Friday, September 29, 2006

Computer Labs have a future in k-12 environments

I currently work at a high school where one of my main responsibilities is to manage the school's computer labs. The school is aware that mobile technology would prove to be very helpful in education... there are some schools now with mobile laptop labs, there are wifi enabled campuses, and then there is the ability to give all the students in a classroom Palm pilots and networked them together. There are rich benefits when computing becomes further situated in the classroom... untethered computing arises new opportunities for tethering computing to a particular class context and the teacher's needs and wants...

But an interesting architectural problem arises, too: with computers more able to become part of actual classrooms, there might be less reason to have an actual "computer lab" in the high school. Does this suggest that a room for computers only exists because of the size of old computer hardware? Will networked, situated technologies mean the demise of rooms meant for computer use, particular contexts dedicated to (and with meaning attached to) computing?

On the other hand, computer labs, as a distinct space, can function like an internet cafe and spawn discussion and physical interaction in situ with computing. But in an internet cafe space anything is game and, for a school setting, this isn't always appropriate.

But if we open the school up to various new 'web 2.0' and situated technology applications, there is bound to be another problem arising, that of the educational setting's need to monitor and regulate the use of the software in order to maintain standards of safety. The issue of monitoring these new technology applications is definitely a hot topic in the realm of educational technology as ca be seen in the recent blog article in TechLearning. Educators and administrators really should take on the challenge of learning how to effectively apply these extra-institutional tools inside the institution. Schools have an opportunity to also instruct the foundations of appropriate use of these new technologies.

What if the relationship of technology and educational spaces is reorganized: rather than seeing situated technologies as mostly tools for helping users (say, the students) become more context-aware (outside of class), how about also using situated technologies to help situate an architectural context for computing itself? In other words, one solution is to make a place where situated technologies and social software can be monitoried and appropriately used at school... thus justifying the presence of a "computer lab" and the use of new technology applications and uses.

In a mobile lab setting with internet-enabled laptops or Palm pilots, teachers run the risk of students surfing away from the curriculum and there becomes an increasing need to impose restrictions and regulations on technology use. It becomes a battle between use-cultures: those in charge know one way of using technology but the students are fluent and engaged in another.

But by locating the students into the architecturally-defined, computer lab space, students can use the technology they are fluent in and teachers can learn how to administer these technologies into their curriculum in a controlled environment. Plus, the technology doesn't have to compete with what some teachers might consider learning experiences best befitting analog curriculum (like "books" and non-mediated discussions).


Anonymous said...

I agree, companies like Versa Tables have done a great job in building products for this environment.

datakid said...

There's a fantastically active community creating a cheap LTSP option for poorer schools that is giving their students a great, different computer learning experience -

Anonymous said...

What's your opinion on a cart of AlphaSmarts in the classroom?

Wesley Fryer said...

These are valid issues and good ones to explore, but I think the majority of schools (at least the ones I know about and work with in the midwest) are responding to web 2.0 with draconian measures-- whitelisting only specific sites that teachers ask for access to, and blocking ALL blogs as a rule. Sadly this is getting increasingly common. I'd like to see a study done on this, if one has not been done already. Administrators don't want to even deal with liability concerns and possibilities of inappropriate use, so school boards just block all blogs. DOPA would make it official, but from what I have heard it is not going to pass. People are scared, and most leaders seem unaware of the positive, constructive role web 2.0 tools like blogs can play in educational settings-- or the need we have to help students learn to use these tools safely and appropriately.

Anonymous said...

The highschool that I went to has a one-to-one program where EVERY student has a laptop assigned to them. The students are allowed to take these home and use them every day in every class. We have around 7,000 Dell laptops that are used by everyone in the district. Also some of our midde schools have the same program in place. All of the schools have a full WiFi network for the students to use. We have tried the Alphasmarts but they switched over to using laptop carts for the elementary schools.

Anonymous said...

We thought it would be a good idea to give you all the information available on computer before you get down to the nitty-gritty of it.

Anonymous said...

A Look Ahead – Educational Computing in the Near Future

By Michael Chugg

Current stand alone wired computing and wireless laptop labs are quickly becoming expensive antiquated hardware structures that current schools systems can no longer support. Rising costs in energy, wages, special education mandates and health related care balloon school system budgets to the point where computer hardware becomes more difficult to purchase. New methods of using modern technology must arise in the near future to address these cost issues.

Handheld devices have placed the Internet into the palms of the population. Users can receive faxes on small screen devices. Thumb pads assist users in sending text and interacting with integrated web browsers. The advent of Web 2.0 and Wiki software on the Internet now provide the user with the possibility of creating documents and saving documents in cyberspace without the use of any software. This enables access to information, manipulation of information and data and production of documents without a traditional desktop or laptop. Such work can occur wherever there is a wi-fi connection anywhere in the world.

How does this translate to a classroom of elementary students? The possibility of wireless access points and Fiber Optic transmission lines widens the channel for data anywhere within a building. Most classrooms are not set up for tradition computing labs. Mobile labs of laptops have proven to be expensive in replacing expensive rechargeable battery packs. The machines themselves are also costly. Cheaper alternatives such as AlphaSmart carts with about 30 machines offer desktop word processing capabilities for students but limit students’ abilities to demonstrate learning to the written word.

The cost of an Alphasmart, somewhere around $250, is now rendering this technology obsolete as well. Smartphone and PDA technology provides access to the Internet, browsing and computing for about the same price. With Bluetooth, the devices connect wirelessly to peripheral devices such as printers. It appears that new technology may be on the verge of replacing older, more expensive and less powerful equipment.

Children through young adults have caught on to the power of gaming technologies. These technologies are more user friendly, more resilient, more entertaining, and more portable than computers. As these technologies advance additional features are added to increase their popularity among the masses. Nintendo has a portable product for gamers, which allows them to play other gamers with the same game, wirelessly, over the Internet. It is commonplace to see college students playing students as far away as Japan and doing so wirelessly. Nintendo has also added an email feature which allows students to communicate with other Nintendo users via the Internet. I personally watched a student email another student in another state with this device and a WiFi connection. Recently an add-on was introduced to allow Nintendo users to browse the Internet and to use their touchpad to interact with the Internet.

The advent of Web based applications such as wikis and Web 2.0 applications has broadened the opportunities for PDA users to work without software. These users may access word processors on line, data spreadsheets and software online, and may save and retrieve documents stored in cyberspace. This means that in the near future, students may be able to use their inexpensive portable game devices to work and create through the medium of the Internet.

The possibility now arises that school systems could, in the near future move to a more portable, smaller and less expensive platform for computing and Internet access. The Nintendo–like devices could cost up to half of Alphasmart technologies and up to one tenth of the cost of laptops. Electrical usage and costs would be restricted to the cost of the batteries powering these small devices. School systems would be able to move off the electrical grid with labs of these small devices and reduce electrical costs. Construction costs would also decrease as labs would be far cheaper and would be replaced by portable computing in the classroom. Imagine the reduced costs for school districts if these machines could be leased. A typical loaded cost of $70,000 for a computer lab could be replaced by PDA devices that perform the same functions for about $7500 or one tenth the cost. Space savings and electrical savings would also be significant. Another way to look at this is that a traditional lab with its constraints of scheduling and usage could be replace for the same money with nearly ten portable PDA class sets of “mini- computers” for the same cost. Additionally, if each set of PDAs could be shared between two or three classes of a grade level, true access to a lab in minutes per day per student would increase to a possible 2 hours of computing time. This increased access to the Internet and to computing would provide an exponential leap in learning power integrated with the Internet and computers as learning tools.
The opportunity to move in this direction lies with younger, more technologically savvy technology managers and administrators. “Green – friendly” business managers eager to reduce costs and toxic materials in the school environments will also be the first to promote these new learning technologies. The real expansion in this new configuration for learning in school systems will occur after innovative school systems work through the kinks of while using the new technologies. Pioneers always bear the cost of applying these new technologies, but often bear the first economic rewards of moving to more efficient, less expensive platforms. The only question that remains as we look forward is, how long will it be before this revolution sweeps globe?

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