School computer labs: A bad idea?

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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.



Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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