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

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
My goal is simple. I want to make something every day. Some days I make things. Other days I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com

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