Computer Labs: Dead or Just Dying for Modern Makeover?
Last updated on September 8th, 2021
Most schools have two choices when it comes to computer labs. Denounce them as dead (or dying) or turn a drab lab into an engaging dream lab that inspires active learning for 21st Century learners.
Of course, this raises big questions for educators. Are computer labs headed for extinction or perfect candidates for a modern makeover? If the latter, how does a district future-proof and justify the cost? Heck, is “computer lab” even the right name for the re-imagined space? This blog post discusses the factors involved in deciding which computer lab design is best for your school. This includes how to turn your lab into a multi-purpose mecca – beyond solo learning and testing – with the strongest chance of withstanding technology’s rapid-fire evolution.
A Hot Potato Topic
You can’t delve into the optimum computer lab design without first addressing the white-elephant-in-the-classroom: lab obsolescence. The topic is weighing heavily on educators’ minds.
According to a Spring 2015 article in The Journal, IT infrastructure is the number one budget area for schools in the coming annual buying season. Spending on IT architecture – particularly the network, both wired and wireless – will dominate conversations for technology leaders in districts across the country. As will the topic of traditional computer labs – their evolution, necessity, and next steps.
Steve Pryor agrees. He’s director of product design and education development with Smith System, a K-12 furniture manufacturer. “The traditional computer lab has been impacted by variables such as funding, curriculum, technology, testing and building use based on age/grade level of students.” He says the use of mobile computing devices and high-speed wireless question the need for a school computer lab that simply houses and powers the hardware.
“As technology progresses, environments will have to adapt. The best ones can transition to ever-changing technology platforms, rather than conform to trends,” Pryor advises. In other words, perhaps the lab stays, but its appearance and purpose leap forward. The focus: collaboration and creativity more aligned to what students will encounter in college and the workplace.
Director of Product Design
Regardless, we can all agree that the traditional computer lab design should follow VHS players to the educational graveyard. The old concept was to pack as many screens as possible into a walled room.
Old Fashioned Drab Labs
Regardless, we can all agree that the traditional computer lab design should follow VHS players to the educational graveyard. The old concept was to pack as many screens as possible into a walled room (or dreary, windowless lower level). Computers typically rimmed the room’s perimeter for power access or were tethered in tidy rows with students facing forward for instruction. The interaction between students wasn’t a consideration, nor was the comfort, space for one-on-one instruction, presentation areas or aesthetics. After all, this was a “lab”!
Although considered revolutionary at the time, the technology itself was single-minded, consisting of desktop computers and black and white printers. The instruction was one dimensional, limited to online research and word processing. Students would traipse to the lab for their listen-and-learn lesson, play Oregon Trail, and then return to their homeroom.
What’s Best for Your School?
Today, the use of computers in education has matured immensely. School computer labs have morphed into countless designs, including merging with library commons. Some schools have chosen to do away with labs entirely, in favor of mobile carts that bring devices into the classroom.
The truth is, there is no perfect solution. Each school is tasked to create what best fits the needs of its students, staff, curriculum, space constraints and budget. Here are factors to consider:
Computer Lab or Mobile Cart?
This question is the proverbial fork in the road. Some educators support dedicated instruction space (a computer lab) and direction by a technology specialist. This teacher stays current with tech evolution and helps manage installation, configuration, maintenance and upgrades. Proponents of the model say that relying on classroom teachers for this specialized instruction – in addition to their other duties – can be overwhelming and limit device use. As the role of technology in schools evolves, schools should ensure all students have authentic and equitable opportunities (in devices and instruction) to build 21st Century skills.
Indeed, the challenge to make classroom teachers tech savvy is real, according to a recent report by the New Media Consortium and the Consortium for School Networking. It says BYOD (bring your own device), makerspaces, 3D printing and adaptive learning technologies are expected to mainstream educational practices and tools during the next one to three years. Yet, training on the latest technologies and pedagogies will be the main obstacle to giving students the real-world experiences that technology offers.
On the other side of the debate are educators who say that computer labs have become obsolete and are not integrated enough into the classroom and curriculum. They support mobile device carts and mobile classroom storage.
According to The Journal, second to IT infrastructure concerns, is the replacement of the traditional computer lab with technology that works inside the classroom, including the use of mobile device carts. These carts store and charge laptops and tablets, freeing up classroom space. The idea of a separate “computer teacher” then phases out as ALL teachers are expected to be proficient with computers and use them in lessons.
If you fall in favor of the lab, the first step is to ask what kind of learning environment you want to create. Computer labs can be designed to meet a variety of teaching and learning styles – much in the same way that classrooms are being designed. For instance, with Smith System computer lab furniture, you can choose to have the computer lab encourage student interaction (lounge-style seating and/or collaboration tables) or limit it (individual lab stations).
Or, you may choose to have the lab support both modalities by splitting it into zones, one dedicated to group work, another to individual study. You may also decide to enable the specialized use of computers by dedicating an area to video/multimedia editing and production, or maybe another zone into distance learning.
The purpose of the lab is the strongest influence on its layout and furniture. Some schools may still prefer perimeter seating or rows, where the teacher can monitor screen content. Other options include back-to-back, u-shaped or curved layouts, or combinations of all of the above. Get creative to inspire creativity!
“When the budget allows for computer lab renovation or new construction, we often see the greatest departure from traditional computer lab design or assigned rooms with rows of computers linked side-by-side,” Pryor reports. He says that modern computer labs more closely resemble a commons-type environment with multiple uses for learning, testing, collaborating, and after-school activities:
A place to do solo work, whether using desktop, laptop or tablet.
A place to present work to peers.
A place to interact with the instructor and get guided instruction.
A place to experiment with new devices and software.
The key here is to steer clear of trends. Ideal school furniture allows students to engage with each other and educators without being dependent on the delivery device. Choose classroom chairs (traditional, soft-seating and café-style), tables and desks (with enough surface space for devices and paperwork), storage, etc. than can transition to ever-changing platforms and learning models. Furthermore, if your school decides to ditch its lab, the furniture should be flexible enough to transition seamlessly into library commons, learning commons, classrooms, maker-spaces, etc.
Steve Gastright, an education planner, and architect raised an interesting point during an interview with American School and University last year. He said that, often, designers want to integrate technology to create a clean space (think screens that come down from ceilings). But those things have the shortest lifespan.
“Aesthetically, schools usually have to make a compromise, because technological devices may have a five-year lifespan … in a building with a 50-year lifespan. Schools need the flexibility to retrofit as technology changes.” He says schools typically address this problem with flexible, movable furniture. “The approach where you think of everything as furniture and space is flexible serves schools well.”
Budgeting for the Future
This is a huge topic for discussion. Begin by asking, do you have enough wireless access points, bandwidth and power access in your lab and throughout the school for students to plug in and recharge devices? Do you need power system upgrades, especially for bandwidth-heavy videos, graphics, and audio files? Are you staying current with device trends and offering enough variety? For example, as large-screen smartphones grow in popularity, tablet sales are falling. Have you budgeted for hardware and software upgrades?
The Name Game
Upgrading your space may require a name change to convey better and publicize the space’s purpose and possibilities. Some options include Technology Lab, Technology Center, STEM or STEAM Space, iLab, or Learning Space. Carolyn Foote, a librarian at Westlake High School in Austin, TX, believes that her one-to-one device campus will gradually morph one of her library computer labs into a multifunctional planning/creating lab. The term “computer lab” will likely be too confining.
With some homework, you’ll have a better understanding of what’s ahead for your school in the computer lab design debate. You might be surprised. What you once thought was as dead as a dinosaur might become your students’ favorite hot spot for learning.
- Computer Lab Design Considerations, Office of Information Technology, University of Boulder, CO.
- Interview with Minneapolis Public Schools testing coordinator. “Computer Labs,” Int Conepts, Nov. 24, 2014.
- “Putting in a Solid IT Infrastructure Top Category for District Spending,” by Dian Schaffhauser, The Journal, April 29, 2015.
- “Tablet shipments continue to fall,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, News Services, August 13, 2015.
- “Tech empowers students to ‘change the world’,” by Chris Nicholson, District Administration, August 2015.
- “The Technology of Teaching,” by Patricia-Anne Tom, American School & University, March 2014.
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