I was reading an article for my literature review that discusses a study of a school district that introduced many laptops into the school (Lowther, Ross, & Morrison, 2003). The researchers studied classrooms where the students each had been issued a laptop by the school district. They also studied control classrooms where students didn't have one to one technology. The control classrooms had five or six classroom computers instead. In order to participate in the laptop program, families had to pay a $5/month lease fee for the computers. I imagine this was to impress a feeling of responsibility on the kids, rather than feeling like they were just getting the technology for free. Families chose whether to do the laptop option or not, and then the kids were divided into their classes after the school determined which students would have their own laptop computer to use in class.
The article made it sound like the researchers had come into the situation after this had all been set up already, so they wouldn't have played a role in having the opportunity to have a control group--it just happened to exist already. However, they probably had a strong interest in the continuing existence of a control group. Ultimately, the students with their own laptops showed increased writing achievement, increased interest and engagement in school (as measured by the researchers), and increased computing skills. The students in the laptop classroom "indicated that the laptop had influenced classroom-level changes in fostering more project work, research, higher-level thinking, writing, and cooperative learning" (Lowther, Ross, & Morrison, 2003, 39). The research was not highly conclusive, but did demonstrate that the laptop students had some advantages over the non-laptop students.
The researchers asked parents for their opinions on the program. One parent stated the following: "The school has made some major mistakes in their implementation of this program. There is a separation between the 'laptop' kids and the 'nonlaptop' kids, and our district makes this separation wider" by doing things like having the two groups in separate halls (Lowther, Ross, & Morrison, 2003, 41). As soon as I read this quotation from the parent, I started thinking about the ethics of the researchers in the study, and also about how it would feel to come out on the other end of your work and realize that some students had been disadvantaged right in front of your eyes. If I were in that position, I would know that I had not caused it, and that I had not done anything wrong, and yet I might feel complicit in the situation. Someone else might have come in, seen the situation, said "this is inequitable" and advocated for all students to have the same materials. The researchers would have had an interest in maintaining the status quo for long enough to finish their research.
As with any research project involving human subjects, the researchers would have gone before the review board and had the work approved. They were simply studying a program that was already in place. The students without the laptop instruction still had trained teachers and even had technology in their classroom. Nothing about the study seems that it would violate the tenet of beneficence which states that the researcher must do no harm, and maximize the possible benefits and minimize the possible risks (National Institute of Health, n.d.) . It is interesting to think of what happens when, at the end of the study, researchers find that one group of people they studied, or one part of the study, ended up having a significantly higher risk or benefit than another. What is the responsibility of the researchers to step in and interrupt a situation that they can identify as problematic, even when it would invalidate their entire research project?
This also made me think about my final project and whether I feel comfortable proposing a research project that grants special materials to some students and not to others. Maybe this situation could be avoided with a pre and post-test on the same group of students, rather than comparing one group to the other (the laptops and the nonlaptops, so to speak). It is also complicated because in a setting like a school, it is highly unlikely that every student could be loaned a device. Does this mean that no one should be loaned a device?
Maybe my project proposal could involve several classes that do a similar type of project several times during the year. One of the times, they could use 1:1 devices in some way. The other time, they would not use 1:1 devices. Instead of having a control group, there could be a control situation within the same classroom. Many possibilities to consider...
Lowther, D., Ross, S., & Morrison, G. (2003). When each one has one: The influences on teaching strategies and student achievement of using laptops in the classroom. Education Technology Research and Development, 51(3), 23-44.
National Institute of Health. (2011, February 4). Protecting Human Research Participants. [online training module]. Accessed at http://phrp.nihtraining.com/users/login.php?l=3.