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Supplemental Versus Essential Use of Computing Devices in the Classroom: An Analysis

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Part of the New Frontiers of Educational Research book series (NFER)


Increases in student achievement can be observed in classrooms where computers are used as essential tools in the curriculum. In contrast, when computers are used as supplemental to the curriculum—even in classrooms that are 1:1 (one laptop per student)—no increase in student achievement is observed. These claims are based on the analyses of a number of empirical studies of classroom computer use. We draw on the work of Project RED, a nationwide survey of classroom computer use, to identify the characteristics that distinguish between essential and supplemental use. This distinction is not an empty one; it could and should guide the next wave of 1:1 classrooms as mobile computing devices experience increased adoption. Indeed, the reality of every student having a computing device in the palm of his or her hand is within reach in the near term. However, if those computing devices are used as supplements to the curriculum then a great opportunity will be lost. In contrast, with a change in pedagogy and curriculum, K-12 education is poised to experience a dramatic increase in student achievement.


  • Mobile Device
  • Student Achievement
  • Computing Device
  • Mobile Technology
  • Mobile Learn

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  1. 1.

    In Singapore, the top and lowest performing students are grouped into special classes; the middle students—mixed ability—are then organized evenly into classes. Our comparison groups are the other mixed-ability classes.

  2. 2.

    Individuals report enjoying the activity of making use of their smartphone (personal communications from various individuals).

  3. 3.

    Norris and Soloway are in the process of documenting these scores.


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This work is based on the efforts of Dr. Chee- Kit Looi and his colleagues at the National Institute of Education, Singapore, and on the vision and cooperation of Chun Ming Tan, Principal of Nan Chiau Primary School, and Gene Lim, head of department and teacher at Nan Chiau. Two of Dr. Looi’s associates, Gean Chia and Peter Seow, in particular, have played major roles in the creation and enactment of the mobilized curriculum used at Nan Chiau. And we wish to acknowledge Jenny Lee and Shirlyn Cheng, teachers at Nan Chiau for their leadership in being early adopters of the mobilized curriculum. We (Norris and Soloway) proudly work with all the above as members of CERA—Center for Education Research and Action. CERA is a unique collaboration, housed at Nan Chiau Primary School, among academics, administrators, teachers, researchers, and commercial concerns. In a conversation with us at his home in Atlanta, Mark Weston (Rivero 2010) used the term “essential” in reference to the computer’s role in learning. Thank you, Mark, for sharing and for that pivotal conversation.

Portions of this book chapter appeared earlier in Education Technology Magazine in an article entitled: Using Smartphones as Essential Tools for Learning: A Call to Place Schools on the Right Side of the 21st Century, Norris, C., Hossain, A. & Soloway, E., Educational Technology Magazine, May/June 2011.

Portions of this book chapter appeared earlier in a Conference paper entitled: Under What Conditions Does Computer Use Positively Impact Student Achievement? Supplemental vs. Essential Use, Norris, C., Hossain, A. & Soloway, E. Proceedings of the SITE 2012 Conference, Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education, Austin, TX.

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Correspondence to Cathie Norris .

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© 2013 Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg

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Norris, C., Hossain, A., Soloway, E. (2013). Supplemental Versus Essential Use of Computing Devices in the Classroom: An Analysis. In: Huang, R., Kinshuk, Spector, J.M. (eds) Reshaping Learning. New Frontiers of Educational Research. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

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