From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal


 Vol 7|No 6|March|1998

The WIRED Classroom

Creating Technology Enhanced
Student-Centered Learning Environments

by Jamie McKenzie

 Introduction

 How are classrooms equipped?

 How are classrooms arranged?

How are the students engaged?

  How does the teacher act?

 What structures are needed?

 What assessments work best?

Introduction

What is a wired classroom?

Wires do very little by themselves for kids . . .
Entirely too much attention has been devoted to the wires and the cabling, to the business of connecting classrooms to the Internet. Too many public figures have climbed upon this bandwagon as if the mere act of networking would create some miracle. The promises and grandiose claims pile up as high as the sky. According to many folks, networking offers the same magic as Popeye's can of spinach . . . super powers for an Age of Information.

This may be a boondoggle of enormous proportions.
Having witnessed four years of efforts in a fully networked school district which offered its students robust access to the Electronic Highway beginning in 1994-95, I can report no miracles, no amazing transformations and no phenomenal shifts in student achievement which can be traced to the advent of these information technologies. Some great things happened, not because we had a network, but because we invested in staff development and we encouraged good teaching.

In fact, I fear that in many places the most lucrative rewards flowing from this most recent "gold rush" will be corporate dividends. As was the case in the Gold Rush of 1849, the biggest winners may be those who supply these new "miners" with the tools and provisions they need during their search for the elusive gold.

Networking only pays off if . . . we provide enough computers, enough staff development and a combination of powerful tools with rich information. This article defines the kinds of wired classrooms which would make a huge capital investment in networks worthwhile.

What is a technology enhanced, student-centered classroom?
Connected to an exciting new world of hot and lively current information, students make meaning and develop insight while the teacher shows them how to navigate and reason through the labyrinth of new sources. The front of the room disappears as 5-8 networked computers support investigations, explorations and excursions.

Student questions and questioning become a major focus of classroom activity as teachers demonstrate and then require effective searching, prospecting, gathering and interpretation techniques while students use the tools and information to explore solutions to contemporary issues.

Questioning and information literacy become fundamental. They transform the wires and cables into powerful channels for learning.

To bring a wired classroom to life, we must equip all students with the technology of questioning (see previous articles in From Now On), and we must adopt a set of beliefs which clarifies our purpose. One of the best is Engaged Learning, the set of beliefs accompanying Plugging In.


 Characteristics of Engaged Learners*

Responsible for their own learning
They invest personally in the quest for knowledge and understanding, in part because the questions or issues being investigated are drawn from their own curiosity about the world. Projects are pertinent and questions are essential.
Energized by learning
They feel excited, intrigued and motivated to solve the puzzles, make new answers and reach insight. Their work feels both important and worthwhile.
Strategic
They make thoughtful choices from a toolkit of strategies, considering carefully which approach, which source and which technique may work best to resolve a particular information challenge.
Collaborative
They work with others in a coordinated, planful manner, splitting up the work according to a plan and sharing good ideas during the search for understanding.

*These concepts are based upon the work of Barbara Means quoted in Plugging In.

http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/edtalk/toc.htm

The current rush to network schools pays too little attention to student learning and to staff development. The bandwagon often suffers from a preoccupation with wires and equipment. In far too many cases, districts spend millions of dollars only to wake up with the "screensavers' disease." At the same time, a lack of clear purpose leads to network designs which are foolish, inappropriate and wrong-minded along with network and classroom designs which actually undermine the purposes of good teachers, restrict the use of the equipment and frustrate the efforts of technology pioneers. In all too many cases, networks are designed and computers are installed by folks that have never taught a class and know very little about student learning. The results are often lamentable.

 Introduction

 How are classrooms equipped?

 How are classrooms arranged?

How are the students engaged?

  How does the teacher act?

 What structures are needed?

 What assessments work best?

How are classrooms equipped?


Achieving the goals of Engaged Learning listed above requires a ratio of one networked computer for every three or four students in the room. The basic level shown below will only work if there are also 4-6 inexpensive ($300) word processing portables such as Alpha Smarts (visit Web site) available for students to draft their work. Smart schools provide a combination of low end and high end desktops to extend student access.

 Number of Students

 Basic Level of Support

 Enhanced Level of Support
 20

 5

 7
 24

 6

 8
 28

 7

 9
 32

 8

 11
 36

 9

 12

While it is popular today to place 1-3 Internet computers in every classroom of a school, these numbers do not provide sufficient resources and access time to support the kind of learning required. They do not provide the critical mass to achieve "lift off" except in the classrooms of remarkable teachers.

It makes no sense to buy 5,000 computers, network them and drop them onto classrooms without providing substantial funding for staff development. There is a very good chance that 60-70% of those computers will be used less than 20% of each school day.

Return on Investment (with weak staff development)
3500 x 20% = 700 computers
1500 x 75% = 1125 computers
Total Effective Computer Use = 1825 computers

You'd be far better off buying 3,500 computers and spending the rest of the money on staff development so that most of the computers will be used most of the school day.

The One Computer Classroom
The strategy of providing a single desktop unit only makes sense if the computer image can be projected for the whole class to see. Few districts can spend the $5,000 to do this properly, but many have seen the wisdom of providing a large monitor (the larger the better) at a cost of $650-$850. This monitor allows the whole class to enjoy virtual field trips, learn search strategies and explore curriculum topics by communicating over the network. It can also be used by teams of students to conduct research and present findings, but this model affords too little access to promote a thriving student-centered program.

The North Kansas City School District has selected a hybrid Digital Monitor - Television For Internet, Computer, and Audio Video Requirements. Read the press release from NetTV.

 
Warning! The failure to provide a display device is one of the worst mistakes a school or district can make, whether they are putting one, two, three or seven computers in the room. A display device is a critically important element no matter what the number of computers.

Rich information array
Those of us who have spent the past three years exploring curriculum topics with the "free Internet" soon found that it was greatly flawed in many respects, suffering from Info-Glut, Info-Garbage and excessive marketing. We had to move swiftly to supplement the "free Internet" with other information products for which we have paid a hefty price. The goal was to equip each student desktop with a dozen rich and reliable information products. [A student might select from several periodical collections, an atlas, an encyclopedia, a thesaurus, a book of quotations, a dictionary, an almanac, as well as special collections of literature, history and scientific information.]

For those currently considering which information products they might purchase for their networks, there are a half a dozen or more from which to select. Because all of these are rapidly changing and improving, the choice should be based upon careful testing and evaluation in the field. Given the cost (a site license will run several thousand dollars per school), the wise school and wise district tests these products in a lab with 30 students pushing them to their limits on actual research questions to see how well they serve the learning goals set.

Prominent Candidates for Purchase
  • Electric Library www.education.elibrary.com
  • EBSCO
  • ProQuest Direct by UMI http://www.umi.com/proquest/
  • SIRS
  • InfoTract
  • World Book
  • Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Encarta
  • Microsoft Bookshelf (Dictionary, Atlas, Encyclopedia, Almanac, Quotations, Thesaurus, etc.)
  • Image Collections & Archives

Most people think of hardware when they hear the word "equipped," but a network can only support the curriculum if it is "equipped" with information which is well organized and useful to those exploring problems and making decisions.

Problem-solving tools

In addition to information, the desktop offers tools such as spreadsheets, databases, word processors, charting programs, outlining programs and multimedia presentation software to support analysis and problem solving. Instead of spending a fortune on instructional software, we focus on tools which will support the following:

  • Questioning
  • Planning
  • Prospecting
  • Collecting
  • Interpreting
  • Reporting
  • Communicating

Storage

For students and teachers to take full advantage of networks, they must have storage space available on the network so they may conduct their prospecting, collecting and interpreting in a consistently electronic manner. No printing needed. No diskettes. We expect students to gather and organize pertinent information electronically so that they can reap the benefit of text files . . . cutting and pasting, deleting, sorting and sifting . . . all in the service of synthesis (making new meaning).

Despite the strong educational arguments on behalf of storage spaces for students and staff, some network managers will resist the creation of storage on the grounds that it is labor intensive and beyond their staff resources. They will also warn of "housekeeping" and security problems when students have storage. Most districts who have provided storage would argue the opposite, having applied automation to the creation of storage areas and good management to the housekeeping and security issues.

Sadly, some districts are satisfied with the installation of a network which reaches every classroom but is ill equipped to support student learning. Once their money has been spent on cables and hardware, there is little left to support robust development of network services.

 Introduction

 How are classrooms equipped?

 How are classrooms arranged?

How are the students engaged?

  How does the teacher act?

 What structures are needed?

 What assessments work best?

How are classrooms arranged?

There is a disturbing tendency these days to dilute the impact of new technology purchases by distributing a handful [less than critical mass] across every classroom. This is often one of the best ways to catch the screensavers' disease because there is not enough information power to sustain engaged learning. In many cases the computers are isolated in the back of the room [where the power outlet is] where they can glow peacefully or provide entertaining drill-and-kill, shoot-em-up software once the "real work" of the class is completed.

 
         

 

     

 

     

 

         

 

Distribution - If we expect student-centered, engaged classrooms with the technologies fully blended into the daily routines, the computers belong where they will do the most good, not sequestered in a back corner or shoved against a back wall. Many teachers with project-based, problem-based classrooms elect to spread their computers about so that they serve as interest centers. In some classrooms it is difficult to find a "front" to the classroom because the focus is on learning instead of teaching.

 

 
         

 

   

 

 
   
   

 

 
   
         

 

Computers Spread Far and Wide

 

 

 

 

All of these photographs were shot at the Happy Valley Elementary School in Bellingham, Washington. This classroom has six networked computers which are spread out into four parts of the room. © 1998

 
         

 

       
           
       
         

 

Other teachers prefer to cluster the computers so the room ends up providing "zones" for different kinds of activities. Given eight computers, they might concentrate them all in one third of the room, or they might break them into two groups of four.

 
         

 

     

 

           
           
     

 

         

 

There is no "correct" way to organize the technology within a classroom, since different learning and teaching styles will be better served by a variety of configurations. The most important issue is the involvement of teachers in deciding where the equipment will best support student learning after they have visited classrooms with a good deal of equipment so they can see the consequences of each design.Their choice should be well informed by an awareness of leading practice. There is a danger that design decisions might not support program integration if they have not had a chance to see 5-6 integrated classrooms in action.

Computers in a Zone

The Flotilla Approach #1

 

 

 
All of these photographs were shot at the Silver Beach Elementary School in Bellingham Washington. This classroom has six networked "transient" computers which are a flotilla visiting for a week at a time. The teacher, Bob Winters has them clustered to one side of his room as you can see from the scanning composite photograph below. © 1998

Computers Far and Wide

The Flotilla Approach #2

 

 

 

 

 

This one hub links all of the computers in the room.

 

 

 

 
All of these photographs were shot at the Lowell Elementary School in Bellingham Washington. This classroom has six networked "transient" computers which are a flotilla visiting for a week at a time. The teacher, Deborah Hanson, has them spread throughout the room. © 1998


Flexibility - When we are not sure of what we are doing because we are operating in new territory, flexibility becomes a prime design criterion. We try to avoid nailing down or building in any objects, whether they be desks or tables or desktops. In order to be ready for the inevitable day when we decide to change everything around, we install
multiple drops around the room, provide grids of conduit under the floor [if we are building new classrooms], and we buy chairs and tables with wheels so it is easy to shift and redesign the furniture and the network access within the room to match our evolving learning needs.

In some schools, they create flotillas, moving clusters of computers which travel from classroom to classroom, providing intense, technology rich experiences for a week or two at a time. Others move the students, taking advantage of shared spaces to create mini-labs of 6 or 8 or 12 or 15 computers.

The Mini-Lab

 

 

 
All of these photographs were shot at Sehome High School in Bellingham, Washington, where the science department created a 12 station mini-lab adjacent to most of the regular science classrooms. This mini lab provides the information power required by students exploring complex data sets. Its proximity to the science classrooms and shared nature makes it a great asset for the department. © 1998

 Introduction

 How are classrooms equipped?

 How are classrooms arranged?

How are the students engaged?

  How does the teacher act?

 What structures are needed?

 What assessments work best?



Credits: The icons are from Jay Boersma, except for
the computer which is public domain from Microsoft.
Other drawings, photographs and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On
may be duplicated in hard copy, printed formats for educational,
non-profit school district use only. All other uses,
transmissions and duplications
are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.
FNO is applying for formal copyright registration for articles.
© 1998, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved
other than those outlined above.



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