In response to a rising number of students with personal laptops, educators and administrators are questioning the need for computer labs. However, while access to technology is changing their function, computer labs remain relevant in today’s schools for a number of reasons. For starters, computer labs create inclusive, structured learning environments where students can prepare for a tech-heavy future.
Not long ago, school computer labs were a mainstay of the education environment. Today, not so much. In fact, they’ve become downright controversial. Their very existence is at the root of the controversy.
Many schools provide a computing device for every student. Those that haven’t yet achieved this, aspire to. Budgets are tight. Time is a limited resource. The computer lab has become a target for sparing both. Those who favor eliminating school computer labs hold up 1:1 as the answer to all computing needs.
They ask: Why fund a computer lab when students carry computing power with them from class to class? Why take time from core subjects to teach computing when students have this everywhere learning tool? Why can’t classroom teachers integrate computer skills into their curriculum?
The impact of mobile computing on education is indisputable. These powerful devices caused a sea change on par with that of the microcomputer, which launched the first school computer labs. Accessibility to computing power is no longer constrained by time and place.
Some say these changes portend the death of the school computer lab. Yet many educators advocate for their continued use. Below, five key reasons why school computer labs still matter in today’s environment.
1. Workstations Have More to Offer
Portable computing power offers learning advantages in virtually any educational environment. Yet, iPads and Chromebooks have their limitations. It’s a case of the right tool for the job. There are many things for which PC workstations are better suited.
Full computer lab workstations deliver greater computing power and more screen space than mobile devices. They offer better ergonomics and full-sized keyboards. PCs with powerful processors are ideal, and often a must-have, for subjects like advanced programming, engineering, and video editing. Full-sized keyboards make for easier typing of long papers.
Added screen real estate lets students work smarter and more efficiently. More information onscreen means less time needed to click and swap among tabs and windows. This has a host of advantages. For example, reference articles can be kept open and visible as students write a paper.
The health benefits of a full-sized monitor are not trivial. Correct ergonomics while computing is critical to reducing strain, discomfort and long-term injury like herniated discs. The top of a display should be at or slightly below eye level. Laptops sit much lower on a work surface.
The result is often considerable neck strain, commonly called “tech neck.” Using a full-sized, adjustable monitor keeps students comfortable now and safeguards their future health.
Don’t need powerful processing in your school computer lab? Does your school issue laptops or Chromebooks to all students? Gan the advantages of workstation comfort and productivity by providing full-sized external monitors. Include docking stations or WiFi options for easy connectivity.
2. School Computer Labs Ensure Equitable Access
While 1:1 computing is on the rise, equity gaps persist. Many schools still lack the resources to implement 1:1 learning.
The Consortium for School Networking reveals the extent of these gaps in its 2018-2019 annual infrastructure survey. Forty-one percent (41%) of high school students lack access to a non-shared in-school device. In middle schools, 37% of the students lack individual 1:1 device access.
Elementary school students have the least access to personal devices, at 71%. This represents some progress over the prior year. Yet it still leaves a large portion of the US student population without a dedicated device during the school day.
At home, the survey found, there were no gains in students access to computing devices. This, in fact, is an ongoing trend. Since 2015, 10% or fewer school districts have reported that all of their students have internet access via non-shared devices at home.
Until all students have a dedicated computing device, school computer labs provide a place for equitable access to this vital resource.
3. School Computer Labs Supplement Classroom Learning
Students that use Chromebooks or other mobile devices during class gain digital literacy skills in tandem with class curriculum. Students type notes. Group projects are conducted digitally. The internet is at hand for research tasks. It’s a natural integration.
As such, some educators conclude that all aspects of computer learning should move out of the computer lab and into the everyday classroom. On the flip side of the debate are those who advocate for maintaining separate computing facilities. Topping the list of reasons is limited classroom learning time.
Classroom teachers are time-pressed as it is. Covering the required curriculum and attending to students is a daily challenge. How would these teachers add instruction previously covered by a technology specialist or computer teacher? Finding time requires sacrificing something else.
Computer labs provide a time and space to develop skills not directly related to classroom curriculum. These skills can be first learned in the lab. Then mastered through ongoing application at home and in the classroom.
4. A Computer Lab by any Other Name…is Still a Computer Lab
Many schools have rebranded their computer lab rather than remove it altogether. This typically involves some degree of space and technology build-out. It often includes an all-new name, such as:
- Learning commons
- Learning lab
- Information commons
- Information station
- Scholar’s commons
- Maker space
- Stem lab
- Innovation center
- Digital commons
Integrating workstations into the school library is a popular approach. These diverse spaces are often known as the “library commons.” Increasingly, school libraries are less about stocking print materials and more about collaboration and creating meaning.
They’re an ideal place for rows of individual-use workstations. Tech-rich collaboration spaces. Or any combination of tech for your school’s ideal 21st-century learning space.
Want to keep things calmer in the library proper? Have limited staffing resources? Try this recommendation for elementary school computer labs:
- Put 25-30 computers together adjacent to the library
- Use a glass partition to separate the two rooms
- Staff needs are minimized, as they’re able to watch both areas
- If school funding is cut, the close proximity of the library/lab minimizes the chance both will be closed.
The STEM lab is another up-and-coming approach. These dedicated high-tech learning spaces are designed to empower students to explore, build and create. STEM labs typically include individual workstations and decked-out collaboration spaces. In well-funded schools, STEM labs often supplement student devices and a robust library commons. The St. Thomas School, for example, provides each student with a laptop and has two dedicated STEM spaces.
Another option is to refurbish an existing school computer lab. The lab remains in its current location but gets an overhaul of its furnishings, technology, and décor to better suit today’s learning approaches.
5. Modern Computer Labs Promote Collaboration
Traditional computer labs were designed to facilitate one thing: large classes of individual students engaged in similar tasks. They were often windowless rooms with workstations lining the walls to accommodate wiring and cables.
Today’s computer labs, library commons, and STEM labs look nothing like their ancestors. They’re also designed to facilitate a myriad of learning activities. Solo learning and testing, to be sure. But also, and perhaps foremost, collaborative group work.
Just as classrooms are being redesigned to accommodate today’s constructivist learning styles, so too are computer labs being redesigned to facilitate working together to explore concepts and create meaning.
Designing a 21st-Century School Computer Lab
There is no one right way to design a 21st-century computer lab. (Whatever you may call it.) Beginning with the end in mind is a good place to start. What are your objectives for the space? How many students do you want it to accommodate? What are the ways in which will it be used?
Often, commons-type spaces combine an array of technology and furnishings to facilitate several types of learning. These include remote or online learning and research. Content creation and collaboration. Testing and studying. Individual and group work. Tutoring, studying and socializing. Even esports club practices.
No two learning commons or computer labs will be alike. Flexibility and the ability to evolve along with technology and pedagogy are key. Breaking the space into activity-based zones can be helpful.
- Individual work zones. These can include an array of tech options. Smaller cubbies for use with individual devices like tablets and laptops. Larger spaces with external monitors to connect to personal devices. And fully decked-out PC-powered workstations to support STEAM learning and other specialized project work. Including some type of partitioning for privacy is helpful.
- Collaboration zones. Modular furnishings are key to accommodating many types of project-based and group work. Ideally, students can easily reconfigure tables to suit their needs. Power access, connectivity, and charging are important considerations. Sizable, 24-inch+ monitors with wide viewing angles help students see content easily for group projects and presentations.
- Social learning zones. Providing less structured areas lets students collaborate and learn casually. Comfortable soft furnishings and café tables set a relaxed tone. Expect conversation and a degree of noise in these areas and plan acoustics accordingly.
Monitors with an IPS panel offer the best features for supporting collaboration. These include the maximum possible viewing angles, both up/down and side-to-side, without shifts in color and contrast. When budget permits, 4K resolution provides the greatest visible detail. Ultra HD makes a particularly notable visual impact at the close viewing ranges common for collaborative project work. Content-sharing capabilities are another important aspect of collaboration zones. Whether wired or wifi, students should be able to quickly connect and share content.
Call it by any name you like, the computer lab may well be here to stay. The creative conversion of school computer labs is a smart way to meet evolving educational needs. These tech-rich spaces equitably accommodate more students, with more computing power and greater screen real estate. They provide a place for students to explore, create, connect and develop digital literacy–cornerstone skills for college and career readiness.
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