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How to Thrive -- Not Just Survive -- in a One-Computer Classroom

Are you a teacher in a one-computer classroom? Do you long to incorporate technology into your lessons but believe it is more of a hassle than it's worth? Education World writer Glori Chaika explores strategies experienced teachers use to help them turn their one computer into a dynamic, creative teaching tool. Included: Strategies that work!

"I find it's kind of like having some candy but not enough for everyone."

That's how Phyllis Stallworth, a fourth-grade teacher at Little Oak Elementary (Slidell, Louisiana) describes life in her one-computer classroom. "Writing a story or working on a project can take forever if the person on the computer works very slowly," Stallworth tells Education World.

It's not that Stallworth doesn't have technology skills. It's not that she doesn't want to make good use of that single computer by her desk. "I know enough to do something exciting with the computer, but sometimes I find it's more of a hassle than it's worth," says Stallworth.

Stallworth is not alone!


Bottlenecks are sure to occur in a one-computer classroom, but teachers can keep them to a minimum with careful management strategies.

In many classrooms, the single computer is relegated to the back wall. But Joan Peebles, a technology coordinator in Madison, Wisconsin, has a different idea. Be sure to place the computer in an easily accessible and easily supervised place, she recommends. Also, keep the computer away from direct sunlight, water, magnets, and chalk dust.

Another strategy is to create "stations" or multiple activities, using the computer as only one of the tools necessary to complete assignments. Students can conduct research not only on the Internet but also through interviews and in bound encyclopedias, magazines, and books. Every 15 to 20 minutes, students rotate from one station to another.

If the computer is used as a station, a strategy for moving students through that station is a necessity. Following are some possible traffic strategies:

  • Post a schedule. Allow a set amount of time for each student at the computer station. Students are responsible for getting to the station at the appointed time.
  • Draw Popsicle sticks. Write each student's name on a Popsicle stick. Place the can of Popsicle sticks at the computer station. Draw a stick at the start of the day. The person whose name is on the stick will start the day at the station. That student will draw a stick to determine who goes next.
  • Establish color-coded groups. Divide the class into five groups. Write the names of each group on a different sheet of colored paper, and post the papers by the computer station. The students in each group will spend time at the computer on a given day (for example, the students in the red group will have computer time on Mondays). The students within a group will go to the computer in assigned or random order.


Many teachers in one-computer classrooms project the computer screen onto a larger screen that the entire class can see. However, when using such devices with small screens, you may find distortion; 32-inch or larger screens seem to work best for Internet displays.

Other teachers encourage students to quickly print articles and read them at their desks while different students use the computer for new tasks. Though this rapid race to print may result in printing some articles that are unneeded, teachers find toner and paper much less expensive than additional computers.

Still others borrow computers, use the computer lab, ask if a student can work quietly on an unused computer in another teacher's room, or provide alternate times during which students can access the computer -- before school, at lunch, during recess, or after school.

Many teachers are scroungers! And scrounging often results in locating additional computers! Sometimes those computers are old ones that don't have all the bells and whistles -- but they can be fine for word processing. Newer computers can be used for Internet access or multimedia projects that require high-speed modems or special features.

If one computer is all you have, what are the minimum feature requirements for that computer? In order to serve a classroom full of students well, SouthEast Initiatives Regional Technology in Education Consortium technology consultant Donna Ashmus suggests that a computer in today's classroom include a word processor, CD encyclopedia, multimedia presentation software, spreadsheet or graphing software, a Web browser, and an e-mail program. Some content-specific software would be nice too, Ashmus adds.


"In a one-computer classroom, it is imperative to plan carefully and be extremely organized," cautions Lynne Heller, a teacher at P.S. 64 in Queens, New York. "I make sure each child knows exactly what to do. If writing, students complete a rough draft in their journals first. I provide step-by-step instructions and samples of the work to be completed. I really prepare those kids before they even get to the computer.

"With so much time between assigning an activity and everyone completing it, I use checklists to monitor completed assignments," adds Heller.

As sponsor of the school newspaper at Northshore High School (Slidell, Louisiana), journalism teacher Kathleen Modenbach has found planning and organization of paramount importance. But she has benefited from a little extra help too.

"I recruited people from outside the school!" she explains to Education World. "Although I used trained 'experts' from the class and paired experienced students with ones new to technology use, I also recruited tech-savvy parents and volunteers to help me. It made my life so much easier."


After exploring management strategies and computer placement, what can you actually do with one computer in the classroom? "My favorite computer-related experience was the first Internet project I ever ran myself," sixth-grade teacher Jane Scaplen tells Education World.

"My students created sets of five clues leading to the identity of a figure of importance in Canadian history and sent them via e-mail, one clue a day for five days," said Scaplen, who teaches at Sacred Heart Elementary School in Marystown, Newfoundland. "Classes in other parts of the world tried to identify the figure in as few clues as possible. We sent our clues at 8:15, just before classes started in the morning, but students in France did not receive them until they returned from lunch and those in British Columbia were still in bed -- a little lesson for my students on the effects of the rotation of Earth and time zones!

"Don't feel you need to know everything to get started," she continues. "There's always someone who's willing to give you a hand -- even if it's a virtual one!"

Instructional technologist Karen Cole offers additional suggestions, such as having a student check the weather forecast at and e-mail it to the school principal, who can announce it before school ends so everyone will know how to dress the next day.



Article by Glori Chaika
Education World®
Copyright © Education World


Updated 8/29/2011