The end of the computer lab

The age of computer labs is coming to a close. At least I think it should.  Computer labs just need to go away.

We don’t have ‘pencil labs’ or ‘crayon labs,’ so we don’t need computer labs. A room dedicated to one particular learning tool doesn’t seem to make sense now. Sure, at one time a special room was needed for computers because of the nature of the older technology.  But with mobile technology now, such as tablets and Chromebooks, it’s not really necessary. There are some exceptions, such as drafting or computer science classes that need more processing power, but otherwise, keep the learning in a more natural learning environment: the classroom.

I’ve found that students mentally associate different environments, or rooms with different ideas. Some rooms are rooms of learning, others are rooms of socializing, others for just doing work and not really for listening. Try to teach a full lesson in the cafeteria, and it likely will be more challenging – same with the computer lab. Many students associate the computer lab with the concept of working alone on assignments, a sort of free work time, not for learning.

Trying to do a full lesson, which involves the use of the computers for only part of the lesson, is a challenge in a computer lab (unless the class is always in the computer lab and the associations in their brains adapt). There’s a giant computer on the desk in front of them, leaving little room for anything else, half the students have their back to the teacher, it’s a difficult layout for group work, and not everyone has a good view of anything projected. Used for just computer work, it’s fine. For anything else, it’s awkward.

Using the technology as a mere part of a lesson is really the best way to go. It doesn’t focus on the tool, keeps it in the context of a real lesson, puts pedagogy first, and still reaps the benefits of the technology all the same.

“Ok, class, we’re going to walk down to the pencil lab today to work on our pencil assignments for the whole period.”

The act of a class standing up, pushing in their chairs and marching single file down to a computer lab where they spend the entire period working on a computer task, should become as arcane as the practice of hiding under desks for protection from nuclear attacks. It’s just a little silly now. There is now excellent and inexpensive technology available that avoids the computer lab problem.

Chromebooks offer a pretty awesome solution. Whether keeping them on a shared cart, or dedicating them to a classroom, a lot of money can be saved and a lot of learning increased. I don’t mean to sound like an ad, but they are remarkable for education.

First, they are crazy cheap (under $300), but second, you don’t need a dedicated room in the building for them and all the necessary equipment. Desks, chairs, monitors, keyboards, mice, wires, data switches, printers, all that crazy stuff.

Second, the technology will simply be used more if it is less of a hassle to do so. Not all students need to use them at the same time. Students that are done work early can work on a Chromebook. They can use them in groups and still maintain a face-to-face conversational workspace. Teachers can get everyone’s attention and ask everyone to close their lids – an instant classroom management solution. There’s a whole variety of applications of a ready-to-go, on demand computer within the regular classroom. It opens up many options that  can’t be done when the whole class is moved to the computer lab.

So let’s move away from marching students around to rooms dedicated to a tool. Just let the students use the tech as they would a pencil, in their own comfortable classroom setting, and available whenever they need it.

(Photo Source: Oregon State University Archive)

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