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Time to Kill the Lab?

In a post from a couple of weeks ago, a colleague asked for help with setting up a computer lab at his school.

He was looking for something other than the “conventional wisdom” - 30 machines lined up inside a rectangular space in such a way to make it easy for the teacher to have everyone to work on the same assignment.

Over the past few months as I’ve been working with some of our school-based trainers, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the idea of computers labs.

Not so much the arrangement of the room but whether they are an impediment to the process of technology integration and need to disappear.

When I watch what goes on in the computers labs at most schools, regardless of the level, it’s rather depressing.

Rote lessons in which students are all doing the same activity (“open the map of Virginia and draw the four regions of the state”), as a reward for kids getting their real work done, to take tests (lots and lots of tests), or just to make sure we get our technology requirement checked off.

It seems as if very little about the way kids use the technology in their lab time is integrated into the learning that occurs back in their “regular” classroom, and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to the concept of a “lab”, a place in which experimentation occurs.

So what about mobile labs, those big carts full of laptops are rolled in and out of classrooms, that many of our schools have been putting in place over the past few years?

Well, the potential to do something better is there. But what I usually see looks very much like a traditional computer lab, often complete with the teacher machine projecting to an interactive whiteboard with no interactivity going on.

So, is this a chicken-and-egg situation?

If the lab went away (or the arrangement changed) would the way teachers use computers in their instruction change? Or if teachers wanted to change their instruction, would labs disappear?

Either way, I think it’s about time to kill the concept of the traditional school computer lab.

Am I wrong? Missing something?


  1. Kelly Dumont

    I have been trying to preach this in my district(s) for several years now. People are so scared of change. I agree very much that the labs are an impediment to implementing technology in a school the way that it can and should be.
    One of the biggest objections we’re dealing with now is with state mandated online testing, so “if we get rid of the labs, where do we test the kids.” This of course leads to a whole new layer and level of discussion about the use of technology in our buildings.

  2. Karen

    It’s been time to kill the lab for several years….but the biggest impediment is standard classroom arrangement…when classrooms still have desks in rows the lab mimics that. We probably need to get rid of the word classroom as well. Learning environments should be flexible and mixed media. Learning is not an isolated act, but rather a social one….but we still try and treat it as a one by one situation.

  3. Eileen

    Yes I think you are missing quite a bit. I like that you are working with the school-based trainer/techies, but maybe you should be working in a computer lab in the elementary schools for awhile. Or just in some of our elementary schools to see what the k-6 are doing with computers or interactive white boards. If the little ones are using the technology and as they go through our schools it isn’t continued then you have a huge failure. But for the kids in elementary school the lab is a magical place where they can go to work on a piece of technology that is not necessarily in their homes. It is a place where the teacher is showing them their future. It is a place where they can explore their own creativity. check it out sometime.

    • Tim

      Most of the schools I work in are elementary level and I appreciate what you’re saying Eileen. However, I’m disturbed a little by your use of the term “magical”. Considering how long the personal computer has been in schools, and part of society in general, it’s disconcerting that we haven’t moved, even a little, past the idea that they are magic devices, something to be enshrined in their own temple.

      I’m also not sure even the little kids are that dazzled by computers. Just yesterday I watched a couple of 3rd grade boys in the corner of a school library (out of the range of their teacher’s vision) as one showed the other a new app he had on his iPod Touch. Their lab (the one pictured in the following post) isn’t the future. That boy is carrying it in his pocket.

  4. Jenny

    I still feel a need for a computer lab. I’d like to get to the point where we can ditch the labs, but I’m not there yet. I need a way to have all my kids on a computer at the same time in order to make sure we have some basic skills so we can move on to more. Just getting 20 first graders logged on is a challenge.

    I’m left, yet again, feeling as though the status quo doesn’t cut it, but we haven’t found a solution that really makes sense.

    • Tim

      Thanks for the comment Jenny. Actually I understand why schools hang on to the computer lab, I’m just frustrated that we don’t seem to be moving past the concept to find that new solution. I’m hoping that as our schools begin allowing students to bring their own equipment, this will push teachers to begin looking at computer use in different ways.

    • David Muniz

      I’m in my first year as the Dir of Tech in at an international school that has a lab. My first thought when first hearing this is, we need to dismantle the lab and move the computers into the classroom. However, when I came to the school and began talking to the computer teacher, I discovered that she is working closely with teachers to integrate the classroom lessons with what they are doing in the lab. So, to some extent, I’m nervous about breaking something that’s working. Of course, not so nervous as I wouldn’t give it a shot. Of course, the concern you bring up, “getting 20 1st graders logged on” will come up. To which I’d reply, why do we need all 20 to log on at the same time? Do they all really need to be working on the same thing at the same time? Can’t multiple small groups be doing work related to the topic at hand, some on computer/devices and others not?

  5. Jeff

    In a upcoming renovation of some teaching space I managed to push for a couple of laptop-based classrooms instead of desktop labs. Now that we’re at the stage of ordering furniture, however, I’ve had to have the fight all over again, this time to order furniture for the laptop classroom that is able to be rearranged (rather than just rows of tables facing the front of the room). I think I’ve succeeded with one of the rooms which will have furniture that can be arranged in an array of configurations, including small groups. However, I was told that at least one of the rooms needs to be just like a desktop lab or traditional classroom “so the teacher feels comfortable” there.


    • Tim

      I can relate your sigh of frustration, Jeff. I’ve been talking to our trainers about the idea of instead of setting up traditional labs with the standard tables in rows, we need collaborative spaces with a variety of furniture that can be moved to create different work areas. I like the idea of including a few bean bag chairs, but so far, I haven’t seen that happening in our schools.

  6. Ben K.

    ‘m completely against the computer lab. The things that are traditionally taught in the lab MUST be put into the hands of all students all day long at all levels Pre K – 12. It is not acceptable to confine technology to a lab.

    However, I think there is a place for new classes that could happen in the labs. Digital photography, digital music, video documentary making, blogging. There are so many opportunities to really exploit the students having a piece of technology in their hands at all times.

  7. Peter

    I’ve had to teach a class this year using a mobile lab. Two major problems have developed.
    1. Time it takes to get computers out and put them back in. Our cart design is so bad I lose 10 minutes each period on thus process.
    2. WiFi. Consider two factors here. Cost of wireless access for a school computer network. You don’t just buy off the shelf home wifi units. Secondly, network speed. Wifi is, at best, half that of a wired lab. This has been my biggest problem.
    I too thought that mobile computers would be a good solution – take the technology to the learning environment – but after some practical experience I’m not so sure labs have outlived their usefulness.

  8. The Science Goddess

    Might be nice to lose the labs. My big “but” is that this is only one piece of a larger consideration. I can think of lots of buildings I’ve been in where both electrical and network wiring cannot support more hardware in classrooms. Some of our older schools here are dealing with 2 outlets in a typical elementary room. Purchasing hardware is sometimes the easiest part—it’s where to put it and infrastructure that is the killer part of the equation.

    This is not to say that these issues aren’t worth solving. I just think it requires a broader approach.

  9. Dave

    It’s time for the labs to go. They were a sensible in-between option for many years, but no longer.

    The key to the future is definitely one-to-one laptops/netbooks. (Maybe tablets, but I doubt.) There are TONS of logistics problems: training for teachers and students, wireless networking difficulties, Internet access/filtering questions, charging/outlets, adjusting curriculum, etc. We’ve been waiting for those solutions, but none of those problems are going to be solved in the next 5-10 years, especially if there isn’t demand from districts and schools putting money into 1:1 programs.

    We need to just dive in with 1:1. It will be messy at first, possibly for years and years, but the amount of messiness we save by waiting for long-coming solutions is much less than the benefit we are throwing away every year.

    This year, we learned that while some people “wait for superman”, teachers are making a difference everyday within the education system we have. We can wait for our 1:1 superman forever, or we can start making a difference now with the technology and resources available.

  10. Teach_J (Robert Courtemanche)

    The problem is not the technology, wether labs, carts, etc. The problem is that the assignments themselves are not using the technology for anything but traditional drill, testing and rote assignments. We need true project based learning. But NCLB testing sucks the air of any proposals for real project based learning.

  11. Regan

    I used laptops to good effect. Getting them in/out was a bit of a problem, but I generally had students work in groups (rotating the “driver”) so I only had to get 5-6 laptops out at a time. I made them bring usb drives to save their own work. They made PowerPoints and graphs and did research on them. I liked doing it that way.

  12. Emily

    I agree with you. As a librarian, one of the things I struggle with is convincing classroom teachers to allow me time to teach creative technology literacy to their students. The vast majority at my school tell me their kids already know what they need to about using computers, internet, etc. and they can’t afford to give up the time. What the students need are creative and engaging technology lessons.

  13. JEB

    I’m OK with computer labs being used for drill (let’s call it “practice,” as it’s a necessary part of education). At least with computers, the drill can be individualized, which is good. The cool projects and interactive work has to be based on a common set of skills and a common knowledge base.

    What’s not good, as pointed out above, is that there is a big downside to using technology in large groups of children (and even teens). The logistics can be very time consuming. Also, some students enjoy the
    opportunity to work alone, and use it well; others disengage when it’s just them and the screen; they need more of a sense that the adult in the room, or the other children, are pulling them along. Not sure how to solve that one.

  14. Darren

    The lab is only a tool. How you use it makes all the difference.

  15. Brian

    We’ve faced a similar problem at our school in the Philippines. We ask teachers to use the labs, and they often just use it for token technology activities (“search WWII for me and find out the answers to the following questions”).

    I’m not convinced the labs are the problem. What we did a few years ago is to have a few teachers volunteer to hold ALL of their classes in the computer lab. This meant that they had to get used to using the computers for the majority of their learning activities. It forced teachers to be a little more creative and innovative in terms of how they integrated technology.

    What ended up happening is that these teachers became experts in technology, even if they previously weren’t all that tech-savvy. They had concrete examples to show to other teachers of how to use technology in meaningful and educational ways (new forms of communication and collaboration, information literacy).

    We recently added two sets of laptops carts in addition to the labs. From what we’ve seen, there’s been little difference in how the they’re used.

    If teachers have been effective with their tech-integration in the labs, then they’re just as effective with it when they have laptops in the classroom. If teachers have been doing mere token tech activities in the lab, then they do the same with the laptops.

    There are a good number of reasons to have laptops in the classroom (ability for students to move around for collaboration, etc.), but I’m not sure that making the switch will change the way teachers use technology.

  16. Kevin Jarrett


    Don’t kill the lab. Reinvent it.

    We have had a line of sight arrangement in my lab since the school was built.


    This year, I redesigned the space, doing the best with what I had (read: no $ to spend) and so far it’s helped immensely:


    The real question isn’t the room arrangement. It’s what kids do once they are inside. I’m on the verge of implementing an instructional vision that, if successful, will completely transform the way kids learn in my classroom. It will be differentiated, exploration-based, teamwork-infused and crazy mad awesome fun. More to come, on my blog, soon.

    Wish me luck,


    • Tim

      Kevin, I would very much consider ideas to reinvent the computer lab. But it goes beyond the physical arrangement to a reconsideration of why we have the space in the first place. You’re right that this should be more like the classical definition of a laboratory, allowing for students to explore, collaborate, and, yes, even have some fun. How about including some bean bag chairs for students with netbooks, iPads or other personal/portable network devices?

      Good luck and I’m looking forward to reading what your students are doing in your lab space.

  17. Michael Rice

    I teach computers to 2nd through 6th graders.

    “the concept of a “lab”, a place in which experimentation occurs.”

    If the lab is a place where kids can experiment and construct knowledge then there is a place for the computer lab in addition using the computer to support classroom curriculum. In the lab students create their own programs where they learn logic and gain valuable problem solving skills. Students in the lab experience programs that may not be “easy” to use like Flash, Photoshop and Director. Challenging students to figure out different applications will have a cross over effect when confronted with new programs. The lab can still be used to support and augment classroom curricular activities. The classroom is a place where students should use the computer, the lab should be a place to gain a deeper understanding of all things “computer”. The skills and experience students get by focusing their attention on the computer in a lab setting directly relate to them being more capable of maximizing the use of computers in the classroom. I feel both are important.

  18. Laurie

    I think it’s disastrous to get rid of a computer lab. I was the computer lab instructor for many years at an elementary school. We had 24 computers in our lab, and each classroom had 5 computers for a center. Every student had a computer class, once a week, for 40 minutes. This was really a Cadillac system, the best of both Worlds. Until we have one to one computing the lab is a very necessary resource. Last year our district removed the labs and purchased a laptop cart, iPad cart and iTouches. Granted the students love using the iPad apps. But is that preparing them for the computer knowledge they’ll need all through middle, high school and college?
    In many schools the computer lab resource isn’t utilized properly. Our goal was to prepare students for the middle school, where they need to know how to safely navigate the Internet, Word process, use keyboarding skills and create multimedia presentations. With a lab setting, and instructor, every student receives the same technology education. Now that we have the cart, ½ of our student body misses out on technology. Why? Because not all teachers embrace technology as they should.
    By 5th grade our students could work independently in the lab or classroom using their knowledge of PowerPoint, Microsoft Word, Publisher, KidPix, Inspiration, PhotoStory, Timeliner, Keyboarding, etc.
    In Kindergarten we had students type their name in Word. First graders learned to type a complete sentence. Second graders learned to type a complete paragraph. Third graders were typing poems and reports. And each year they were learning the formatting and drawing toolbars. They saw how the toolbars on PowerPoint were very similar.
    In closing, I really feel we went back 15 years, instead of forward in this 21st century by removing the lab. Every teacher in my school feels the same way.

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