In my November column
(, I discussed how the deployment of classroom technology shapes, and is shaped by, curriculum and methodology. This month, I’d like to examine some models for deploying classroom technology more closely.

By using the word “model,” I don’t mean to imply there’s a formula that can be dropped into place and work optimally in any classroom. Furthermore, as I mentioned in November, nothing should be put into place until issues of methodology and curriculum have been addressed to determine how the technology will be used in the classroom. Having said these two things, however, I think it’s possible to look at the general issues associated with classroom design and identify the pros and cons of various options.

In the mid-90s, when instructional technology really started to grow, most experts recommended about six desktop computers per classroom. The idea behind this was that in a class of 25 to 30 students, group work could be done on computers in a manageable number of four or five students per group.

One computer would be placed at the front of the room for teacher presentations, and the remaining student machines would be distributed in separate locations so the groups would not have to work on top of each other. An alternate version of this model would be to create a computer cluster in one section of the room to allow individual group members to work on different activities while one of their members is at the computer.

This group-work model is still a valid concept, but it’s one that demands a fairly radical departure from most teachers’ present methodology. It’s not a trivial exercise to devise group activities that will maintain the attention of five group members at once.

The goal of the six-computer classroom was to challenge the concept of a computer lab, where the computer’s place in the instructional process was something outside the normal scheme of things. The six-computer model became popular before laptop computers and LCD projectors became affordable options and before personal digital assistants (PDAs) could do much more than store addresses and schedules. This was also before the wireless 802.11b standard was established and wireless speeds became something close to tolerable.

The advent of these new technologies and changes in the market have made other models of classroom computer deployment possible—and perhaps even more desirable than the six-computer classroom. Below, I list four alternatives to the six-computer classroom that schools might wish to consider.

One-computer classroom

When many schools began moving computers into classrooms, they did it at the expense of their computer labs. The goal of tighter curriculum integration was a good one, but I’ve never been convinced that losing a computer lab was a valid price to pay for this goal. In secondary schools in particular, students need a place to do independent work, and the nature of the material makes project-based classroom work more difficult. Adding a computer workstation for teachers, however, can offer the significant benefits of a multimedia, internet-connected presentation tool in the classroom while leaving the computer lab intact for student work outside of class.

In designing this type of classroom, careful consideration must be given to several factors. The type of computer you choose for teachers’ use is the most pressing concern. In an ideal situation, each teacher will have his or her own laptop that can roam with them if they teach in several different rooms. They can take this machine home with them to plan and prepare presentations, and the exclusive use of a machine will engender a sense of stewardship that will help to reduce breakage.

Financial considerations might make this an unrealistic goal for many schools, and I think desktop machines can work well, too, if proper consideration is given to furniture and space. Desks are available that can store the monitor below the writing surface so as not to obstruct the teacher’s view. In smaller classrooms, solutions like this are critical, but schools with larger rooms might get away with placing the machine on some type of multimedia cart.

Schools employing this model should carefully consider their presentation tools. While televisions and scan converters can display computer screen images, they are not really effective for anything other than a PowerPoint presentation with very large type. The resolution just isn’t good enough to support anything else for a class larger than seven or eight students. LCD projectors have dropped dramatically in price over the last couple of years, and the idea of putting an LCD projector in each classroom is now within the reach of most schools. For a considerably higher price, LCD projectors can be combined with interactive whiteboards to allow teachers to use the board as a giant touch screen and to annotate items directly on the board with a special marker and save these annotations digitally.

Mobile laptop cart

The drop in price of laptop computers and the emergence of a standard for wireless networking have made the model of a mobile computer lab possible. In this model, anywhere from 10 to 25 laptop computers can be stored in a cart and charged for their next use. The cart can be stored in a central location to be shared among several teachers and brought into class at the beginning of a lesson. Each cart has a printer and a wireless access point that can be plugged into a network jack in the front of the classroom and used to connect all the laptops to the network.

The obvious advantage to this model is that, like the computer lab, it provides each student with access to his or her own machine. Students don’t have to take up class time moving to the computer lab, and the mobility of this model might be a good fit for schools that don’t have the space for a true computer lab. An obvious drawback is the administrative overhead for the teacher in remembering to sign the cart out and for the media specialist in delivering and picking it up.

Schools should also proceed with caution into the area of wireless technology. While it seems clear that this is the direction things are heading, it’s still a new technology, and some vendors promise considerably more than others. Be sure to ask about how many simultaneous users each access point will support, and ask for a demonstration at your site before committing to a purchase to ensure that speeds are acceptable.

Student laptops

The next step beyond the mobile laptop cart is the model where every student gets his or her own laptop. This is clearly the most flexible model of any, because every student has 100-percent access, 100 percent of the time. Microsoft and Toshiba have been touting this model for a number of years through their “Anytime Anywhere Learning” initiative.

The most significant barrier to this model is clearly the cost, and I have questioned for a long time whether this cost can be justified by the benefits. Schools must realize that the up-front cost of the equipment purchase is only a small portion of the total cost of ownership. Most schools will have to increase their support staff to deal with three or four times as many machines, and because highly-mobile machines tend to suffer more damage, these support costs can be significant. Furthermore, to truly see an impact on learning with this model requires a significant change in methodology.

Student PDAs

I see this model as one that has nearly all the flexibility of student laptops at a fraction of the cost. Not only do PDAs cost about a quarter of what laptops cost, but there are no moving parts to wear out, no disks to get stuck, and they can be reset to the original factory image at the flip of a switch. Ergonomically they have the advantage of turning on and off instantly and fitting neatly into a student’s pocket or purse. They can contain electronic textbooks, and many of them can run scaled-down versions of popular desktop applications such as Microsoft Word or Excel. Wireless networking can be added to connect students to the campus network or the internet.

All of this is not to say that the six-computer classroom model is not an appropriate decision; nor should schools that have adopted this model see this as a call to scrap everything and start from scratch. When supported by project-based methodology and curricula, the six-computer classroom can work really well. It’s important to understand, however, that the technical and economic factors that might have made this the appropriate choice four or five years ago have changed, and as these classroom computers reach the end of their life cycles, schools might wish to consider whether this model still makes the most sense in today’s market.