Scrap the Lab. It Doesn’t Compute.

(Cross-posted on LeaderTalk.)

A few days ago, Scott McLeod, on his Dangerously Irrelevant blog, asked his readers to share what they think are the best designs for a computer lab.  As I was thinking about this and formulating a comment to write on this post, I received the Sept/Oct 2008 edition of Scholastic’s “Administrator” Magazine.  Have you seen it yet?  The cover story is titled “One Laptop, One Child.” After reading this article, I realized why I was having so much trouble formulating a new, better design for a computer lab.  I have come to believe that the best design is no design at all.  I would argue that we should be scrapping the traditional computer lab with 25 or 30 desktop machines that are networked to a couple of printers housed in one room in a school.  This has become an outdated use of our schools’ very tight technology budgets.

Why?  Because if our goal is to integrate technology into all aspects of the curriculum (well, that’s my goal, anyway), then a computer lab that is shared by all of the classes in a school is not sufficient to accomplish that goal.  The typical use of a school’s lab is for the teachers to sign up for a weekly time to bring their classes in to work on the computers. I am talking about elementary school teachers.  However, middle and high schools schedule students into computer classes in labs, and the same dicsonnect takes place. When it is “computer time” the teachers will end a reading or math lesson, march the students to the lab, and assign some type of word processing or PowerPoint activity to accomplish during the 40 minute period.  Then, it’s back to class to continue working on other lessons.  Effective, meaningful technology integration is much more difficult in this type of system.

Instead, we need to equip each classroom with a bank of six, eight, even ten or more laptop computers.  These machines would be available for students all day, every day, and teachers could plan lessons to include technology throughout the day.  Additionally, classrooms should be equipped with document cameras, LCD projectors, and interactive white boards.  This classroom-based technology will open up the classroom to the entire world, and instead of the standard teacher demonstration station, students will have much more hands-on experiences with technology.  They will be doing, not just watching how technology can be utilized for learning.

With a bank of laptops in a classroom, students can work independently or in groups on projects that connect them to others.  For example, imagine a literature circle discussion taking place among students in New York and San Diego via Skype.  Or, imagine a science experiment conducted with students in Chicago and Seattle.  How about a debate between students in Boston and London? Should they have thrown the tea overboard, or not?  Debate!  The students will learn more from each other than they would from their own classmates (and maybe from their teachers).  Sure, this can be accomplished in a computer lab on the other side of the school, but time would be the enemy, and the ability to extend the learning past 40 minutes would not exist.

Taking this a step further, imagine if every student had a laptop computer on his or her desk.  As Wayne D’orio argues in his Administrator article, a well-run 1:1 computing program is one where many more students have the “access to technology and use the tools in meaningful ways.” This should be a goal for every school.

It is instilling the idea that teachers will no longer be the dominant information delivery for each class.  If a school goes 1:1 but the students use the computers only as a better way of taking notes, the whole experiment will fail.

D’orio goes on to explain that “If used correctly, computers in more hands can help speed schools along the path to 21st century learning.”  Students need to collaborate with others throughout the day and week, similar to what their parents are doing in the world of work.

The first and most obvious criticism of 1:1 computing in schools is cost, and I would agree.  However, there are computers now on the market that cost less than $500 and would serve the needs of most elementary and middle school students.  HP has one.  So does ASUS.  So does MPC (this looks like a cool one for kids).  And more are coming on to the market.  There also is Thin Client software and products like the X300 Terminal from NComputing that create access terminals without bulky computers in classrooms.

One final point is that we need to allow students to bring in their own laptops for use in classrooms.  I can hear the school district IT people screaming at me for this one!  “There is no way we will let kids connect to our network.  It’s not safe for the network or for them.” To that, I say “let it go!”  Let the educators teach the students the correct way to use the network, go ahead and scan their machines for viruses, and purchase classroom management software that allows teachers control of the machines if necessary to push out lessons or block inappropriate material.

Of course, this may become a moot point when the next generation of smart cell phones takes over the computing world.  One cell phone, one child?  Picture that in your classrooms.


One thought on “Scrap the Lab. It Doesn’t Compute.

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Our school was only built 5 years ago but already the computer labs are almost impossible to book for non ICT classes. The only option is the library which has 50 machines in banks with 2 classes at a time – hardly an ideal teaching environment. I managed to get 6 eeePCs for the Maths department but the IT department has not supported us with a wireless network so they are not much use.
    The sooner we hit 1 to 1 the better.

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