Jul 23, 2012

Are Computer Labs Obsolete?

Today, I read the Point/Counterpoint discussion in ISTE's Learning and Leading journal. (http://www.iste-community.org/xn/detail/2280708:Topic:133086). The question posed was, "are computer labs obsolete?" In an age of iPads, PBL, and common core values, this is an important question. Some schools across the country are moving to a 1:1 computing initiative or BYOD movement, while others are forced by circumstance or economics to continue living in the computer lab age. As this is the case, I think this is an important question, but it also raises other questions.

Do we need to teach the way we have always taught?

Computer labs were seen for many years, as the solution to provide computer access to students. They allowed students to access the internet, or allowed them to learn and utilize word processing, presentation, and database software. Many schools rely on these labs to teach keyboarding skills or to provide space for researching term papers or projects. But the difficulty became scheduling the lab so that each teacher could have access. They were a great thing in their day, but they are starting to wear with age.

So is there a place for keyboarding and basic computing skills? Yes, but not in the secondary schools as much as it used to be. These are skills that children should be introduced to at a younger age. By the time a child reaches middle school or high school, they should be well versed in the use of these tools as well as many others out there. As well, we should be teaching them less about the tool and more about the philosophy of what it means to be digitally literate and responsible. We should teach students less about software and more about the ability to determine the suitability of the tool for the situation or project. It seems we have gotten into the habit of using technology for the sake of having technology.

Do we need to spend money on new programs without cutting budgets on old programs? Do we need to explore a BYOD policy?

Today, as grant dollars flow into schools and as budgets may allow, tablets and carts are making their way into classrooms while students carry around cell phones that are the equivalent of a computing device. Are we foolishly spending money on equipment and labs while we should be changing our policies to allow students to use these devices? The argument to that last statement often comes in the form of "not all children have access to such devices". While that may be true, we do not necessarily have to provide a computer/mobile device to each child in the district. We could provide enough to allow for those students who do not have access.

While it can be argued that we do still need to teach kids how to use technology, it can also be argued that we throw dollars away on each new technology while we continue to spend dollars in other areas. If we are going to pursue the use of tablets in schools, we should scale back spending on computer labs. Mobility of tablets, laptops, and carts means the lab can be used in other ways - classroom space, commons areas, etc.... As well, we need to determine where dollars can be cut in other areas. If an increased focus on mobile devices means we move away from computer labs in the upper grades, then fewer dollars could be spent on textbooks. And if schools opened up WiFi, then students could load textbooks on their mobile devices, while classrooms reduced spending to providing 1 classroom set of books instead of 1 book per child.

What can the portable classroom and mobile devices do for classroom pedagogy?

If we were to move away from the computer lab design which can be seen as a once or twice a semester trip down the hall to do a project, we could allow for more interaction and discussion in the classroom as students are able to pull up information on the fly. With mobile devices in the classroom, students can answer those spur of the moment questions without having the teacher say, "let me get back to you on that" or "lets go to the computer lab next week and look at that".

I don't claim to know everything, but it seems that we are definitely living in an age where we look to the future while continuing to pay for the past. As a shift in thinking occurs regarding classroom instruction, maybe a shift in spending and infrastructure need to come at the same time. It takes baby steps for some schools, but it needs to occur. If you can't make change occur rapidly, then be the change agent in your school by bringing up these discussions often.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad