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School computer labs: A bad idea?

Michael Trucano's picture
OK, everyone all together now ...
OK, everyone all together now ...

As part of my job, I visit *lots* of schools around the world to see how they are actually using various types of educational technologies.  Usually, and inevitably, such trips feature a visit to the school computer lab, which is, more often than not, the locus for technology use in a school.  Generally speaking, I find that a school computer lab looks very much the same, no matter whether I am outside Pretoria or Phnom Penh. In most places I visit, putting all (or most) of a school's computers into a special 'computer lab' is seen as the obvious thing to do when a school is being 'computerized'. 

This may seem obvious ... but is it really a good idea? 

A side note: School computers labs don't all look exactly the same, of course. Generally speaking, there are three general configurations I see:

lined up in rows, like in a typing or sewing class
(this is not always a coincidence, given that I have been many schools where the computer lab was converted from a room previously used for ... typing or sewing)

configured in a U-shape around the edge of the room
(given that electrical plugs are usually along the wall, this is quite practical -- and this configuration also makes it much easier for a teacher to quickly see what is on the screens of all students, ensuring that they are not on Facebook or engaged in other sorts of mischief)

grouped in small 'pods' or clusters on round or hexagonal tables spaced about the room
(an arrangement often meant to foster more 'collaboration with teams')

Now, there are lots of understandable reasons to choose to build and equip school computer labs, especially when we are talking about the situation for many schools in developing countries.  They include:

  • security (locked room, bars on windows);
  • the fact that computers are often introduced in tandem with a new curriculum promoting the development of 'ICT literacy' skills, for which a dedicated room, and dedicated teacher, is required;
  • climate control (air conditioning, sealing windows and doors against dust);
  • special electrical needs (sometimes including a dedicated generator);
  • the bureaucratic reality that, when funds are made available for schools to computerize, often times additional funds are made available for physical infrastructure, providing school administrators with an opportunity to add on to the size of the school;
  • potential for dual use of facilities (e.g. a computer lab used by students during the day, and by the community when school is not in session);

These are just a few reasons, each of which typically makes a great deal of practical sense.  It is perhaps no coincidence that, when donor funds (including those of the World Bank) are used to pay for the large scale purchases of computers for schools, the school computer lab model is seen as the 'obvious' rational choice.

Not everyone sees this model such as a good idea, however.

Indeed, the trend in industrialized countries has largely been away from computer lab-centric models for educational technologies.  One reason for this is quite practical -- the computer labs are already full of computers, and if you want to buy more of them, you need to put them in other places. Fair enough. There is also a recognition, however, that if you want computers and other ICTs to contribute directly to impacting the learning process in core subjects, you need to put them where core subjects are being taught -- like in the classroom.  The move toward 1-to-1 computing, where each student (and/or teacher) has her own dedicated laptop, can be seen in some ways as a further extension of this belief.

One mantra that many educational technology advocates repeat with increasing volume and frequency these days is that mobile changes everything.  In many ways, I find it hard to argue with this assertion, even if, at a practical level, its influence is largely seen only in technology purchasing decisions in OECD countries.  This is not to say that 'mobile' considerations have not been important in technology choices in some developing countries.  As part of the Jordan Education Initiative, teachers were provided with their own laptops.  The model for the One Laptop Per Child project in many ways stands in direct opposition to the computer lab model, and Latin American countries like Uruguay and Argentina are moving aggressively towards mobile, largely laptop-centric, models.  (For what it's worth, I have been surprised at the number of school computer labs that I have seen recently that feature lots of new ... laptops ... lined up in neat rows ... much like the typewriters in the images accompanying this blog post.  Rather an interesting technology choice, that.) Laptops on dedicated carts, often times with integrated power outlets and safety locks -- these are sometimes referred to as COWs, or computers on wheels -- are in widespread use in some countries (and surprisingly unknown in many others).  The momentum behind the use of tablets in schools, until recently a rather fringe activity mostly found in pilot projects, is growing by leaps and bounds, and we should perhaps not be surprised to see tablets in widespread use in many education systems in a few years.  And yet, in most countries where the World Bank and other international donors are active in 2011, the trend continues to be to plan for building and equipping dedicated school computer labs.

please prepare to change to 12 point Times New Roman, on my signal
please prepare to change to 12 point Times New Roman,
on my signal

Opposition to the school computer lab model has been around for quite awhile in many places. Back in 1990, for example, Gavriel Salomon wrote about The Computer Lab: A Bad Idea Now Sanctified. In the two decades since Professor Salomon's article first appeared (and he wasn't the first to come to this conclusion), the school computer lab model, which first gained prominence in the United States and other industrialized countries (and which in some ways is a natural follow-on from the university computer lab model that sprung up in the 1960s and 1970s), has essentially been imported without much discussion by most developing countries.  Of course, even if this 'model' no longer works (if it ever did) for many schools in industrialized countries today, this doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't, or won't, work in schools in developing countries, where circumstances and learning contexts may be different (quite different, in many regards).

All of this is not to say that school computer labs are a bad idea. Or, for that matter, that they are a good idea. Rather, it is to argue that, where the decision is made to invest in them, it should be for the right reasons -- and not just because "that's what everyone else seems to be doing (or did in the past), so we should do it too".

What does this mean for a country about ready to deploy massive numbers of computers across its schools for the first time?  Does it make sense to buy fewer computers, and put them at the point of learning (i.e. in the classroom), and not into separate computer labs, segregated from where instruction in 'core subjects' takes place?

If the primary goal for introducing computers into schools is to train as many students as quickly as possible in basic office applications, school computer labs may well be the appropriate model to consider. If the goal of introducing computers into schools is to impact teaching and learning in a fundamental (and positive) way in core subjects, there may be other models to explore that can get this done more successfully. (In practice, there are almost always multiple, and often conflicting, goals, which makes things much more complicated than the simple either/or choice I am presenting here.)

The evidence base in support of the computer lab-centric school technology deployment model is, to my knowledge, not very robust. Expert opinion, at least in many OECD countries, is increasingly calling into question the reliance on school computer labs as the primary model for impactful use of educational technologies. Recent (Microsoft-sponsored) research from ITL, for example, finds that 'innovative teaching that leverages ICT happens more where students have access in their classrooms'. While conceptually this makes a lot of sense to a lot of people, there is still not a lot of rigorously obtained hard data that we can point to in support of abandoning school computer labs. Like so many things related to educational technology, people may passionately believe something, even if they can't yet 'prove' it.

That said, many education systems don't make a conscious decision -- based on either evidence or the opinion of 'experts' -- to chose the computer school lab model over other options. In fact, they often don't know that there are other practical options avalable to them. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice, a wise man once said. But that doesn't always mean you get the result you want.
 

Note: The images used in this blog post ("OK, everyone all together now ..." and "please prepare to change to 12 point Times New Roman, on my signal ...") come from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum via Wikimedia Commons; they are in the public domain.

 

Comments

I think the computer labs had a place perhaps, but have fast become yesterdays methodology giving way to mobile´s which will inevitably become the tool of choice in the very near future. Students need to take their learning with them, study when they want. A better investment for schools might be teacher training, or dare I say it - outsourcing in the cloud, which I feel will be a growing trend in the short term. Best, Robert

Submitted by rod on

I just find the sheer number of distractions students are faced with in a computer lab at the age of 15-16 in China interrupts the flow of learning. People cannot seem to concentrate on the task at hand. The standard of work when done on a computer is much lower. Discipline problems occur. Our students actually broke into our lab and we discovered them playing games.

Submitted by David on
There is still the practical consideration that computers in a lab linked to a school or college network are easier for the teacher to use and manage. Software (eg Ranger) enables the teacher to monitor and manage student activities on individual PCs (eg access to the internet or certain internet sites can be blocked if necessary). Many schools and colleges in the UK are bound by Health and Safety and Safeguarding considerations and this favours the use of labs over what might be perceived as a free-for-all in a classroom. I have personally found, for what it's worth, that Labs tend to be more "efficient" in terms of amount of work done in a certain period of time. However I can see that once the managing / monitoring aspects with respect to laptops are sorted the days of the Lab may be numbered.

Hi David, I certainly agree with you here. There are of course *lots* of good, practical reasons to decide to gather together a school's ICT resources together in a computer lab. My point here was not to say that computer labs are a 'bad idea'. Rather, for many countries considering large scale investments in computers in schools for the first time, I do sometimes wonder if the immediate practical considerations aren't given more weight than other things that might be important to consider as well. Things like: How will this help our teachers teach better, more efficiently, in a more engaged manner, etc., and, more fundamentally, how will this help our children develop the knowledge, skills and perspectives needed for them to lead happy, productive, informed lives? Whether or not school computer labs are a bad idea, a good idea, or a little of both, I think it it useful to ask the question; the answer will be different in different places, based on whatever their context and teaching/learning needs are. Thanks for the comment. Cheers, Mike

Submitted by Ray Tolley on
Michael, I do really think that you are 'putting the cart before the horse'. The installation of any technology, whether typewriters, networked PCs, laptops or mobile devices etc should not rely on 'practical decisions' but on pedagogies. As your chosen illustrations demonstrate, teaching for a long time has been in the hands of 'the expert' who has delivered instruction in strictly dictatorial styles. Tis may still be the accepted way of teaching and learning in some of the countries that you have visited - but not so in more enlightened climes where self-paced and investigative learning is more accepted as the norm. I must confess that some thirty years ago I installed networks mainly in one or two rooms in a school and tended to teach in a mainly instructional style. However, I was increasingly feeling that this was not right. Some 22 years ago I had the opportunity to set up from scratch the whole IT infrastructure for a whole City Technology College. For each Faculty area (ie in the UK each major subject area) I established one high-density room where a whole class could access a machine each, several medium-density rooms where perhaps 6-8 machines were available within a classroom and every other classroom had 2-3 machines for occasional access and so that every single classroom, study area and tearcher's office would have access to the network. This was an extraordinary feat of cabling - before fibre optic or even wireless were around! This demanded a whole new culture of IT-based teaching and learning. EVERY teacher, of every subject, had to be reasonably ICT literate and the skills learnt in formal ICT lessons were expected to be used by the pupils in all subject ares. This approach to using ICT in all subject areas is not a case so much of choosing the right infrastructure or devices, it is about where teachers and institutions are in their progress to more enlightened teaching and learning strategies.

Hi Ray, Thanks for your reply. I am not exactly sure how or where I put the 'cart before the horse' in my post here. My primary point is that putting the cart before the horse is *exactly* what usually happens related to decisions to undertake large scale investments in building/equipping schools with computer labs. Practical considerations (sometimes informed by inertia) often times crowd out considerations of how a decision serves larger (and more fundamental) goals. As I write, "where the decision is made to invest in them [i.e. school computer labs], it should be for the right reasons -- and not just because 'that's what everyone else seems to be doing (or did in the past), so we should do it too'." Now, reasonable people can disagree on what the 'right' decisions might be (it sounds like you and I hold some similar views on what should inform such decisions), but it seems to me there is value in making a conscious choice here to proceed based on whatever you hope to accomplish. You write: "This approach to using ICT in all subject areas is not a case so much of choosing the right infrastructure or devices, it is about where teachers and institutions are in their progress to more enlightened teaching and learning strategies." I agree with you here for the most part. There is a relationship between these two things, of course, and I would argue that decisions about infrastructure often can have very real impacts on what teaching and learning strategies can be profitably pursued. A school's existing infrastructure (physical, technical, procedural, human) can help enable 'progress to more enlightened teaching and elearning strategies' -- or it can help inhibit it. The rhetoric around large infusions of technology into schools often includes mention of 'transforming teaching and learning'; in such cases it is a shame when the practical result of such infusions is further calcify the very practices people want to transform. Thanks for the comment. Cheers, Mike

What I've often seen is China is a computer embedded inside the teacher's raised bastion at the front of the classroom. Mostly ignored by teachers and commonly hacked for student access when the teacher is out. Plus a computer lab. In some private schools they scatter computers all down the hallways, with first come access. We did something similar in a Canadian inner city school. We put donated computers in all kinds of out of the way places, plus a computer room. The wild and wicked computers in the hallways and other ways are the real learning places.

Submitted by Wayan Vota on
Is that there is a current focus on learning the computer as a tool in itself - like a typewriter or a hammer - usually espoused as "learning ICT skills" and crouched in terms of workforce readiness. What you are implying is that the computer can be much more than just another tool, but one integral to a learning process that offers individualized learning environments beyond the human capacity of a teacher. While I dislike the former, the reality is that the latter is well beyond the current capacity of all but the most advanced and flexible educational systems. The best we can realistically hope for is that educators will move beyond the computer as something to learn how to use and into students using it for basic levels of independent study. In this use case, the computer lab is better than other models for a variety of reasons. Now if we moved beyond a myopic focus on the just student use, and focused on the use of computers by teachers and administrators, arguably a step that should be taken before student use, then whole other models come up that are better than computer labs.

Hi Wayan, Many thanks for the comment. My intention with this post was only to ask a question, and hopefully to convince a few others that it is worth asking, and not to attempt to answer it. When thinking about spending huge amounts of money, especially in places that can ill afford mistakes, it is perhaps useful at times to take a step back and question some of our fundamental assumptions. It seems to me that, in many places where large scale roll-outs of ICTs are just beginning in the education sector, computer labs are seen as the *only* option when rolling out computers and other devices in schools. After careful consideration, it may may well be that computer labs are indeed the best option in many circumstances. That said, taking the time and energy to come to such a conclusion based on a careful consideration of options, and not just accepting this model without question, might be worthwhile in many instances. (And who knows: Maybe asking such a question may lead some places to consider some interesting, and innovative, alternate aproaches?) Moving on to the substance of your comments: I don't disagree with anything you've said here. One of the great things about writing a blog is that a person can ask questions, and in response other folks can offer some very valid, useful and insightful comments and perspectives -- as you, Robert, Ray, Vic and David have done here! Thanks! Mike

Hi Wayan, Greetings from Bali -- the land of many Wayans! I like your analogy of the classroom computer seen as typewriter or hammer. Funny and true, but I hope rapidly changing! Regarding your debate: Teach whom first? Students or teachers and administrators? I argue: Both! Why? 1) Sheer urgency. We need the bottom of the pyramid on board for global problem solving ASAP. Agreed? 2) The barriers to ICT are crumbling. Interfaces are getting more intuitive, more inviting, more rewarding, less demanding of sysadmins. Sit down in a far flung village with a touch screen - case closed! 3) In any population - any group of students + teachers + administrators - there will be early adopters and late adopters, technophiles and technophobes. If we deploy ICT top-down, the late-adopter technophobes will stunt, if not stop, implementation. We need all the early adopters we can get. Those who teach their peers, or their higher-ups, will learn more deeply, and will gain leadership skills. 4) Many underdevloped regions suffer a shocking lack of capacity and will amongst teachers and educational administrators. Fine, give them the chance to step up to the plate, but don't bet all your chips here. 5) We need Web 2.0 schools to create Web 2.0 thinkers. We need our next generation to be skilled at sharing, collaborating and taking initiative, not waiting for solutions from on-high. 6) A computer is not a hammer. Just look at a tiny handful of things it is not -- a library, a Wikipedia (online or off), a guide to basic health care (e.g., the single title "Where There is No Doctor"). Now look at how desperately these few things are needed in the world's most underserviced regions. Look at how quickly and efficiently they can be distributed in a compact form factor. Look at how directly these tangible assets can reach the hands of beneficiaries. (By contrast, cash disbursements of Indonesia's education budget suffer 40-50% leakage due to corruption -- largely spent on booze and women while courting projects.) In years past, the argument to focus limited ICT4E resources on teachers and administrators -- or on computer labs -- held more merit. Now, thanks to lowering costs and barriers to ICT adoption, coupled with of surge of investments in emerging economies, the 1:1 mobile solution is well within reach and should not be discredited as untenable. Best! Djuna

Many thanks for sharing your historically deep and geographically wide views on this matter, Michael. I agree with your conclusions, and then some. I only hope that this observation... "there is still not a lot of rigorously obtained hard data that we can point to in support of abandoning school computer labs" ...does not hinder our migration to mobile computing in (and out of) the classroom. I'm all for science, but in this fast-changing world we need to remind ourselves: Just because we can count something doesn't mean we should. The ecological economist Herman Daly put it best: "As important as empirical measurement is, it is worth remembering that when one jumps out of an airplane, a parachute is more beneficial than an altimeter." It seems clear that the developing world's youth bulge has left the airplane and is fast approaching impact with hard, immovable realities. Like many crises, I say this calls for "70% decision making", as employed by the US Marine Corps. If you have 70% of the information, have done 70% of the analysis, and feel 70% confident, make the call. A less than ideal action, swiftly executed, stands the best chance of a favorable outcome. It's easy to feel more than 70% confident re: migration to mobile computing when we look to: 1) Trends of market choice. Those who can buy mobile devices, are buying mobile devices. From Silicon Valley to the Okavanga Rift. This is universally obvious. 2) Trends re: aid entering society via point sources, or via a hierarchy. Little aid, if any, reaches the intended beneficiaries. Less universally obvious, but I hope blatantly obvious to anyone with in-the-trenches development experience. So... no time to waste! Let's get learning tools into the hands of our young'uns just as soon as we can! Cheers! Djuna

Submitted by Laney Worthlin on
I think there are a lot of good things about school computer labs. But I also believe that having computers in the classroom are beneficial as well. Our school district has both. The classrooms have 5 weeks that rotate between computers, art, PE, and music. During those times when the children are not in the computer lab, they get to use the computers in the classroom. Granted there are not enough for each student for the classroom, but over half the students get one or can share. It's helpful to have computer lab management for the rooms with computers. Aside from laptops, the teacher also uses the smartboards that link to a computer and displayed in front of the class to teach and use interactively when teaching.

Submitted by Abraham J. Durand on
Hi Michael, Quite interesting and revealing discussion. I live on the Caribbean island of the Commonwealth of Dominica, and in the process of proposing an ICT4D initiative that includes ICT in secondary schools. Largely because of physical characteristics already discussed in the blog, I am considering a hybrid solution using a combination of fixed and mobile labs. The fixed labs are expected to be used as "Access Labs" where students can do research and assignments on a first-come basis. Each school in the proposed model will also be equipped with a fixed "Research Lab" where senior students can test ideas and innovative projects on a supervised basis. "Training Labs" will be mobile and serve clusters of classrooms, such as an entire floor, or block on the same level. The proposal will also include integration of personal tools such as PDA's via access to school infrastructure. The solution for each individual school will hopefully be the result of consultation with admin and staff, and will take into consideration the current state of readiness of either, as well as the potential for ready- or ultimate buy-in. Initial and ongoing training and monitoring will of course form a significant part of this project. I have worked in this environment for more than 10 years, and my work is published online. I would welcome any and all comments on these ideas from whomever would like to share their thoughts!

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