What’s My Motivation?

Quite a few school districts and states are experimenting with issuing laptop computers to students, with Iowa being one of the most recent. There are a variety of reasons the promoters offer for spending large amounts of money on these programs but one that pops up frequently is the "motivation" factor.

"It’s a tool to motivate students, to keep them interested and get assignments turned in," said Superintendent William Decker.

While there are many good reasons for using computers in the classroom, and for using laptop over desktop machines, I have my doubts about their ability to singlehandedly stimulate student learning. At least not over the long term.

One of the few things I remember from my ed psych class in college was something called the "novelty effect". As I recall, it basically said that almost anything unique injected into a learning situation could motivate students. However, any advantage would usually disappear over time after the newness wore off.

I probably have that theory all mangled but I’ve seen the concept at work and I wonder if it might not occur in these laptop programs. What happens down the line when using the machines is routine? Will the motivation and the interest remain? More importantly, will there be an improvement in teaching and learning as a result of the devices?

The short answer is probably not – if nothing changes but the addition of laptop computers. It’s been more than 20 years since personal computers first began appearing in the classroom, but we seem to be still in something of a "gee whiz" phase, laptops being the most current object of adoration.

However, American education will not improve without some major alterations to everything from the calendar to curriculum to organization. Just adding laptops to the mix will not work. Computers should certainly be part of that change but just computerizing a classroom (or a kid) in the long term will make no difference to teaching and learning. None!