Making a Difference

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how many classroom computers it takes to make a difference. When the Ohio SchoolNet Commission (now eTech|Ohio) started the SchoolNet Plus program in 1996, the goal was to have a 1:5 student to computer ratio in Ohio’s classrooms. Entitlement grants were provided to Ohio schools to buy computers to meet that goal. Significant strings were attached that stipulated which grades were targetted by each round, and that most of the computers had to be for classroom use (not labs, offices, libraries, etc).
LearningTen years later, the SchoolNet Plus program is now working its way through the eighth grade. The computers provided in the early rounds are obsolete now (and we’ve discarded most of them). Etech has just changed from a two-year cycle per grade level to a three-year cycle. So, if they stay on the current course, they will have met their goal in 2019. By that time, the first round of computers will be 23 years old. But whining about state funding isn’t going to get us anywhere.

On the Tech Coordinators’ Listserv last week, Antwerp technology coordinator Cathy Barnett asked whether schools are staying with the 1:5 model as they replace the older computers, or if they’re reducing that number or changing to lab-based computing. Several people responded that their districts are committed to the 1:5 ratio, and that they’ve been maintaining the hardware at that level. Others have switched to thin clients as a way to hold on to older hardware, keep it in service, and maintain the ratio in the classrooms.

Some districts have shifted the focus from classroom computers to lab computers. James Conley wrote:

Having both a 1-5 classroom ratio and labs does allow me to speak to which provides the most value to the district…. Based on our use, computer labs have a great deal of value to a district both at the elementary and secondary level. We have reversed our replacement cycle based on this pattern. It is now computer lab –> teacher work station –> general classroom system. We refresh the computers in our labs about every two years.

That seems like a lot of equipment moving to me, but clearly the focus is on lab-based computing, with the older stuff going into the classrooms. That’s very similar to what we’ve been doing, except that the computers are at least six years old by the time they make it to the classrooms for student use.

Ryan Collins pointed us to a West Virginia study that compared computer-based basic skills instruction in labs versus classrooms, and concluded that “The students taught in the classroom pattern had higher gains in overall scores and in math. They also scored higher on the 1998 tests than did those in labs.”
James Conley noted that this is true for basic skills instruction, but when teachers are working with students on student-created projects, the labs are a better model because it allows the projects to be started at the same time, and finished within a reasonable time frame.

In a post that generated a little heat off-list, I said:

To answer the 1:5 question, we’ve moved away from it at the elementary level. It’s not sustainable for us. IMHO, 1:5 doesn’t give enough of a critical mass to have a transformative effect, anyway. There’s a huge difference between zero computers per classroom and one. After that, I think we need to be closer to 1:3 or 1:2 to really get teachers and students to take advantage of it. We went to labs (1:1) and improved media centers (1:2) instead.

While not disagreeing entirely, other tech people have pushed the ratio to 1:4 with successful results. In our elementary classrooms, that would mean six computers, where we currently have one. At K-3, this would cost us about $100,000 per year in additional hardware money. But looking at our teaching staff, I don’t think they’re all ready to have six computers in their classrooms. What if we targeted the technology to the places where it would be most used? If we only equipped 20% of the classrooms this way to start, and we used thin clients, we could probably do it for $10,000 per year. That’s a number that could be worked into the budget.

A lot of factors weigh in to this. Do we have adequate space and electrical capacity? How will we handle staff development? Can we come up with a thin client solution that will meet our needs? What about support? There are certainly a number of challenges to overcome. But it doesn’t seem quite as unattainable as it did a week ago.