“How do you envision the teacher using the computer?” I asked. “Is it more of a presentation tool, or is it something that students will be working on during their class?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I guess they could go to the web during class to look things up, but that seems like such a waste of class time. I’ve always thought they should be doing that kind of stuff for homework.”

I had been having this conversation with a department chair about the layout of computers in several of her teachers’ classrooms. The rooms were exceptionally small, and the desktop machines that had been placed in each one of them presented some significant space challenges. I was trying to help her decide on the best place to set up each machine. It soon became clear, however, that this discussion involved a whole lot more than the deployment of technology. It was really a discussion about teaching methodology and fundamental concepts about how students learn.

Her comment about searching the web being a waste of time concerned me at first. After all, isn’t this exactly the kind of activity we are supposed to be encouraging? Teachers are supposed to be facilitators thanks to instructional technology. Students should be actively involved in making their own decisions about what information is relevant. They should be using their peers and other sources of information to make decisions about what information is most useful. What better way to spend class time?

As I thought about it, though, I started to challenge these ideas as well. Why can’t the students do this kind of work at home, assuming they have computers and internet access? What do they gain by doing it in the classroom? With limited class time and a single computer, wouldn’t they be making better use of their time with a qualified teacher, rather than spending it doing something they could just as easily do at home or in the computer lab after school?

The problem many teachers encounter in the one-computer classroom is that theory comes into painful conflict with reality. Ideally, a computer activity would be only one of several classroom tasks for the day. Teachers would divide the class into small groups that would rotate through each task together, or they would send representatives to various activity centers. One such activity center would be the computer, where students might search for information, participate in an online discussion, or run a simulation using software such as Excel or Geometer’s Sketchpad.

In reality, however, time, space, and the number of computers in a classroom make most of these things impractical and some of them impossible. If students are searching for information, a small portion of a class period permits only enough time for them to give documents a cursory glance. Students might be able to bookmark some sites to visit later, or print out a few documents, but how is doing this in the classroom better than doing it at home or during free time in the computer lab? Perhaps students needs to read the eMailed replies from their key pals in France, but why couldn’t these be read and printed out before class so that class time could be spent discussing interesting parts of the responses? While simulations can be valuable, if there aren’t sufficient computers, students may not have enough time to meet the objectives of the program—and valuable class time will have been sacrificed.

An immediate response in these cases is often to buy and deploy more computers. But this leads to a diminished amount of classroom space and an instructor who is hemmed into a tiny area from which to lead discussions or other class activities. When the desired objectives of such a deployment of technology are clear, this may, indeed, be the right course of action. More often than not, however, we find ourselves devising solutions to problems that are ill-defined, where outcomes are difficult or impossible to measure.

Few people would argue with the benefits of a sufficient number of computers in the truly student-centered classroom. Computers aid self-directed learning by providing limitless information sources, realistic simulations, personal organization, and individualized tracking of progress toward a goal. There is considerably less agreement, however, regarding the computer’s role in creating the student-centered classroom. “If you build it, they will come,” is a movie line hijacked by many instructional technology consultants and others with financial interests in deploying technology in schools. Now, however, many schools find themselves standing in empty stadiums, still waiting for Shoeless Joe.

Still more controversial is the notion of the student-centric classroom itself. In theory, it makes perfect sense. Who could disagree with the idea that you learn more—you internalize more information—when you are self-motivated to solve a problem? After all, if you consider that a child learning to walk is one of the more measurable examples of truly natural learning, this is clearly self-directed learning motivated by a need to get around.

When it comes to the specifics of recreating this model in the classroom, however, it becomes more challenging. How does one devise a situation in an artificial environment like the classroom that could motivate students to master core curriculum content? How could this possibly compare to the level of genuine, intrinsic motivation to learn something like walking? I suppose it’s possible to devise projects whereby students “discover” things like the multiplication tables, but what is the tradeoff in terms of time and resources? What other basic skills get sacrificed in an already packed curriculum?

So, what does this mean in terms of using computers to change the way we teach and learn? It seems clear to me that the answers to these questions lie in an examination of curriculum and methodology. We must come to understand that there is a place for teacher-led instruction, when time and efficiency are critical and certain basic objective skills must be mastered. But we must also accept the fact that teacher-led, objectivist methods rarely lead to higher-level thinking skills. For students to internalize abstract concepts, they must actively construct meaning through student-centric and problem-solving activities.

It’s easy to see how computers can aid in this process, but we must not be fooled into thinking that they can cause this change to happen by themselves. We are naïve to think that deploying computers in classrooms without considering issues of content and methodology will lead to any changes in classroom practice other than a teacher who has a little less space to walk around as he lectures.