Fix-It: 5 Ways to Fix the Computer Lab

The first in the “Fix-It” series. The idea is to take the bad ideas and practices in education and somehow salvage them.

When I was a kid, we visited the computer lab to play the Oregon Trail. I always managed to die of dysentery somewhere around Montana. The machines were slow. The graphics were 8-bit. The activities were often far away from what we actually accomplished in class. It was an exercise in tech tourism. And I loved it.

Every criticism that I hear about the concept of a computer lab is exactly the thing that made it so powerful as a kid: the games, the problem-solving, the escape from the classroom, the chance to work on things without being interrupted by a teacher.

I get it. The concept of a computer lab feels quaint. It’s easy to point to mobile devices, Chromebooks and iPods and laugh at the stationary, desktop, rows-of-tables, feel of a computer lab.

What if it became a lab again? 

What if we embraced the concept of a place on campus that didn’t feel much like a classroom?

I’m not entirely sure what a new-school computer lab would be, but I’m thinking it could be a place where teachers could integrate projects outside of their classroom along with allowing students to work on independent projects. So, while teachers would still regularly use technology in their classrooms, a separate space would exist on campus. Here are a few thoughts on what kind of a lab it could be:

  1. A hacker space: I would love to see a space on campus where students did real computing. Let them write code for programs. Let them make apps. Let them embrace the best of the hacker culture. Let them play with Raspberry Pi and get their feet wet with Linux.  
  2. A STEM lab: When I was a kid, we had a place called the “think tank” and we mixed computers (often simulators, design software, etc.) with hands-on projects. We played around with robotics. We designed bridges. I’ve seen some amazing things from Kevin Jarrett involving STEM spaces that are imaginative and creative. 
  3. A studio: Although bring-your-own-device makes sense, I would love to see high-quality computers used in video and audio editing. So, instead of using high-powered iMacs for Google Docs, students could make short films and documentaries. 
  4. An AHEM lab: This would be a “play place” similar to the STEM spaces, but with a focus on technology in music, humanities, art and English. Similar to a studio, this space would have a place for photography, music and film-making. But also like the STEM lab, it would have collaborative spaces, multiple materials (including physical “stuff” like paint or paper) and multiple devices. 
  5. Make it a tech-integrated “lab class” where teachers could work collaboratively on reconfiguring the space and the instruction to be more project-based. This could be a place where teachers would be encouraged to take risks (after all, it’s the lab room) and launch some shared action research projects. Compared to the previous four, this space feels the least exciting. But I’m thinking this could be a chance for teachers who are uncomfortable with PBL to play around with it in a room designed for that purpose. 

 What are some ways you could “fix” the computer lab concept?

photo credit: Stian Eikeland via photopin cc

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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16 responses

  1. Every classroom should be a lab.

    In my new school, I'm blown away by the Montessori model. Students are all over the room DOING all kinds of stuff. The teacher pulls over small groups for lessons throughout the day. They sit on the floor. They sit on stools at the counter. They sit at tables. They sit on a make-shift stage.

    They are doing math, science, reading, writing. Some of them are using iPads and laptops.

    They have structured freedom to complete tasks. It's a lab. It's not a classroom.

    Now, this is so much easier in a self-contained elementary classroom.

    I see working in middle school too. The core teachers create a grade level topic based on social studies. They work in small groups on different projects. Maybe it kicks off with a whole group presentation/movie/speaker. Then the content teachers figure out who to work their content into the topic. It's interdisciplinary. It's student led. It's constructing.

    Oh, boy, worms, can, open.

    1. I love that concept. That's part of why I would love to see lab spaces in traditional public schools. If teachers fall in love with the spaces, they will spread. It will go viral. Structures might begin to change.

  2. For the record John, I appreciate your willingness to post. You always get my mind racing and excited. I don't even know if my comments relate to your original thoughts but I have to get them out of my head.

    1. They relate to the post. I love your comments. They're always appreciated.

  3. I had computer lab duty a couple of years ago. This was basically me sitting in the computer lab and making sure students who were coming in from lunch and study hall signed in and didn't wreck the place (one did throw a mouse at a girl because he thought he was hilarious or something … he wasn't allowed back in). Most of the students who came in worked on whatever they wanted to and signed out when they left.

    The one obstacle I see where I work from making this a true lab, much like what I used to have in college, which was an open space for people to work freely with available technology is the daily schedule itself. Students, frankly, do not have enough independent time during the school day to have the opportunity to take advantage of something like an open lab (granted, when they do, they simply dick around for 45 minutes but I'm not supposed to criticize the snowflakes).

    We are CONSTANTLY reminded in my building that students need to have passes/be where they're supposed to be, etc. Shit, my principal gets uneasy when he walks into my room and I've given my class a "work day" for projects and everyone isn't on task. The idea of the entire BUILDING having an open period would probably give administration a collective stroke.

    I like that we can simply do something different with something we already have. I try to give my students freedom and opportunity while still crushing their souls with assigned materials based on a state curriculum. Although I'm not interested in trying to make anything go viral or starting some sort of revolution. We do what we do and if it works, we keep doing it.

    1. I think the journey you have shared is similar to my own. And I don't think I've crushed too many souls along the way.

  4. I'm really intrigued by an AHEM lab. I guess I hadn't thought much about tech in the area of arts and humanities.

    1. AHEM labs are awesome.

  5. I'm glad I came across this post in my twitter feed. I have the opportunity to rehab our computer lab. My idea is to have multiple seating areas- round pub tables with high stools, some shorter half moon tables and lots of bean bags, maybe a few comfy chairs or sofas. They were always a hit in my traditional classroom. I think this type of space in inviting and meets the needs of my current school environment. There are no plans to go out of the box with the curriculum any time soon, even Though i would love to. Baby steps….

  6. STEM is actually a little out of date specifically because of the activities you are suggesting happen in a "lab". Folks now recognize that the correct acronym is STEAM (do a search for STEM to STEAM). The reason for STEAM is that the "lab" that has always been involved in hands on, student centered, teacher mentored, open ended problem solving learning is the art "studio". The "A" in STEAM is ART. Our art studios have computers, iPads, digital cameras, as well as painting easels, band saws, potters' wheels and 3D printers. Our teachers understand that as art teachers it is our time (finally!) to step up and deliver real, intentional instruction and practice in the the creative process designed to be carried on outside the art studio. Once learned/reinforced, creativity is a transferable skill. In the engineering field the process is call innovation, in the business world it's called entrepreneurship, in the sciences it's invention, the name changes but it's the same process.

    1. See, my issue is that often they add an A and it become arts (and often design). I want to see literature. I want to see creative writing and blogging. I want to see digital advocacy and social studies in a way that reframes that subject.

  7. Love these ideas! I have moved from being a tech-using teacher to the tech teacher and coach this year and have been thinking a lot about these very things. I see each grade 1-5 class once a week in a time that has traditionally been allotted to teach what I call "business skills." It drives me crazy to teach skills in isolation! Additionally, one drawback I have seen to tech integration in the classroom is that teachers see "tech enrichment" as THE time to do anything tech related. Similar to your ideas, I have been thinking along the lines of tech class being a "Genius Hour." I love that students love to come to my class because they have some freedom to create and play. By the way, Oregon Trail is still a big hit! Thank you, John, for always making me think and stretching my own ideas.

    1. Wow, Oregon Trail still rocks! That's awesome. Hooray for avoiding dysentery!

  8. I spent my first four years of school dying of dysentery or drowning in 10-foot-deep rivers. (I didn't understand what fording meant.)

    My fifth grade computer teacher (who also happened to be my father) took us from playing on educational software to actually doing command line stuff, understanding things like RAM and ROM, dissecting floppy disks. It was great. It was like digital shop class.

    I think the difference between the old-school lab and the new-school lab is like the difference between Windows and Linux: one is for people who like to work *with* computers, and one is for people who like to work *on* computers.

    1. I love the idea of working on computers rather than just with computers. "Digital shop class." I dig that idea.

  9. Thanks for it. I will tell my instructor what I had read from here and maybe we can change the concept of our lab.

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