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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Pros and Cons of Computer Labs

Mary Beth Hertz

K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

I have spent six of my almost nine years of teaching in a computer lab. Over that time, my feelings about computer labs have fluctuated. It may seem silly for me to be in opposition to my own job, but there are times that teaching in a lab can be frustrating and isolating. On the other hand, there are times when I realized that there is no other place that my students would be learning how to program, edit videos, create music or format text documents.

Neither of the schools in which I have been the technology teacher have had a library, a librarian or access to much classroom technology in student hands. As such, I have found that my role as the "Computer Teacher" has actually been many roles. In that way, the computer lab was an important place in these schools. On the other hand, it is challenging to try connecting what is taught in the lab with what students are learning in their classrooms, which is, in my opinion, the ideal way to structure technology education.

Another challenging part of teaching in a computer lab is the room layout itself. Most labs contain desktops lined up against a wall in either rows or pods. These layouts, due to wiring and cables, are not mobile or adaptable. In my lab, my younger students can barely see over their computers to follow what is going on at the board. In other labs I have visited or seen, students must turn their bodies to view the board.

Making It Work

Most computer labs are also not laid out well for group work. Technology lends itself to project-based learning, and this can be hard to manage or coordinate in a classroom that is not conducive to moving furniture or creating space for groups or teams to work. Often, the computer takes up most of the desk or table space, too, so there is less room for teams to work out ideas before creating them on the computer. A lot of this work must be done in the classroom before they get to the lab, which means that, even when groups are ready to start creating on the computer, they must wait until the day they use the computer lab. This interrupts the creative and design process and inserts an artificial break between the work students are doing and the technology they are using.

However, despite this, I know that there are certain computer literacy skills students are taught in a computer lab that make integrating technology in the classroom easier. If a teacher knows that students have a period or two each week for learning how to edit video, format text, manage files or create websites, then that is less instructional time in the classroom they have to spend teaching these skills. It allows them to focus on the content and process rather than specific computer skills.

Below is a table laying out some basic pros and cons of computer labs.

Pros Cons
Each student has a machine
Unlike classroom pods or clusters in the library, most computer labs have enough machines for each student.
Limited access as a shared resource
Since labs are separate from the classroom, they are not immediately available and are often shared among many classes.
Focused computer literacy instruction
Computer labs that have a teacher and are not just a room of computers provide students access to specialized computer literacy education.
Technology removed from classroom
When students have to travel to the computer lab, it means that technology is not truly integrated into the curriculum. Having technology in a separate room sends the message that technology is separate from what students are learning in the classroom.
Provide access in schools with no libraries or funding for large tech initiatives
The bottom line is, if a school does not have a library or can't afford to put a lot of technology into its classrooms, then a computer lab is a viable solution to provide access to students for digital learning.
Room layout
This could be one of the most frustrating things about teaching in a computer lab. The layouts of most computer labs are rigid and fixed and do not lend themselves easily to dynamic lessons or projects. In addition, there is rarely room for real work, since keyboards and mice usually take up most of the desktop space.

If you have discovered any additional pros or cons in the computer lab at your school, please share them in the comments section below.

Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Michael's picture
Michael
Superintendent of Climax Springs R-IV, Missouri

We are a very small rural district with approximately 120 students in grades 7-12. The issue for us is how to use technology effectively. Every student 7-12 has a netbook and we area wireless school. Many of our textbooks are web based and we partner with a local community college in order to be able to have qualified juniors/seniors graduate with an AA in addition to their HS diploma. Much of the coursework is done online. While the netbooks work very well in many situations, their main advantage is that they are portable. We offer 'clusters' wherein students are in a lab setting all taking different courses. For example, in one cluster may be ten students each of them involved in a different dual credit course. We have a certified tech person to help them through the issues that arise. For this type of educational setting, we don't need portability therefore CPU's are the best choice. We have successfully combined portable devices with labs. The determining factor for us is what is the best method for providing instruction to students. It should not be an 'either or' issue. Our next step is to digitalize our library and purchase Kindle Fire's so rather than checking out a book, the student will be able to check out the whole library.

alida's picture
alida
Technology Coordinator

Schools must adapt as technology changes. As technology becomes more mobile, schools should move to providing mobile devices or allowing students to bring their own. (I remember a presenter at an ed tech conference humorously noting that bowling alleys acquired overhead projectors 25 years before schools did!)

As a tech integrator, I don't want to be "teaching technology" as isolated skills in the computer lab. But without student laptops or up to date equipment in classrooms - and in many schools that's the reality - the only place to integrate is in the computer lab. So the next best thing is to work collaboratively with teachers. Instead of sending her students to the lab while she has a prep, the teacher stays in the computer lab, teaching and supporting the content while I teach and support technology use through that content. An added benefit is that the teacher learns how to use the technology along with her students.

Ajit Jaokar's picture
Ajit Jaokar
co-founder of feynlabs
Blogger 2014

good article and addressing an issue not much discussed. A couple more points to add a) The word 'computer' is now not synonymous with a PC - ex the Raspberry Pi is an interesting device for teaching computing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raspberry_Pi) b) Labs - if not properly thought out - can break the flow between thinking and doing kind rgds Ajit

Jerry Rice's picture

I believe it is time for us to re-evaluate our worshipping of technology in our schools. We have elevated the medium to a higher plane than the message. Computers, smart boards, and tablets are merely tools to assist in our learning, not the focus of our learning. When we show films in class do we focus on the message of the film or the projection technology? Let us focus on learning, on the curriculum, and make use of any and all technology that makes learning more real and purposeful to the learner. The medium must be transparent to the message!

Meg King-Abraham's picture
Meg King-Abraham
K-6 Technology Specialist

I agree with your points and have also been thinking a lot about the best model. Two aditional factors I have been struggling with are time and teacher's skills. Our district is moving away from the computer lab model, but I believe many of our teachers do not have time in their very regimented "Follow the pacing guides" schedules to integrate technology. They are also spread very thin and don't have some of the skills needed to successfully use technology to increase learning.

K. Brown's picture

I found your blog entry to be quite interesting and I fully understand your feelings regarding the matter. As a 21st century educator, it is our obligation to integrate technology into our classroom instruction, regardless of the content area in which we teach. In order for students to use the technology, they must have access to it. Often times, students are only able to have technology "in their hands" when they are in the computer lab. We are living in a digital age where students are better able to use technologies such as smart phones, tablets, Promethean boards etc. better than the teachers. However, the access that they have to these technologies is quite limited, if it is even available to them at all. If we want to our students to be tech savvy and literate, I feel that we must increase measures to make sure that all students have access to technology in all classrooms, not just the computer lab.

Garth Flint's picture

Until every student can afford a computer labs will be a must. Most of the students at my school do not own laptops so the labs are an absolute necessity. I teach programming. Half the students have to opperate on lab computers. A lab of wireless laptops would be an idea setup but laptops can grow legs and walk away.

Hatch Early Learning's picture

Computer labs in early education raise several questions concerning the quality of instruction. Early computer literacy coupled with web search proficiency are certainly advantages that all students should learn early in their education; however, not all early "Computer Teachers" have been trained to maximize their instructional time with young children, or have access to the necessary professional development. Early education teachers need to be more in tune with the skills of their students than progressive levels of academia because young children have difficulty articulating what they know, and what they do not know. An untrained teacher paired with a poorly designed computer lab layout may lead to notable inefficiency in instructional time. The importance of PD in early education cannot be understated.

Lilla Dale McManis, Ph.D.
Research Director

Kimberly Faye McClellan's picture
Kimberly Faye McClellan
High School Art Instructor

I believe you are right. Computers need to be in every classroom to be fully integrated into education.

[quote]I found your blog entry to be quite interesting and I fully understand your feelings regarding the matter. As a 21st century educator, it is our obligation to integrate technology into our classroom instruction, regardless of the content area in which we teach. In order for students to use the technology, they must have access to it. Often times, students are only able to have technology "in their hands" when they are in the computer lab. We are living in a digital age where students are better able to use technologies such as smart phones, tablets, Promethean boards etc. better than the teachers. However, the access that they have to these technologies is quite limited, if it is even available to them at all. If we want to our students to be tech savvy and literate, I feel that we must increase measures to make sure that all students have access to technology in all classrooms, not just the computer lab.[/quote]

Kimberly Faye McClellan's picture
Kimberly Faye McClellan
High School Art Instructor

I have been discussing this with several educational leaders since 2009. I had an integrated studio art lab as early as 2006 and as an art specialist I had worked on many grants to have access to such a program. All the computers in my current lab setting is a result of that effort and our school is doing well on technology. Sadly in 2010 due to construction on a new facility, those leading the efforts did not fully understand that a lab for film, design and photography should be in a studio art setting. My classroom is currently in a lab setting. When our studio arts lab was taken apart and separated as either or it was like a step back in time.

Our department went with a wired lab for 'mixed media' and arts integration because of the amounts of storage it takes for video and photography. Visual art using film, photography and design leads into mixed media and overlaps theatre, music, video for visual art and creative entrepreneurship. In reality computer labs are so very 1999.

I have now seen just how limiting a lab setting can be. Using a computer is virtual. It is tangible but not as tangible as it can be. If we don't change how others think they will limit our children because either or doesn't allow for opportunity. This article really hit the proverbial nail on the head for me.
Technology is not separate from the course. It's part of being successful for these 21c students. I'm so glad someone touched on this topic. Many thanks to Mary Beth Hertz, the author, for bringing this to the forum.

Kimberly Faye McClellan
http://www.linkedin.com/in/kimberlyfayemcclellan

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