Traditional computer labs are obsolete in terms of digital age teaching and learning as well as notions of good design. Labs are relics of a 20th century method for skill-based learning that views the student as an isolated individual attempting to master specific tools for future factory-based employment.
During its best days, computer labs were a one-size-fits-all approach to mastering basic skills: typing up an assignment, creating a presentation, practicing QWERTY keyboarding, or researching a topic. During its worst days, the lab was either a barren dust bowl with outdated and rarely functioning hardware or a fun-filled reprieve from the classroom—an easy method of babysitting that kept kids occupied with frivolous work and the shiny glare of the computer screen.
The outdated design of a computer lab harks back to a time when computers were large and unmovable, so technology had to be contained in one room. This design assumes that students are working by themselves rather than engaged in a collaborative inquiry or project. It also assumes that the teacher is walking around the lab, monitoring students and making sure they are on task. Pedagogical practice in most instances did not change in a computer lab.
Our modern technology, in contrast, has allowed our learning opportunities to take place anywhere, anytime. Some of the main benefits of today’s computer hardware are its portability, wireless nature, and ability to be integrated into a classroom setting, as blended learning demonstrates. With these advancements in technology, we are finally able—and have the responsibility—to create fluid spaces for students and teachers to foster a community of learning.
Learning is interactive and socially dependent. We need to design learning spaces that promote engagement, foster creativity and collaboration, and support peer-based learning and knowledge creation. This redesigned space should be flexible, intuitive, comfortable, and user oriented, shifting the focus from individuals sitting in front of screens to a more inspired environment dedicated to teaching and learning. Let’s revolutionize our relationship with educational technology and metaphorically blow up the anachronistic computer lab!
Direct instruction in computer skills in a lab doesn’t compete with technology use in the classroom, it improves it. What takes place in the lab gives students the confidence to use technology effectively in other classes. Lab instruction centered on the NETS also frees classroom teachers to focus on using technology to further their content goals without losing valuable instructional time to teaching computer skills. And regular direct instruction in computer skills in a lab validates its importance as a subject.
I am the computer teacher for more than 500 students in grades 1–5 in a small rural community. Teaching students over five years allows me to present a structured curriculum that aims to send our students into sixth grade with a basic understanding of keyboarding, documents, presentations, wikis, internet research, and digital citizenship. Regular instruction from a computer teacher in a lab also provides consistency that an array of classroom teachers with varied technological skills and a host of other learning priorities cannot offer. Many of our students also do not have computers or access to the internet at home. Direct instruction in computer skills ensures they too will be able to use technology in their future endeavors.
Required assessments consume a growing percentage of class time, which adds pressure to make instruction as efficient as possible. Teachers here are making increased use of our laptop cart and the lab because they are confident their students will need minimal assistance with the technology, freeing teachers to focus on their content goals. Technology enhances their instruction, and their work with computers furthers their progress toward NETS proficiencies—a win-win.
How we use our time, space, and resources shows our students what we value. When students receive regular instruction in technology, in a computer lab, from a teacher dedicated to the topic, they see that it is important knowledge. Eliminating the lab experience would dilute this message.
The ever-expanding presence of technology reinforces our responsibility to make sure our students graduate with the knowledge to use it confidently wherever their lives lead them. Our task is not to dismantle computer labs but to make sure our lab practices give students the support, skills, and knowledge they need, enhancing the use of technology in all classrooms.
—A former classroom teacher and middle school teacher, Tim Telep is currently a computer teacher at Bayfield Elementary School in Bayfield, Colorado, USA. Visit his computer lab wiki at http://beskid.pbworks.com.
—Jessica K. Parker is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, USA. She is the author of Teaching Tech Savvy Kids: Bringing Digital Media into the Classroom.