5 Chapter 5: A Laptop for Every Learner: The Not So Simple Solution

Lindsay Humphreys

1:1 Defined

The development of  21st-century skills (Rich, 2020) is a mandate that has been increasingly and broadly adopted in education. This directive includes mastering skills that enable learners to collaborate, learn actively, inquire, and involve themselves in the design process through technology. Institutions are assisting students to develop 21st-century skills in part by implementing one-to-one (1:1) programs, which are believed to foster said skills (Islam & Grönlund, 2016). These programs mean that every student within an institution has access to a personal laptop (or tablet) at all times to complete their school work (Islam & Grönlund, 2016). Researchers have posited that 1:1 is a method by which student growth and preparedness can be ensured (Powers et al., 2020). To properly prepare students for the world outside of the school building, those who argue in support of developing 21st-century skills (e.g., Alvarado, 2018) contend that pedagogy is enacted to bring about the best consequences, which has shifted over the years to meet the needs of the individual, and society (Bates, 2019) resulting in an increasingly authentic, technology-charged classroom.

This chapter takes a utilitarian perspective while discussing the ethical implications of a 1:1 program. Utilitarianism, a consequentialist approach to ethics, maintains that the morally superior action is the one that results in the greater good (Driver, 2014). When everyone has equal access to education, society is better off. As the classroom changes because of technology, diligence must be maintained to ensure that education is for the greater good, and that society takes meaningful steps to ensure that it is inclusive. This chapter discusses the benefits of a 1:1 program, and also the ethical challenges such programs face. This consideration of benefits and challenges includes the effects on learners, educators, and other stakeholders; data, privacy, and consent; inclusivity and the digital divide; and autonomy and independence.

Laptops in the Classrooms

A Device for Everyone!

In an effort to have students achieve growth in 21st-century skills, institutions arm each of their learners with a device (Islam & Grönlund, 2016). This approach has been bolstered by a technology industry that has produced better and cheaper devices for the classroom (Blikstad-Balas & Davies, 2017; Boninger et al., 2019). And it may be true that the computer is one of the most important tools of this lifetime (Gray, 2015); however, research into effective, replicable use of 1:1 initiatives is scarce (Parrish & Sadera, 2020). As such, researchers have yet to fully understand if a personal laptop does improve learning outcomes and prepare students for their future, or if they simply put students and teachers in an ethically ambiguous situation.

Don’t Forget the Teachers

A device may help enhance learning for students; however, educators are profoundly affected by the speed with which systemic changes are implemented. Often, there is little time or support for teachers to adequately prepare for enhanced use of technology. The invention of the iPad in 2010, and subsequent surge in cheaper and better personal devices, spurred the widespread adoption of a device for every student (Blikstad-Balas & Davies, 2017). DelSanto (2017) pointed out that many studies overlook the substantial amount of resources that institutions need to carry out a 1:1 program to support educators. Though competition and innovation lead to refined products, these advances also require educators to become proficient with slightly different tools. This scenario requires a considerable investment of time and focus, both of which can be hard to come by.

Engaged or Distracted?

Implementing 1:1 can be both an enhancement and a disruption to learning. Studies report that learners are more engaged and motivated, and persist more often when using technology (Zheng et al., 2016). Students have more control over their learning (Holen et al., 2017) and participate in inquiry, sharing, gathering, and research (Sung et al., 2017), as well as communication and collaboration (Blikstad-Balas & Davies, 2017). However, disruption in this educational process can ensue due to a lack of support for teachers (Bebell & O’Dwyer, 2010; Holen et al., 2017). Without leadership and infrastructure (Islam & Grönlund, 2016), teachers are left in the lurch. Furthermore, technology itself can be distracting and encourage superficial versus deeper learning (Holen et al., 2017, p. 38). Teachers report falling behind on curriculum goals (Peterson & Scharber, 2017) due to the distractibility of the device. Additionally, if teachers are not appropriately supported, devices may not be used as intended (Bebell & O’Dwyer, 2010; Penuel, 2006). The device should be used to engage learners in learning, not distract from a task.

Moving Forward

Further research into 1:1 programs would assist all invested parties in learning more about the most effective approach for this relatively new pedagogy. Without proper implementation or research (Islam & Grönlund, 2016), ethical dilemmas are bound to surface. The belief that each student having a laptop is enough to positively affect their learning outcomes is at the root of this problem and must be addressed.

Data Literacy

Behind the Screens

As part of 1:1 implementation, students are potentially exposed to ethical issues regarding privacy, data security, and informed consent. The 1:1 classroom is a complex interaction of students, teachers, individual and group knowledge, and access to the web. Because of insufficient teacher and student preparation, concerns can arise with the use of various software. As students’ presence on the web grows larger, educational and noneducational applications routinely collect their personal data. Although this is unsurprising in today’s data-driven society, students are minors and targeting them in a school setting is inappropriate. Privacy and data concerns for digital learning include being tracked, losing autonomy, lacking anonymity, and losing ownership of intellectual property (Regan & Jesse, 2019). Given that 1:1 programs require the use of various digital tools, each of these risks must be fully assessed by institutions and stakeholders.

According to Kelly et al. (2019), privacy settings are often difficult to control, and some apps may intentionally or unintentionally engage in collecting student data and selling or sharing the data with third parties. Applications or websites that are deemed educational may not respect child privacy laws or obtain parental consent (Kelly et al., 2019). Yet the prevalence of a device in the hands of every student only grows. Kelly et al.’s (2019) findings “indicate a widespread lack of transparency and inconsistent privacy and security practices for products intended for children and students” (p. 5). This lack of transparency, alongside teachers and schools that may not be well prepared or equipped to protect their students (Fleming, 2021), calls into question the potential ethical implications of a 1:1 program.

More than a Number

Educational apps may appear to be designed with innocent intent as their advertised goals are to engage students in learning. However, Lupton and Williamson (2017) warned of algorithms that are not objective, and “consist of a range of embedded forms of knowledge and expertise, norms and values that originate with their designers and are encoded in the data the tools provide” (p. 799). These design factors can put students at risk of being tracked, their data analyzed, predictions made, or student learning goals dictated according to certain norms. Consequentialist theorists “understand morality as a matter of bringing about the right consequences” (Farrow, 2016, p. 101). Through the collection of data from students, their learning, future learning progress, and pathways may be influenced or predicted without inclusion of their actual lived experience (Rennie et al., 2019). The data does not incorporate the students’ voices, thoughts, or opinions concerning their experiences and decision-making process, but may dictate life opportunities (Barassi, 2019) without their informed consent. Regan and Jesse (2019) pointed out that big data in education may create “more refined, intersectional categories that might discriminate among students in harder to read ways” (p. 172). As 1:1 programs increase, institutions ought to use a variety of assessments as evidence of learning, not just analytics.

Education and Data

Analytics can benefit education since many applications collect data to improve learning. Furthermore, many companies have signed a Privacy Pledge (Student privacy pledge, 2020) promising to only collect educationally relevant data and protect student privacy. Whether part of the privacy pledge or not, data collection is often done with limited consent from a vulnerable population (namely students). Islam and Grönlund (2016) noted that educators often lack the necessary support to navigate these complex privacy issues. Educators use and implement a variety of educational and noneducational technology tools for learning without full consideration of the terms and agreements (Duball, 2020). Furthermore, due to limited budgets, teachers often choose free apps, which often require users to pay with the learners’ attention and behavioural data (Rennie et al., 2019). Teachers unwittingly mandate that their students comply with potentially misunderstood terms and agreements. The ethical responsibility ultimately lies with the teacher (Rennie et al., 2019). Therefore, prioritizing teacher education, children’s rights, and parental oversight in 1:1 projects, and consistent adoption of policies to protect these rights is needed. The ramifications of a 1:1 program can put students at risk for habit-forming (NPR, 2012) and the growth of an online digital identity, stemming from data collection, that affects their lives without their knowledge (Pangrazio & Selwyn, 2020). Consequently, students, their families, teachers, and institutions are all at risk of privacy breach, and their intellectual property or other data being used without their informed knowledge and consent.

Taking Responsibility

To facilitate learning in a 1:1 program and to do so transparently, institutions should make data literacy an integral part of the program. This would allow for an investigation of a company’s terms of agreement. Teaching students to think critically about data to build data literacy can give educators and students agency over the tool (Markham, 2018). All parties learn to weigh the consequences and the benefits. A critical data literacy pedagogy should be incorporated in tandem with other disciplines to ensure teachers are supported in choosing the best tools for students and in understanding how to read the terms and conditions and adjust privacy settings.

Interestingly, an issue with data literacy is the propensity of humans to be unwilling to change “even when cognisant of the issues and options” (Pangrazio & Selwyn, 2020, p. 13). Many educators are unwilling to give up the convenience of digital tools in the classroom even when they are aware of potential issues. At this time, it is primarily up to corporations to take data more seriously and treat students’ data more respectfully. In their study on data literacy implementation, Pangrazio and Selwyn (2018) noted that trust in corporations is what makes datafication so widespread. If teachers and students in 1:1 classroom settings are obliged to use applications, data security ought to be taken more seriously by both technology companies and educational institutions.

Avoiding Harm and Minimizing Risk

The Digital Divide

Technological inequities lead to a digital divide. Though there are some schools that are equipped with the latest laptops, smartboards in every classroom, 3D printers, and designs that allow for collaboration and movement, there are other schools in which teachers and students have little to no access to technology. For instance, in 2019–2020 in Ontario, only 66% of schools had access to Wi-Fi, and 77% of elementary schools with high average family incomes offered robotics, technology, or STEM clubs, compared to 57% of schools with low average family incomes (Watkins, 2020). Technology companies are supporting 1:1 programs by making devices more accessible. For example, Chromebooks, which are low-cost laptops with free tools built in to bridge the digital divide, are used in many schools (Alvarado, 2018, p. 9). One intention of 1:1 programs is to address the digital divide, but if they are not implemented carefully, this goal may not be met.

The Good

A 1:1 program is an opportunity for educators and students to benefit from access to an individual device. Access to technology can bolster project-based learning, which can increase learners’ decision-making skills in other areas of their lives (Kral & Schwab, 2012). Schools with 1:1 programs can challenge inequitable access to information since every student has a laptop, sometimes 24/7, and online access to knowledge (Kral & Schwab, 2012). Furthermore, in a 1:1 program, there are opportunities to become digitally literate (Zheng et al., 2016), which is another growing knowledge gap in the 21st century. A laptop can also create a personal space for those that may not get much privacy (Kral & Schwab, 2012). As literacy changes and expands, students may have increased opportunities to express themselves in multiple ways rather than only through traditional assessments that may not serve certain groups (Kral & Schwab, 2012). Supplying every student with a device appears ethical from a consequentialist perspective, but this is just the start. Other supports, like professional development for teachers, or equal access to Wi-Fi, need to be enacted.

Support for Educators

Support for educators as they shift their practice in a 1:1 program is imperative to address the digital divide. Not all teachers receive the support they need due to a lack of systems, time, or budget (Alvarado, 2018; Rauf, 2020). As a result, the technology may not get used intentionally, or at all, resulting in missed opportunities. “Educators who struggle to learn how to use computers are quickly left behind when new technologies are invented and utilized in the classroom” (Alvarado, 2018, p. 4). If a school does not support its teachers in implementing technology, then 1:1 programs can create a divide between teachers, and students’ learning can be impacted. Before integration, institutions need to have enough resources to implement a 1:1 plan, including network infrastructure updates, finances, and appropriate teacher training (Alvarado, 2018; Rauf, 2020). Furthermore, with a 1:1 program, teachers may be asked to do many new or additional tasks, which can result in stress and work dissatisfaction. Bridging the digital divide with a 1:1 program requires comprehensive professional learning and long-term support for educators.

A More Inclusive Web

A more diverse world within educational technology should also be considered if the intention is for all individuals to be engaged online and in a 1:1 classroom. Many educational technology tools are created based on the educational experience of the country they come from, which is generally Western, developed nations (Gallagher & Knox, 2019). Furthermore, Islam and Grönlund’s (2016) international literature review of 1:1 computing in schools pointed out that most of the research comes from the developed world and “impact or effectiveness evaluation is still scarce” (p. 213). Adding diversity to the technology education world, and considering the application of technology outside of their country of origin, can lead to a more inclusive web experience for students and educators. This would include a representative group of creators of the educational technology population.

Accessible Wi-Fi

The advantage of a 1:1 program is every student is provided with a device. In an institution with a 1:1 program, students should be provided with equal access to technology and Wi-Fi in the school. In Cole and Sauers’s (2018) research, equity as a key motivator for superintendents who implemented 1:1 programs. Superintendents perceived 1:1 as closing the gap and creating a more even playing field for all students. However, these superintendents worked with local residents and companies like Google to provide free Wi-Fi access in the community. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi can be very expensive and unaffordable for some families. To bridge these economic and digital inequities, initiatives that involve the entire community are more likely to succeed, “particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods” (Beaunoyer et al., 2020, p. 5). Additionally, teachers must consider the projects and homework they give students to ensure that all have equal opportunities to complete any work that is required to be done from home. Holen et al.’s (2017) study on a 1:1 program also showed other disparities; not all students had equal access to an adult to help with the technology at home. Strategies to narrow the digital divide include having volunteer educators, holding tutorials, and updating school curriculum (Beaunoyer et al., 2020). It can’t be assumed that access to a device equals bridging the digital divide. The digital divide is more than access to a device—it also includes access to Wi-Fi and digital literacy.

Participant Autonomy and Independence

Technology and Authenticity

The 21st century is commonly known as the era of knowledge due to the proliferation of technology, which has improved and modernized many education systems and pedagogies (Selwyn, 2011). In a knowledge-based society, students need to learn how to manage and apply knowledge (TeachOnline.CA, 2020) rather than simply memorize information. In response, a constructivist approach to learning has developed (TeachOnline.CA, 2020), strengthened by technology, to engage students in a social process of knowledge collection and construction known as a model of inquiry. Technology is imperative to this process, as it is key to the individual’s relationship to information and knowledge (Selwyn, 2011). Schools with 1:1 programs can encourage a constructivist approach perpetuating an authentic context (Selwyn, 2011). Authentic lesson plans and learning environments are often more relevant and meaningful for students, and are more likely to engage students in generating deeper connections, developing an enduring understanding, and applying 21st-century skills (Stanley, 2019). These programs can provide an authentic experience for the learner; after all, most people out in the world use technology in many facets of their lives. However, when scrutinized further, autonomy and independence are not assured.

Encourages Autonomy

It has been reported that student engagement increases when students have access to a computer, and, according to Schellenberg (2018), choices regarding how, when, and where one does one’s work increases learner autonomy. A 1:1 program can allow students to demonstrate their learning, collaborate, communicate, and research in a variety of ways. It can also lead to better work management for students, which also demonstrates increased autonomy (Schellenberg, 2018). For students with distinct needs, abilities, and learning styles, laptops have many accessibility features to make the classroom more inclusive (Apple, n.d.; Google, n.d.). Furthermore, ownership over a laptop builds independence and autonomy since the student usually signs and complies with an acceptable use policy. Laptops can give the student freedom to search and become involved in what they are interested in, and educators have commented that 1:1 programs are useful at reinforcing student-centred learning (Alvarado, 2018). However, autonomous learning can be frustrating for students who are used to being passive in teacher-centred classrooms (Jahnke et al., 2020). Active learning strategies can support students in developing their autonomy and feel pride in their work. Tools that can support active learning in a 1:1 classroom include Nearpod (Jahnke et al., 2020), Classkick, or Google Workspace, to name a few. Though 1:1 programs can encourage independence, it must be noted that not all learners have experience with autonomous learning, and they may need support to develop autonomous learner strategies.

Discourages Autonomy

Without appropriate support and digital literacy education, a loss of autonomy may arise with a 1:1 program since internet use is inevitable. At any point throughout the day students can go online to a web that monitors and extracts their data, which only benefits certain individuals (Gilliard, 2017, para. 2). Acceptable use policies, which are usually intended to protect young people from inappropriate information (Kostadinov, 2021), also impede a certain amount of autonomy. However, students have reported using their phone as a hotspot or a proxy server to get to blocked pages (Peterson & Scharber, 2017), perhaps perceiving this as reclaiming freedom. There are applications that give the teacher full control of students’ devices, like Hapara, which works with Google to give “teachers a real-time view of student activity as well as the ability to see a report of websites students have either visited or been blocked from accessing” (Madhusudan, 2014, para. 1). In reality, people have to combat the distractions of the internet daily, making applications like Hapara inauthentic, but if educators can’t exercise some control over their students’ online actions, students may lose valuable educational time. Furthermore, “the predictive analytics that are incorporated in many personalized learning programs may restrict the options available to students and thus limit the autonomy of students and of teachers who often do not understand or cannot easily explain” (Regan & Jesse, 2019, p. 176). Finally, regarding autonomy in a 1:1 program, there is no opportunity to opt out. A student would need to change schools in order to avoid the program. Even though device ownership can bring independence and autonomy to one’s learning, it can also interfere with one’s self-determination by distracting, collecting data, or controlling the user’s actions.


The outcomes of a school 1:1 program can be beneficial, but there remain challenges that need to be considered and addressed. For example, teachers need ready access to continual professional learning and support as the technology landscape changes often. Integrating IT coaches (Saltmarsh, 2020) with educational backgrounds into various departments is one solution. For superior outcomes and a better effect on learning, all stakeholders should be involved with the decision-making processes to meet the goals of a 1:1 program. Including digital literacies in the curriculum can mitigate challenges with privacy and consent, but public advocacy for technology companies to take responsibility is also necessary. This should be done at a governmental level to ensure compliance and protection of minors’ data. Further, ensuring that a 1:1 program is inclusive means recognizing that social inequities persist even when every student has a device. Working with stakeholders to ensure proper resources and infrastructure are available so that all students and educators benefit from the program is imperative.

Schools with 1:1 programs have been increasing around the globe exponentially and will continue to do so as connectivity and applications increase (Islam & Grönlund, 2016). Nevertheless, there is still much to learn about the outcomes of this ever-expanding approach to education. Boasting a 1:1 program only indicates the number of devices a school provides. It does not necessarily mean there is a pedagogical model, professional development, teacher training, or infrastructure (Bebell & O’Dwyer, 2010). More rigorous and diverse research needs to be completed in order to understand characteristics of effective learning models and help educators select approaches that will benefit students and teachers during implementation.

Questions to Consider

  • Is datafication inevitable?
  • How do we measure successful learning with a device?
  • How are 1:1 models being implemented around the world?
  • What have longitudinal studies of the impact of 1:1 programs on learning demonstrated?
  • How should lessons be scaffolded to encourage active learning within a 1:1 program?
  • How should support be structured to support student autonomy in a 1:1 program?
  • How can the digital divide be narrowed for educators?


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