be aware of their role in fostering informational literacies to support learning (2008).

Emerging Digital Citizens
A number of notable obstacles and unknowns exist when a school becomes immersed in one-to-one technology; especially so when its students suddenly discover that they are connected 24/7 with teachers who are underprepared to manage the new environment. McGrail (2006) examined the leading role of one-to-one settings and determined teachers struggled with their new responsibilities.

The Internet in particular meant that the outside world, for good or ill, lay on their students’ laptops. This private, personally administered world of the educator had been forever transformed. They found that their own understanding of their vocation was in conflict with their new role in policing students to make sure they stayed on task and didn’t violate privacy and copyright laws (p. 1076).

The teachers in McGrail’s study took a stance in what tends to be one of two camps when it came to responding to concerns about digital age behavior.  They either focused on policing or marginalizing the use of technology so that the teacher maintained control or they opened up access so that digital activities were within the context of the learning community and students were engaged in decision making. Linton succinctly brings to focus the urgency for educators to own this new aspect of learning.  He cautions that neglecting to do so “could render us irrelevant” as some of the educators in McGrail’s study discovered when they opted not to learn about technology’s potential (2011).

With potentially socially disruptive digital technologies challenging the status quo of the classroom, it is essential that educators be prepared to discuss with students how to manage the freedom, anonymity and persuasiveness that characterizes cyberspace. The problem is that digital citizenship was found to mean very different things to different people (National Council for Digital Citizenship, 2011). When International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) members were asked if they have a clear definition of digital citizenship, the overwhelming majority responded no. This presents a challenge about how to approach this topic of citizenship in a digital age.

According to Ohler, one-to-one educators cannot take the “two lives” perspective, which infers that today’s students lead a traditional life much like their parents did as youngsters, and lead a second, digitally infused life outside of school, where the norm is to receive iTunes gift cards on birthdays, screen the latest viral YouTube videos, and add friends on Facebook.  In contrast, he suggests the “one digital life” perspective that calls educators to recognize and accept the role of helping today’s students be aware of the rights and responsibilities that come with being a member in the larger community made possible by the world wide web. Ohler explains that students need to question technology in terms of what it offers and the personal responsibilities that come with its use.  He asserts that educators need to design activities that require this level of critical analysis (2011).

Evolving Expertise
One-to-one classrooms focused on reforming education demand a radical shift in teacher pedagogy and practices. Research has shown that when teachers in a school shared understandings about the use of technology for enhancing learning and were supportive of the one-to-one program, implementations at both the classroom and the student levels were more successful (Shapely et al, 2010).  McGrail (2006) points to Larry Cuban’s assertion that technology is not enough to bring about the changes policy makers and administrators advocate when they implement one-to-one programs in a top down manner. She draws the conclusion that in order to achieve transformational technology integration the process needs to be evolutionary so that teachers can overcome questions about how technology fits with the curriculum and the pressure of testing preparation. Stressing what others have found to be true, McGrail advocates for innovative, individualized computer instruction for teachers in order to eliminate the continued ill-suited use of technology.

Developing teacher expertise in terms of the use of technology should be centered on meaningful outcomes as indicated by the evidence.  Teachers who were willing to work on developing technology proficiency tended to identify more complex applications for technology integration rather than simply replacing traditional practices with new ways of doing them (Holcomb, 2009). Within a setting that offered both technology and pedagogical professional development, teachers responded favorably to trainings that provided value to the laptops in the classroom such as problem-based lesson design and specific resources that supported their content area. It was discovered in post surveys that teachers who gained new expertise typically identified themselves as part of a community of learners and were motivated by the transformation of their students’ learning experiences (Shapley, 2010).

Not every teacher was prepared for change or interested in experiencing this transformation (Bebell & Kay, 2010). McGrail (2006) determined a contributing factor to teachers’ ambivalence towards integrating technology in their instruction is their own comfort level guiding students in the learning situations they deem required technological expertise. These studies that have closely followed teachers in one-to-one settings note that teacher willingness to develop expertise went hand in hand with their relationship to students.  Shapley et. al (2010) cite McGrail’s findings “that the use of technology in a one-to-one classroom reflects teachers’ beliefs about their students and the potential for technology for learning, as well as their conception of what constitutes effective teaching” (p. 10).

The Significance of Relationships between Teacher and Student in the Connected Classroom
Teachers’ beliefs about their students heavily impact the success of one-to-one programs. Findings from early research reveal a tendency for teachers to make decisions about the role of technology in the classroom based on their perception about their school’s culture, their personal definition of “good teaching” and how that is perceived by leadership in their building as well as their opinion of the students in their classes (Windschitl & Sahl, 2002).  Eight years later, Bebell and Kay stress it is “impossible to overstate the power of individual teachers in the success or failure of one-to-one computing” (p. 48). They observed how teachers nearly always controlled how and when students accessed and used the technology during the school day (2010). Similarly, over the course of four years, the study of laptop use in twenty-one Texas middle schools noted the significance of teacher buy-in since students’ school experiences with the technology were largely dictated by their teachers (Shapley et al, 2010).

In situations where teachers believe they are assessed by their classroom control and direct instruction is their instructional model, there is a reluctance to turn learning over to the students.  In these cases when teachers have connected students, they can become fixated on catching students misbehaving and lose sight of the potential for learning with the laptop and begin marginalizing its usage, and more significantly its role in engaging learners. On the other hand, there exist examples of teachers who are open to seeing the laptop in a different light. When teachers were capable of viewing the technology as a “gateway” for their students to access information shared by other experts, then they were able to remove themselves as the “hub of authoritative discourse” and could take the role of co-learner alongside students.  In such settings, the teacher engaged students in collaboratively solving complex problems using the technology as a resource or a set of tools that enabled them to try on adult identities and create professional-looking products of their learning (Windschitl & Sahl, 2002 p.196). Rosen and Nelson (2008) summarize this phenomenon as Education 2.0.  They see the collaborative technologies as adding a new dimension to constructivist pedagogy that was made popular by the theories of Vygotsky. They go on to state this new version of education “enable[s] groups to move past their usual ways of working together and, as a result, to (a) build a collective wisdom that transcends that of the individual, in which the wisdom of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and (b) transform the constructivist classroom into an Education 2.0 classroom” (pp. 221-222).

Involving Student as Stakeholders and Stewards
Student tech teams can empower students to become part of the solution for the school. The role they play can vary from technical support to providing training for peers and their teachers.  Recognizing that both technology departments and teachers need the help, organizations such as Challenging Regional Educators to Advance Technology in Education (CREATE) in Mississippi have been designed to support the implementation of student tech teams.  While teachers in schools with student tech teams benefit from in the classroom support, the student members gained unique learning experiences (Waters, 2008).

Regardless of the task, students who are given well-designed challenges and trusted to take the responsibility seriously can demonstrate accountability for their own learning. Generation YES, a commercial based provider of student centered technology programs based out of Washington state, supplies training and tools for schools in order for them to establish “a sustainable technology program” within a school.  Participants receive basic training on technology skills and complete project based learning activities using the provided curriculum (Waters, 2008 p. 2).

The Student Technology Leadership Program (STLP) supported by the Kentucky Department of Education evaluates student tech team projects in four categories: instructional, community, technical, and entrepreneurial. Their assertion is that students’ work on projects can make a difference in their classrooms, schools, and communities.  Team members provide real world services such as publications, repair services and technical support in the process of pursuing their interest in technology (Waters, 2008 p.6). When students knew that they were being recognized for these contributions they became stakeholders in the success of the program.

Ownership and leadership skills are two natural byproducts of establishing a student tech team.  Students participating in school tech teams have the opportunity to serve as role models for other students. Mitra (2009) focuses on the recruitment role that youth play in reaching out to other youth in their school and community to get involved in the work of the youth-adult partnership and other change initiatives happening in the school. She notes youth “tend to take very seriously the charge of being role models to the next generation of reformers and students in general” (p. 331).  In many cases, students who join tech teams have not found their niche in the school setting and the opportunity to be a leader in an area where they excel turns their educational experience around.  Students who often fail to stand out in the mainstream can prosper on a tech team because they are doing something they are good at and can share that with their teachers and peers (Waters, 2008).

Developing Student Voice and Digital Footprints
One of the most popular means for sharing perspectives and experiences today is through blogging, or journaling on the web.  Historically, public authorship has been reserved for adults. Even in the blogging world, the predominant perspective is that of adults; however, student voice is creeping into web publishing. Blogging provides a means for students to share what they have discovered, demonstrate the value of their learning and encourage others to do the same. Publishing on the web also presents students an opportunity to conscientiously build their digital footprint.

Evidence shows that students interacting with an audience beyond their assigned classes, their school and potentially their community need to be aware of the importance of how they represent themselves, as well as the type of information, and the purpose for which they share it on the World Wide Web. Frey, Fischer and Gonzalez (2010) describe how social conventions and expectations of interpersonal communications are evolving since users determine the norms.  They stress the importance of being able to “discern the voice behind the text and the visual representations (such as avatars) that people use to communicate who they are and what they value” (p. 117).  It is recommended that students become regular readers of other’s blogs for a number of reasons, one being so they have a comparison for their own work (Ferriter & Garry, 2010).  Richardson adds that students ought to develop a diverse network so they can examine differing voices that might drive their thinking (2008). He goes on to charge that educators need to support students in communicating, collaborating and working collectively in networks focused on student passion rather than build units around the concepts of Information and Web Literacy (p. 19). Providing blogging opportunities with this in place will encourage students to develop online portfolios that represent who they are, what they do and by association, what they know in a transparent and authentic way (Richardson, 2008).


Leadership in one-to-one schools struggle with the inevitable problems that arise with the disruption to the status quo; however, armed with the understanding that providing students with personal devices is just one of many actions in the process of transforming education, leaders can support teachers in the shift of pedagogy necessary for real changes to begin. Embracing a student-centered approach and taking ownership of essential technology skills such as digital literacy empowers educators in the connected classroom. Recognizing students as leaders who are still developing their personal skill sets and providing them with opportunities to apply technology to their learning in meaningful ways will not only move the process forward; it is the foundation on which to build a successful one-to-one school.