Important Ed Tech Book Reviews

Just in Time Technology


 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 4|January|2002

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The Overly Equipped Classroom

by Jamie McKenzie
About the Author

For several years now, vendors like Toshiba, Apple, Compaq and Microsoft have advocated laptop school programs. Parents and school leaders are told that the equipping of a school with such laptops will lead to remarkable transformations of classrooms.

According to the cheerleaders, the mere presence of networked laptops is likely to improve the way students think, explore and work in teams. High levels of penetration (the ratio of students to computers) is equated with program integration, even though there is no credible evidence that the presence of a laptop in a bookbag hanging from a chair modifies the learning patterns of students.

Even when computers or handheld devices sit on student desktops, there is no guarantee that they will be used purposefully, skillfully or effectively.

Is the learning of these students above helped or hindered by the sharing of laptops?

If they each owned their own computers, would they be gathered around the information in this manner?

Are there times when the presence of certain tools in large numbers might distort the educational experience and actually interfere with learning?

This article challenges the assumption that bounty is always beautiful and suggests that strategic deployment is a suitable and sensible alternative to abundance.

Most teachers who enjoy using new technologies with students would complain that they have too few units to set in motion significant shifts of learning.

Most teachers who are convinced of the benefits of standards-based learning with these new tools wish they had access to more equipment.

Is it possible, then, that a classroom might be over-equipped? Could these new tools and technologies actually distract students from the really important thinking and learning tasks they need to master?

Are there times when less is more?

Could unplugged some times be better?

© 2002, J.McKenzie.

Each in a Separate World - Just in Case Equipment

There are times in a school week and year when it would be great for each student to have access to a personal computer or hand held device. Imagine the writing of a poem or short story that begins with a cluster diagram in Inspiration™ then moves on into word processing and perhaps some type of networked peer review of early drafts.

There are other times when a class discussion might be enhanced by the presence on each student desk of a handheld device connected to an electronic information source.

But some teachers report that the presence of such tools can also be disruptive, distracting and damaging when they are directing certain activities.

"I ask them to put their laptops to sleep," explained one teacher at a conference, "especially during certain kinds of lessons and discussions. I don't want them doing e-mail or visiting Web sites under the guise of note-taking."

When students carry a laptop computer or hand held device from classroom to classroom regardless of the lesson planned, the school (and parents, usually) have funded Just in Case Equipment. It may not be a bad investment, but it is costly and may inadvertently promote the use of digital tools even when other tools may be superior.

If every student holds a laptop, some schools may move to digital textbooks even if the screen size of the laptop and other features may make this an unwise move. (See "Paper Works Still" in the November/December issue of FNO at

An alternative strategy often advocated in FNO is the strategic deployment of less equipment, using wireless laptop carts, for example, that can wheel into a classroom for a week or more at a time with the optimal number of units to match the teacher's lesson plans. We might call this Just in Time Equipment.

If a class of 25 middle school students needs to work on writing poems for a week and the teacher wants each student to have their own laptop during that time, he or she schedules the use of 26 laptops (one extra as insurance). They are likely to be used fully during that week and then moved along to a different classroom when the activity shifts. They do not languish unused in a corner or a book bag.

If some of the students still prefer to write their poems on paper and have given laptop writing a solid try, the teacher might order only as many laptops as students wish to use for the assignment. Perhaps the class needs 15 laptops instead of 26. Eleven laptops may now serve students in other rooms.

Deliberate use leads to efficiencies, cost savings and customized learning opportunities in contrast to digital orthodoxies that insist on all students using the same tool for their writing.

Some report that Hemingway used longhand for descriptive passages but a typewriter for dialogue. Some modern writers prefer their Royal manual typewriters even though word processors offer features that seem highly superior to most of us. Thomas Wolfe evidently wrote with pencils on top of a refrigerator (he was tall) and flung the dull ones over his shoulder.

The important goal is the movement of equipment to where it will do the most good, conserving funds for worthy options such as the proper funding of a print library collection, robust professional development programs and summer curriculum development projects.

Just in Time Equipment

Schools could manage the Total Cost of Ownership (a concept from business that states that innovations will only take root if all essential elements are identified and funded) if they take the time to define their equipment needs before purchase instead of leaping to the costly model of putting one computer on every desktop regardless of need. Van Dam, Jan. "Total Cost of Ownership." Technology and Learning. October, 1991.

If the seventh grade teachers look over the curriculum and decide that computers will be used 25% of the time at the very most, then the school can purchase 50 computers for the 200 students and direct the savings (from not buying an additional 150 computers) to professional development, program development and technical support to make sure that all that technology keeps functioning.

Guess Who is Coming to Class!

Technology cheerleaders and promoters often skip some important steps in the planning process. Discernment - wise and thoughtful decision-making - requires the suspension of absolute belief long enough to consider risks and then prepare risk management plans. True believers rarely invest in risk management plans. Their vision is sometimes blurred by passion. Ironically, their unquestioning loyalty to the new new thing can unwittingly undermine its chances of survival.

Classic change literature argues that informed and optimistic skepticism may be an innovation's best ally. Force field analysis calls for a thorough assessment of the barriers and obstacles likely to block the innovation. Once the barriers are listed, planners are expected to develop action plans capable of eliminating, removing or neutralizing those barriers.

When schools shower classrooms with hundreds of laptops or hand held personal assistants, they should devote some time to risk management.

  • What could go wrong?
  • What is the worst that might happen?
  • How can we make sure the batteries last through the day?
  • How can we keep students on task when they have such enticing toys?
  • Do we want students beaming messages and CliffNotes back and forth during class?
  • Will most teachers feel prepared and inclined to make effective use of these new tools?
  • What do we need to do to discourage foolish uses in favor of standards-based, worthy uses?
  • How can we plan for the best as well as the worst?
  • What should we do with unused equipment?
  • What should we do with reluctant teachers?

Bandwagons thrive on blind allegiance and unquestioning loyalties - for a time - but these same attitudes are too shallow to sustain growth or promote longevity.

When schools put the cart before the horse - buying technology for the sake of technology without asking critical questions about purpose, use and the classroom impact of such tools - they are inviting disappointment.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

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