Ed Tech: Computer Labs versus Classroom Computers

Ed Tech: Computer Labs versus Classroom Computers

It's traditional that the showcase of any school with a halfway decent tech program is their computer lab. Go to any school site and if they want to show off their tech program they will invariably give you the VIP tour of all the great things they're doing in their computer lab. But on the continuum from no technology to technology integration the importance of a computer lab is actually one of the beginning steps and not necessarily a sign of a "good" tech program. It's an important step, but it is less important than moving teachers along the process from tech non-users to tech curious to tech users.

Basically it comes down to another balancing act between time and available funding. Generally it is much less expensive and much more effective to create a computer lab than it is to equip and train a whole school site. The tech in the computer lab, if the program is properly implemented, will get continuous useage throughout the whole teaching week, which is much better than dumping tech in the classroom and having it go largely unused. But, in terms of the number of minutes a week that each individual student gets their hands on the keyboard and mouse it's probably not more than 50-minutes a week. Well, 50-minutes a week is better than nothing, but if I were learning to play a musical instrument, for example, I doubt that I would become very proficient at it if I only worked on it for 50-minutes a week. In fact, I know that my music teacher would be very angry with me if I only worked on my music during my 50-minute a week music lesson (personal experience here). But somehow, we in education, have taken this minimal exposure and made it into the hallmark of what technology in education is supposed to look like.

An important measure of a good tech program is not how many computers or the newness of the computers in one's lab but the number of minutes each student gets to put their hands on the keyboards and mice every week. One wants to have continuous usage of the computers, but the only way to increase the number of minutes the students can use the computers is to have enough computers in the classroom. As a sixth grade teacher in an elementary school I was able to give my thirty some students two additional 30-minutes sessions on the computers beyond their regular lab time by adding two of my own PCs to the lone Mac designated for student use. Coming up with enough material for them to work on was a real challenge because they were such voracious consumers of content.

And even though it was a challenge to come up with good content, because of the expense of having tech in the classroom and the scarcity of teaching minutes I do not agree with the tendency to put kids on computers to do "drill and kill" activities. As much as possible whatever is worked on at the computer needs to have a connection to real teaching going on during the rest of the teaching week. If the students are going to work on keyboarding, it might as well be sentences or paragraphs from a real paper they need to produce versus meaningless "FJFJ"s. I have used a keyboarding and math program or two, but the bulk of our time at the keyboard should be doing real work or real research connected to real assignments. The equipment and time are too expensive to be used as just another "filler" activity.

So, if I were taking a tour of a "technology school" I would want to see how the computers are being used in the classroom alongside the normal daily routine and not just during special pull-out sessions. Having a computer lab is a good first step but having the kids handle the technology on a daily basis is much more effective and meaningful. The goal is not pretty boxes in a beautiful room but student learning to the point where the technology become invisible behind the depth and creativity of the students' products. JBB

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