There is a movement in many schools to try to achieve a 1:1 ratio of computers to students, essentially giving each student a personal computer. In the 21st century, technology is going to be vital and learning how to use these tools is paramount. Therefore, the question is not if we should be using computers in schools but how.
The notion of having a computer for every student seems appealing, but I would contend that it reinforces old, 20th century models of education. First, let’s start with a little bit of a history lesson. The model of education that we are familiar with in North America was created to meet the needs of industrialization, primarily the needs of manufacturing. In short, we needed compliant, docile factory workers. They took models created by efficiency guru Fredrick Winslow Taylor and applied them to the education system, making it as streamlined and efficient as possible .
At this time teachers were the custodians of the knowledge the students had to learn. Students worked alone in desks, which were organized into rows, ensuring that supervision could be at once global as well as individual – much like the factory floor. We have since realized that this model is no longer relevant, so students are typically organized in a collaborative (or semi-collaborative) desk arrangement and we also realize that teachers are not the custodians of information because 1) it is just plain bad pedagogy and 2) it is not true because anything the students wish to learn can be easily found by typing it into a search engine.
However, when we give a student a computer it effectively isolates them from each other the same way the rows of desks would. But, what about group work? In my experience, if students are given the option to each have a personal computer in group situations, then will opt for that. And even if they are using google docs super effectively (i.e. using chat etc.), it does not create optimal collaboration or learning, as we are about to see.
What We Can Learn from a Wall in a New Delhi Slum
Over 10 years ago an Indian researcher named Sugata Mitra embedded a computer into the wall of a New Delhi slum, connected it to high speed internet and left it there to see what would happen. What he discovered is that groups of children began to learn how to use it and began to play games, check email and even learn math from it. Sugata Mitra continued to test different hypotheses, but always continued to use the structure of one computer for a group of children. Even when he did research in western schools (England, Italy) where computers were abundant he would only use one computer. Why? Why not use several? If computers are helping students to learn, than if every student had his or her own computer they should learn better, right? Well, what do we know?
1) Learning in a collaborative group rules, while struggling alone in a vast ocean of your profound incomprehension drools.
2) Scaffolding is awesome
3) Observational (Vicarious) learning is a thing that exists and is helpful.
4) Episodic learning is far more memorable than having someone tell you something or by reading the same information. (As Garry Anaka suggests)
Mitra suspects that it is because the students are interacting, learning from each other and talking to each other that he is seeing results. Armed with this knowledge he created SOLE (Self-Organized Learning Environments), where one computer is situated in the centre of a group of students who would be using one computer at the same time (allowing for scaffolding, observational and episodic learning). Perhaps most interestingly he also encourages students to form their own groups, but that they can also leave their group at any time or they can go to another group, learn from their group and then bring the findings back to their original group – and he informs the students that a lot of scientific research is done using this method.
The key to this is that the students self-organize, which allows them to create the learning environments that work best for them as well as allowing them to acquire the social, communication and problem solving skill that will be so essential for them to be successful in the 21st century. Thus, while I am not a proponent of removing all computers from schools, SOLEs’ inherent benefits on learning would lead me to believe that we just need far fewer of them.
For more information on setting up a SOLE, please download the following guide: SOLE | How to Bring Self-Organized Learning Environments toYour Community
 Many of the sources for this information can be found in a paper I wrote in universtiy: http://people.ucalgary.ca/~egallery/volume12/radtastic.htm
Cameron May is a substitute teacher with Rocky View School Division.
Follow and share ideas with him @elbow_patch.