Across the case study sites, there were five different strategies for allocating computers for student use:
Distribution among the regular classrooms gets the technology to the place where the teachers and the students are, but if the school does not have enough technology to provide a critical mass within classrooms, little benefit is likely to result. In particular, the practice of putting one or two computers into a classroom appears ineffective. With a class of 30-35 students, it is difficult to provide individual students or small groups with enough computer time to have a positive impact. We would not argue that schools must have a computer for every student (many activities are not computer-based) but it does seem that something on the order of 6-8 computers (enough for a quarter of the students working individually or half of the class working in pairs) is necessary to provide an environment where access problems are not an impediment. This level of equipping regular classrooms is much higher than the computer:student ratio of the typical American school, but even so provides students with adequate access only if the teacher is skilled at orchestrating activities in such a way that students learn how to work jointly on computers and that both technology-based and technology-independent activities proceed concurrently.
Northbrook Middle School in Houston, TX, illustrates one district's strategy for distributing computers across regular classrooms in numbers adequate to support a technology-enriched program.
When planning for the reopening of a former junior high as a technology middle school, the district made a major investment in over 400 networked Macintosh LC computers. Each regular classroom was assigned 5-6 computers. In addition, several labs of about 30 computers and a library media center were included in the plan. Each classroom has a monitor and VCR. Most of the technology ($2.2M worth) was purchased for the school's opening.
There are upgrades and additional software added every year, however, and a recent investment in a T1 line brought increased telecommunications capabilities.
For schools that lack an equipment inventory that would permit allocating 8-10 computers to all regular classrooms, there are a number of alternative strategies. Putting computers in laboratories is one alternative. Herman (1994) notes that a lab configuration has advantages for a school just beginning to use technology in that there are reduced requirements for a large portion of the school faculty to learn how to use technology. A computer coordinator can design technology-based activities and keep the lab running long before the majority of teachers get "technology smart." The potential disadvantage, particularly when students work in the lab on activities designed by a computer coordinator rather than on regular classroom assignments, is that the technology lessons in the computer lab tend to be "inert"; if students do not use technology tools in accomplishing their work for the regular classroom, the power of technology will not be harnessed in the service of the core curriculum. Several of our case study sites tried putting their computers into labs initially but moved away from this strategy in order to make technology a part of activities in regular classrooms.
The Computer Lab at Saturn School
For example, the Saturn School assigned most of its computers to various laboratories designed for specific purposes. Approximately 60 Macintosh computers were distributed among a Mac Writing Lab, a Mac Multi-Purpose Lab, and a Multimedia Center. In addition, during SY1992-93, the school had an Apple IIGS lab and an Integrated Learning System (ILS) lab, which contained 40 Jostens and 16 CCC student stations. Students worked in the ILS lab under the direction of a technology aide; students worked in the Mac labs either with their regular classroom instructor or independently, with supervision from an aide.
In the past, computer laboratories were associated with classes teaching computer literacy, programming, or other computer topics at the secondary level and with integrated learning systems (ILS) providing individual students with drill-and-practice on basic skills at the elementary school level. This situation is changing. More and more schools are finding a place for general-purpose computer laboratories where students can go to work on projects for their other classes. In the computer laboratory at the Ralph Bunche Computer Mini-School for example, students used technology in many tool-like ways--e.g., to obtain information over the Internet, to send electronic mail, and to do word processing of reports--for assignments and projects connected with their regular classes. What made this arrangement work was that the computer lab was located right next to the regular classrooms and that students had extensive access to it through the combination of the mini-school teachers' policy of allowing students to leave their regular classes to go use the lab as well as the fact that the lab was open before and after school as well as during lunch.
One alternative to the centralized computer lab that was employed in several case study schools was the mobile computer lab. Both Frank Paul and Skyline put computers (in fact, their most powerful computers) on carts and had them rolled from room to room.
The mobile lab at Skyline makes it possible for classrooms to share the school's higher-end computers. In this sound clip (~200K), a Skyline teacher describes the mobile lab.
At Skyline, seventeen Macintosh computers are kept on desks with wheels. One teacher maintains the mobile lab schedule, and other teachers schedule these computers into their classroom for technology-based activities as needed. Each term, there is a team of 4 students assigned to each computer to ensure that the computer is transported securely from class to class. Students consider this assignment an honor and a serious responsibility. Because most of the classrooms in this school are in separate "portable" buildings, there is also one student assigned as the "step monitor" to guide the teams of students moving the computers down the steps on ramps. At the count of three, the students lift the desk and carry the computer safely to ground level and roll it away to the next classroom. This is an amazing sight to see, especially on rainy days where students cover the computers with large plastic tarps before exiting the building! In addition to the mobile lab, classrooms have a few less powerful computers on permanent assignment and access to a project room with 14 networked PCs.
Computers have become adequately rugged and portable to permit this kind of use and both schools felt that the strategy, although perhaps not ideal, made higher levels of access available to students and heightened utilization rates for their equipment. Coordination issues come into play, of course, as teachers need to schedule time with the mobile computer lab and someone (usually students) needs to move the equipment from place to place. Hard feelings can develop if some teachers feel that others are monopolizing the equipment, but in general these issues can be worked out as a matter of school policy.
Another alternative for an inventory-limited site beginning a technology implementation is the idea of the incremental roll-out. Rather than giving all teachers some equal, small amount of equipment in the beginning, many technology veterans argue for giving an adequate amount of technology to a limited number of classrooms. Often, this is done on a grade-by-grade basis but it could also be done on the basis of teacher interest or subject matter (at the middle and secondary levels). One of our site principals suggested beginning with the kindergarten and first grades and then adding technology to succeeding grades each year. In this way, students in the first kindergarten class would have technology throughout their school career, and the upper grades would end up with the newest and most powerful equipment. The incremental approach gives a portion of classrooms enough technology to do some good and then seeks to learn from the experiences in the pioneering classrooms and to have things they can show other teachers to pique their interest and prepare them for bringing technology to their classes.
Finally, some schools have not aimed for dispersing technology across all classrooms but rather have chosen to institute a "school-within-a-school" with a high level of technology access. Both the Ralph Bunche Computer Mini-School and the West High School ACOT program were examples of this approach.
For example, the Ralph Bunche Computer Mini-School has eight classrooms. The Mini-School's computer inventory is concentrated in two computer labs. The original computer lab is equipped with 25-30 computers, linked on a local area network (LAN) to a Gateway 2000 file server providing access to a full range of tool applications (e.g., word processor, data base, spreadsheet) and a wide array of instructional software. Each student has a folder on the file server containing his/her individual work. In addition, each student has his/her own e-mail account. The WAN features a high speed data line and a client-server model of access that enables students to connect with resources on the Internet as readily and as easily as they are able to access local applications. Front-end user interfaces (Gopher, Mosaic) facilitate the location and utilization of available resources.
The lab is open from 8am to 6pm daily. In addition to 16 scheduled classes each week (two one-hour sessions per classroom), the lab is open to students during school hours between scheduled classes and through lunch, as well as before and after school. Students make heavy use of these flexible periods of access for writing, research, and other project-related work as well as for self-selected and recreational activities.
Adjacent to this computer lab, an Integrated Learning System (ILS) was added in 1993. The ILS lab is used for non-Mini-School classes, but is available to Mini-School as well as other students before and after school and after lunch. The ILS network is linked to that in the main computer lab, making it possible for up to 80 students to use the network's resources, including the Internet link, simultaneously.
All but one of the eight Mini-School classrooms are located on the same floor as the computer labs. This physical proximity supports extensive use of the computer facilities, and teachers commonly send individual students or small groups from their classrooms to use the lab facilities for their regular classroom work. Although each of the regular classrooms is equipped with one or two computers, these machines are rarely utilized, due to the fact that these are older models (mostly IIe's) and students have such ready access to the more sophisticated equipment within the lab.
Advantages of the mini-school approach lie in the very high level of technology access that can be provided for mini-school students and in the option to carefully select teachers who are enthusiastic about incorporating technology into their teaching practice. Disadvantages lie in the potential for the mini-school students and staff to become isolated from the remainder of the school and for technology to become something that divides rather than unifies the school.