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The New Computer Lab

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of personal portable communications devices* in a classroom setting, only a small part of which is driven from carrying around an iPad for the last six weeks or so.

Based mainly on my experience, I think Apple’s tablet will be a very compelling device for learning, once they push out a few major upgrades. More about that in another post.

Anyway, here in the overly-large school district we are also running experiments with the instructional use of the iPod Touch, as well as seriously discussing how and why students might use their own personal computing devices in the classroom.

Frequently, however, I get an impression that many of the people involved don’t understand the nature of these tools and how they are designed to be used.

They want very much to map them onto our classic computer lab style of technology use.

In a computer lab, even one consisting of laptops stored in a big metal box that is rolled from room to room, all the units are the same. Or essentially identical when booted.

All have the same software, identical desktops, files all in the same places, mapped to the same servers, and sometimes are even connected to a master unit that can take control of the whole lab.

And all the kids using them are expected to be doing exactly the same activities on each computer.

On the other hand, the powerful devices coming to school in the pockets of students (and many adults) are designed to be personal, with everything customized by the user to make the unit function best for them.

The “lab” created when each student boots their personal “computer” would result in almost none of the workstations looking – or working – alike.

So, as one teacher recently asked me, how are we supposed to get anything done if every computer in the room is different?

It’s a valid question, and I think the answer lies in a fundamental mistake we’ve made over the decades in the way we’ve taught kids and adults to use computers.

We taught Microsoft Word Fundamentals instead of learning the writing process regardless of the tool being used.

Our training focused on the mechanics of PowerPoint instead of on understanding the best ways to communicate ideas.

While this approach is possible, and relatively easy to implement, when using a standardized lab, it falls apart completely in a BYOC setting.

So we “get something done” by separating learning to use the technology from using that technology as a tool for learning more useful skills – like writing and communicating ideas.

After setting minimum requirements for the “computers”, we put the responsibility on the students themselves for knowing how to use the different applications.

Then we give them meaningful assignments and evaluate their work based on factors other than how well they use fonts and the number of slides in their shows.

I know, I know… far too simplistic.

However, if a 1-1 ratio of kids to computers in our schools, at least high schools, is really what we want (and I hear many around here say it is), then we will need to make two major changes to our education process.

First, we must allow and encourage students to freely use their own computing devices in schools (and provide them for those families who can’t afford it).

And then completely revise both the curriculum and our approach to teaching to fit the new circumstances.

Not simple at all, but do we have any other options?

*I know that’s a very clunky name but “smart phones” doesn’t nearly cover the capabilities of these devices and “computer” ties them too much to a stereotype.


  1. Nikki

    I read your thoughts with interest. Even though I teach in an inner city school the students have smart phones etc. It is a novel idea to consider the technology that is already available as a school supply. We ask for notebooks, paper and pencils; why not netbooks? I can hear my administrators now. They, the students, will use the technology to cheat or prevent a fight from being stopped. Which sad to say has already happened. “They” are a small group when compared to the total population.
    Sadly, many new ideas never get off the drawing board due to what ifs.

  2. Tori Meleski

    I agree with most of your thoughts, especially that most educators don’t understand the possibilities and power of one to one technology devices – but at the crux of this problem: schools, teachers and students are measured in a narrow, one-size-fits-all assessment. Teachers are asked to focus their instruction on this narrow assessment. How realistic is it to expect a broad, flexible individualized teaching model when nothing else about the system is constructed that way?

  3. Bill Iverson

    Tori’s comment is well-taken. But it’s an indictment of the present educational model than a criticism of this insightful posting. Shouldn’t it be obvious that the message is more important than consistent formatting? This is a trivial point. But it goes to the heart of the system fixation on simple, objective “test resuts.” Life isn’t simple or objective. An educational model that tries to measure student achievement by multiple choice answers will just pat itself on the back for producing drones.

  4. Jason Strack

    Here, here! I teach computer classes and this is what I have been striving to do as far as curriculum goes. We still use a computer lab to do the teaching though and identical tools although I strive to have different options available and have students learn how to use multiple computers well.

    Probably some of the biggest problems with each student bringing their own device is not having control over content on their devices. Also, with the many different interfaces, it can sometimes be overwhelming for a teacher, or even tech support to try and help someone with a problem they have with so many different devices possible.

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