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Are you putting bums on seats around computers?

Not enough PCs to go round? If you’re struggling to find ways to provide students with access to computers, the solution may be as simple as re-arranging the furniture, suggests David Kinane.

There is an Australian Facebook group called ‘Kevin Rudd owes me a laptop’ (fizurl.com/owesme). It was set up in response the New South Wales 1:1 laptop project that is meant to equip all students in the state with a laptop. As the name would suggest, clearly some are still waiting.

For many, the dream of providing 1:1 computing for students will remain that, a dream. And that leaves most schools trying to solve the thorny issue of creating a meaningful e-learning programme in classrooms bedecked with 30 students and perhaps just three computers.

Interestingly, Professor Sugata Mitra and his ‘Hole in the Wall’ project (fizurl.com/hitwp) claims that 1:1 computing does not work. His research is based around creating collaborative learning opportunities for groups of students and a single computer. His studies conclude that computers that facilitate collaboration between students create a “… self organising system with learning as an emergent behaviour”. This is potentially powerful stuff and should encourage us all to look again at how our classroom is physically laid out. Mitra has developed a model of learning based on his findings called SOLE (Self Organised Learning Environment).

So, it would seem that there is hope for us all, our students and our budgets! The question is: how can this be made to work in existing classroom set ups?

Distribution and design

In my ‘Building a 5th wall in your classroom’ presentation I suggest strategies to help minimise the inevitable bottlenecks that occur around a computer, such as:

  • distributing tasks through the use of other peripherals; or
  • creating collaborative outcomes through group iteration of tasks, where a single outcome is the product of multiple group contributions.

There can also be problems due to simply how they’re placed in a class. For too long, as with many things related to computers, those least educationally qualified to do so, have been making decisions about placement and layout of computers in a classroom. Contractors employed to install power and data outlets in a class will always run cables to the easiest point in the room. It’s cheaper for the school and easier for the contractor. But four data outlets, in a cluster, in a corner of a classroom is not the best solution for the management of e-learning in that class. The very placement of these outlets creates congestion and stress, simply because of their physical location.

In addition, computers are very often lined up against a wall. This means that only one child at a time can use it and inevitably results in them sitting with their backs to the class, creating a non-inclusive atmosphere, inhibiting any collaboration potential and leaving us dreaming that only a 1:1 solution will make e-learning work.

Creating collaborative work spaces

Re-wiring a class is expensive and is probably not realistically an option. I suggest, however, that there is an affordable solution. With the careful placement of desks it’s entirely possible, in your existing set up, to create collaborative work spaces around a single computer. If a desk is running parallel to the wall with a computer on it, simply turn it perpendicular to the wall. In doing this, you may have to purchase longer network cables and perhaps an extension cord to separate your three computers a little.

But once you have created three piers jutting out from your wall it is entirely feasible to seat three students around one computer. By simply turning a desk you have now created the right conditions for collaboration. If you have three computers in your class you can now sit nine students around the computers and the management of limited resources has just become a great deal easier. Once the physical reality of a class is aligned better with pedagogy, it is a much easier task to design collaborative projects for students to work on based around a computer.

If you have just purchased a new COW with 20 computers in it, in an attempt to deliver a timetabled 1:1 programme, consider splitting up the COW into smaller bundles to enable more classes to create collaborative learning programmes based around the computer. It might mean purchasing a few more wireless access points, but with fewer machines accessing the same wireless access point, your overall network performance will improve, too.

Until we minimise or remove the physical impediments that are the result of ICT mission creep over the last 20 years we will not start to see wholesale integration of e-learning into classrooms. It’s just too difficult to manage three Year 8 boys squeezing themselves into a space designed for one, turn the table 90 degrees and it is an entirely different prospect for learning.

David Kinane is a specialist ict consultant and writes for INTERFACE Magazine.

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Categories: Article, Issue 29

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