Effective Lesson Planning That Integrates Computer Technology

(What's it going to cost us?)

For budgetary and other reasons, public schools are in a long transition into the digital age. Until computer technology access is as common as paper technology access, computer integration requires special initiative and effort. Because computer integration is not routine, what ever the existing lesson plan model, a Computer Access factor should be part of choices that are always considered with every lesson. This is not to say that every lesson should or must include computer access, but rather its use should always be considered if appropriate resources are in place. This is in part because it is so easy to continue the habit of ignoring its possibilities and failing to model its potential. That said, there is a thorn, an unusable model for technology integration, that must be removed from professional practice. To understand the nature of this prickly issue and understand this issues in moving beyond it to greater equity, educators must pay attention to the cost per classroom of computer integration.

It is understood that the costs given below do not include many other hidden costs which represent the real total cost of ownership or TCO. These costs include the non-trivial expenses of: building and maintaining an Internet signal into a classroom; providing technical support to trouble-shoot and fix problems with a computer; and providing training support so that teachers not only do make use of computing technology but also make the best instructional use of scarce computing resources. The general public and state legislatures need to understand that for powerful reasons of work force preparedness, local economic development and instructional impact, the digital age should continue to advance into the practices of public schools, but that this requires greater investment than has currently been provided. If provided, those children who have the resources are leading the advance. "For the first time in history, children are more comfortable, knowledgeable and literate than their parents about an innovation central to society" (Tapscott, 1999). However, there is only partial equity in our communities, as only a small percentage of our children have the access to reach the capacity that Tapscott reports. Further, as the Fordham Foundation noted, costs also vary with the wide variety of ways that schools have designed their systems for learning (Traub, 1999). For these reasons, the allocation of current funding needs to be better evaluated for its relevance. One way to explore this impact is to see it in the context of teachers weighing the setting and resources for their lesson plans.

Since every lesson plan model should include decisions about which resources to use in teaching, and computer resources are some of the most significant resources available, the following several choices should be weighed in every lesson. I am of two minds as to whether the dollar figures should remain in the lesson plan template. It is my current thinking that until classrooms get beyond the "thorn" stage, the politics of educational leadership requires that prices should stay visible. Teachers as well as principals need to be more aware of the costs of instructional choices. Prices from www.dell.com are used as the primary baseline for cost figures. These represent a single purchase at retail prices which means that in the larger orders of school and district wide purchasing, the pricing would be lower, sometimes much lower.

Computer Access. Check, underline or highlight the computer access option or options for this lesson:

That said, each of these options will be reviewed individually. The first to be addressed is the thorn.

The $800 to $2,000 dollar classroom solution: 1 standard computer workstation with no projection to the whole class

Most teachers most of the day teach to the whole class. In presentation mode they are speaking to all students at the same time. Most classes have one computer with a display screen of approximately 15 to 17 inches or so in size, a computer often with Internet access. It is generally the single most expensive item placed in a classroom. Many teachers harbor some guilt and frustration about their lack of digital knowledge and their minimal integration of that computer into their teaching practices. By placing such a computer system in the classroom for student use, the school board and administrators might be saying that a single personal computer can be used for whole class instruction. Further, that if used for such instruction, there is an assumption that it will have a measureable impact on the learning and testing scores of students. If so, educational leaders are failing to give due diligence to research into a costly initiative, research that should have long ago told them the facts.

The presence of such a single standard personal computer workstation for classroom instruction purposes is largely a waste of money and a classroom distraction. Many public schools have largely been faking it with personal computers. Further, having them in the student access area of a classroom misleads parents and the public into thinking that the single classroom computer can have a functional role in improving educational performance of a class. Others have noted this mismatch between promise and delivery. Though Cuban (2003) sees some value to a moratorium on computer use, he finds more value in using that concept as an attention getting threat to draw attention to the larger debate over the purpose of schooling and his view of that schooling. Describing the excellent use of computer technology by a small percentage of teachers at every level of education, Cuban does not conclude that the use of computers in the classroom is a bad idea, but that their time has not yet come for many schools given the current economic resources and political stands of a given public school. One way to benefit from the thrust of Cuban's writing is to first determine the mission and direction of the school. Is improving writing ability important? Is the budget so managed that every technology in the school bends or disappears to meet that need? Would any school board member or administrator share a pencil with some twenty other people and call it their personal pencil? Could this sharing in any way be deemed an effective use of a pencil and paper? If this is so for a pencil, then what can be expected of a large expensive electronic pencil, the personal computer, used in the same way to meet that educational mission? What is the mission of that personal computer workstation and how is it being measured?

The cost for such a personal computer has wide fluctuation and therefore creates the potential for much argument about what an accurate cost figure should be. The dollar figure for a personal computer for basic record keeping and Internet access purposes continues to fall. The Wal-Mart chain's web site in March of 2004 shows prices for such computer systems running the Linux operating system as low as $400 dollars. The position here is that most schools seek more features with more expensive operating systems and hence have a per classroom cost that is more in the range suggested. This is not an annual cost. A classroom computer lasts any where from 3 to 10 years. It is far more likely to need to be replaced because it is outdated than because it no longer functions at all. This would mean that the effective cost per year varies from $100 a year for ten years for a $1,000 computer to some $660 a year for three years for a $2,000 computer before it is replaced.

What should be done with that single classroom computer? The quickest option is to move it out of the student access area of the classroom and place it on the teacher's desk. This allows it to continue to serve as an administrative tool for the teacher, to record grades and other forms of observation that will communicate more fully about what a student is doing. Once again one must ask if this is the most effective use of resources. What should be done with that personal computer to make it more valuable than a three dollar paper gradebook? Another important function is as research tool to enhance and supplement instructional knowledge in preparation for planning and teaching lessons. Communication is also an important role. Use of the building network and software is a far more efficient way to report daily or hourly attendance than attendance slips of paper. Further, many districts provide teachers with email accounts and find email an effective tool for distributing information and sharing ideas and concerns among educational teams. Also, students coming to the teacher's workstation for diagnostic testing and drill and practice activities (Accelerated Reader) would also be included under these teacher administrative uses. Those desiring to weigh the effectiveness of the administrative computing option should look for these elements.

But is there really no whole classroom use for the single personal computer workstation? There are many, but in the end, given the other competing uses for a teacher and classroom's time and the availability of other technology, one must be able to conclude that the personal computer is more economically efficient for those other uses than competing technology. In most cases either the teacher does not do such things in the first place because they are not that valuable instructionally, or other educational technology is more effective for whole class use that does the same thing. It is useful to consider some of them.

It is often useful to share music and other forms of audio, sometimes from other cultures, from the Internet's many radio stations and audio databases. Unfortunately, the speaker systems that do ship with what school districts buy with a personal computer are designed to project that sound no further than a couple of feet around the personal computer, not to the larger and noisier space of an entire classroom. The physics of sound obeys an inverse square law. For every foot forward it must push through air, it drops its volume in half. Though the back of the class may be able to hear the music well enough to identify a song, the words of speeches and spoken language can be hard to hear. Record and CD players with much more adequate audio projection can be found at very inexpensive prices to handle this instructional need. Though such activity is very important to a music or a speech classroom, it is of only occasional importance in most classrooms.

It is often useful to share images and large text with an entire class. This process is carried out daily in many classrooms as teachers open a book and ask students to look at and think about a particular image or the teacher turns the book that they are reading towards the class and makes a quick circuit around the class so that all can see it. Books can provide a wide range of images but hundreds of millions of images are available on every topic under the sun via the Internet. However, most of those images are designed for personal viewing and therefore do not fill the computer screen so that the entire class can see them well from where each student is sitting. Paper technology via books, magazines, maps and larger scale posters displays better and more cheaply than a standard computer monitor display.

The standard personal computer workstation is not instructionally practical for the class composition of anything digital. Twenty people cannot share a pencil to compose something and do anything reasonable with it at the same time. If one student does use a computer for such a purpose, the teacher must arrange something else for 19 other students which will last sufficiently long for 20 people to complete their composition work, which creates further management load involving two levels of preparation. Though it is possible to create lessons that run on for days or weeks while each student completes their digital composition work, this is generally very impractical. This means that whole class activities that involve the design and composition of word processing, spreadsheets, databases, digital audio, digital video, web pages and more is out and paper continues to rule. However, such use of a PC system is perfect for teacher use for student assessment. A laptop computer that can also be taken home would be more practical for professional needs and fit the teacher's desktop much better.

The above thoughts were intended to end a standard model of professional practice for the personal computer. Teachers should convert their guilt over their lack of integration of a personal computer within classroom instruction into a resolve to fix the problem of having inadequate resources and unreasonable expectations. Such computer systems will continue to sit idle for much of the school day unless changes are made. Stand alone use of a personal computer in the standard classroom of 20 some students is not instructionally practical unless additional resources are found.


More Instructionally Practical Models for the Integration of Computer Technology

Based on the reader's prior experience with classrooms and computer technology, readers are now asked to consider some brainstorming and evaluation on their own as to what might be done with the rest of these options. What is possible, what is practical and what is just faking it in terms of having impact on those elements of learning that are actually being measured, graded and evaluated in terms of learning performance and assessment? What important elements of the digital age that are not formally measured emerge with these other more extensive sets of computer resources? Some brief thoughts are provided with each item, though each deserves much more but in the interest of space will not be addressed here.

The $1,100 solution: a classroom with 1 computer with a 19 inch or larger monitor and a small group

On March 8, 2004, Dell.com showed a computer with 19 inch flat panel to have a price of $1,100.00.

The smaller the screen the smaller the group of students that can work with it as a group. If the screen is too small, then group sizes become too small for instructional effectiveness, though this varies with the size of text and objects being displayed. A size of 5-7 students is a common workgroup size for many teachers. This choice implies a classroom that has effectively organized itself into groups of 5 to 7 for many instructional activities and that the monitor is 19 inches are larger. This design still allows for whole class instruction but without the computer when the teacher introduces the lesson or different materials used with different groups, whether ability grouped or not. Then the teacher can use the computer to support group work. With appropriate adjustment to the font size of text within an application, most text can be made viewable to all students in the group. The computer screen simply becomes a small chalkboard or whiteboard. Many teachers organize their classroom in this way, but not all. It is not a solution that works for all teachers in all situations.

The $2,900 solution: a classroom with 1 computer and a projection system

This analysis is based on the March 8, 2004 prices from Dell for a $2,100 dollar projection system and an $800 dollar computer system. Useable projection system can be found from $999. The functionality of cheaper projection systems depends on the ability to control classroom lighting levels. Further, add an expense of $250 for about every 1.5 years for one projection bulb with a bulb rated at 2000 hours of usage. Longer lasting bulbs for a slightly greater cost are available. This solution is about double or triple the normal technology investment in a classroom. In fact this option is much less than it first appears because most classrooms already have a desktop computer. The real expense is just the addition of the cost of the projection system.

When presenting and speaking, most teachers, most of the time are addressing the entire class. Their maps, whiteboards, book sets, worksheets, TV sets, overhead projectors and other technology all support this model of instruction. Consequently, they are most familiar with it and a computer with projection system is a logical extension of existing professional practice. It is the single cheapest purchase that can be made to dramatically improve computer technology integration into the classroom.

The $6,000 solution: a set of 7 computers for small groups of 2-7 students

This price analysis is based on a set of 7 computers, an $850 dollar computer with wireless card for each student. This solution is made more challenging by the lack of available space in most classrooms for the typical computer and large tube display screen. Flat screens have made this much more manageable and largely eliminated the danger of a heavy monitor being tipped over on someone but also up the expense beyond $850. There are some activities in which a pair of students can work well together and therefore extend the 7 computers for up to 14 students.

The $40,000 building solution: 1 or 2 trips a week to the computer lab for a total of 90 minutes of time

Art, music and physical education have managed to retain some instructional effectiveness with around this amount of time. It is reasonable to assume that instructional technology can do as well. To determine value, this figure must be divided by the number of classrooms that will use the lab per week so that the 90 minute time arrangement can be maintained. Figuring seven hours a day for 5 weeks for 2100 hours a week of instructional time, dividing this by 90 minutes per classroom would indicate that a single lab can support up to 23 classrooms per week. [How accurate is this 90 minutes figure for special subject areas within this state and across the states?] Though a very low percentage of teachers use the single computer in their classroom, there is generally a waiting list to get time in computer labs if there is a possibility for unscheduled times. This is the one place in which teachers can teach the whole class at the same time.

The $30,000 solution: a set of wireless laptop computers for every child in the classroom

This price analysis is based on a class of 20 with an under $1,400 dollar wireless laptop computer for each student and one for the teacher. This is by far the most expensive option per classroom. Some school districts and states and undertaken initiatives to reach this level of computer accessibility. Laptop initiatives in Maine and British Columbia have demonstrated significant positive impact on learning, especially for at-risk and traditionally low-achieving students. Michigan, New Mexico and New Hampshire are preparing to follow those models.

The $6,300 solution: a set of wireless, color handheld computers for every child in the classroom

This price analysis is based on a class of 20 with an under $300 dollar wireless color PDA for each student and one for the teacher. This is the lowest cost option for putting powerful computing technology into the hands of every student in a classroom. It has the added advantage of being so portable that it is logical for it be taken home and yet adds very little to the already heavy weight of books in backpacks. This portability also works well for school programs that emphasize field work and experiential learning. This provides the first economically practical solution to the problem of equity in computer use. This price does not include probes or sensors for measurement in science and math, but does represent a unit with the connections that would make this possible. The current level of PDA capacity is the most novel and recently available choice that advancing computer technology has brought to light.

The $2,100 solution: a set of non-wireless, non-color non-rechargeable battery PDAs for every child in the classroom

This price analysis is based on a class of 20 with an under $100 dollar PDA for each student and one for the teacher. These PDAs represent the earlier models of handheld computers that are now steeply discounted as newer color models become available. Their screen viewing is not as clear as backlit color. Their networking capacity is restricted to a desktop cradle connector with a desktop computer and infrared wireless communication within the classroom, not on the Internet. But they can run much of the same software as the newest handheld computers.

Best buy - Best impact - Full Equity

What do I think? Based on my 25 years experience in working with educators and educational technology, best practice is for full equity, for every student to have whatever technologies are being used for instruction. Today it is cellulose and some day in the future it will be silicon. If it is the political will to extend the power of the net generation to educational processes in public schools sooner instead of later, the best buy with best impact at this time is a combination of solutions 3 and 7 for under $10,000 per classroom. The projection system enables teachers to extend their whole class teaching practices naturally into computer projection. The handhelds give every student a computer both at school and at home. Either of these individually would compete for second choice. There is insufficient data to place these solutions as second and third. Educators will have to carry out further experimentation. Full featured color PDA prices will continue to fall with a reasonable future price of $100 per unit and robust projection systems will have price drops as well, bringing the total cost of 3 and 7 to under $5,000. Even this expense is several times the investment that school systems currently make per classroom. Any of the other choices beyond choice one increases educational effectiveness and moves educational practice closer to full equity.

Because of such cost issues, many public school teachers do not have sufficient access to computer technology to make their use of it more worthwhile than competing  technologies. Politics is the allocation of resources and the larger questions remain. What vision and awareness will it take to reach these more adequate levels of access? As these levels are reached, what authority and support must teachers have to assure that this newer computer technology is actually used to improve the teaching and learning goals of a given school?


Traub, James (1999). Better By Design: A Consumer's Guide to Schoolwide Reform. Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.  http://www.edexcellence.net/library/bbd/better_by_design.html

Cuban, Larry (2003). Oversold and Underused : Computers in the Classroom. Harvard University Press. [online version of book]

Great Maine Schools Project http://www.mitchellinstitute.org/Gates/

One to One Laptops in a High School Environment http://www.mitchellinstitute.org

Tapscott, Don (1999). Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. McGraw-Hill. [online version of book]

Wireless Writing Project http://www.prn.bc.ca/Wireless_Writing_Program.html

Chapter Home Page  |  Updated March 9, 2004 2:44 p.m. |  Page author: Bob Houghton