Death of the Computer Lab A Curriculum Artifact Paper by Deborah Kealey for Introduction to Curriculum Studies EDU 5260

Death of the Computer Lab A Curriculum Artifact Paper by Deborah Kealey for Introduction to Curriculum Studies EDU 5260

Death of the Computer Lab

Before I started high school my mother made my brother and me take a summer school course in typing.  She said that it is a necessary skill that everyone should learn.  Both my brother and I were doubtful at the time.  My mom however had a different perspective.  She was a secretary at Bell Northern Research and was witness to the evolution of the desktop computer and its capabilities and potential impact to the future work force.  By the end of my first year of high school my mother would bring me in to her work on weekends to provide me access to a computer.  The following year my parents invested in a desktop computer.  It was nothing special with its small screen and flashing amber cursor, but it was in our basement and my brother, sister and I had access to it.  We are the typical Generation X kids.  Our school however had not yet fully invested in the technology.  As I moved through my high school years computers were slowly appearing for specific functions (e.g. library, office).  It was not until the end of my high school experience that the typing classroom was converted into a computer lab.  The need for technology in education was fueled by the demand in the workforce and governments were supporting the inclusion of computer labs at all levels of schooling.  It is now twenty-five years later and these upgraded computer labs in schools are on the brink of extinction.  Was there something intrinsically wrong with them that it has become redundant so quickly?  How can its extinction provide for such a technology dependent society and the increased demand for specialized technical skills in the twenty-first century?

I can remember walking by the old typing room which was now considered new and specialized because of the desktop computers housed there.  I poked my head in to take a look and it looked pretty much the same as the old typing room except that computers sat in the spots where the typewriters were.  The teacher in the empty room promptly ushered me out of the room as I was not welcome there, even though there was not a class using it at the time – clearly it was for select students only.  This idea of specialized classes was not new to education.  I had the opportunity to experience some of these through required courses in experiential learning (e.g. home economics and woodworking).  These classrooms had special equipment and a designated use; quite understandable when you consider the size of a commercial grade planner – for safety alone these needed to be designated rooms.  However, this idea carried forward to the computer lab even though the only danger in that room is damage or theft.  The atmosphere conveyed was one of exclusivity and selectivity – that is a fort to which only some are allowed to enter and gain knowledge (Donald, 2012).  This idea of exclusion or privilege unfortunately initially reinforced the idea of separateness and brings into question what hidden curriculum are they indirectly teaching students (Apple & King, 1977)?  It is not a coincidence that the idea of specialization of knowledge and opportunity contributes to power still holds some weight both in the school system and society in general.  Fortunately, the concept of limiting access was eclipsed as the advancement and impact of technology on education became clear and pervasive.  With the expansion of technology in education increasing rapidly at all levels, potential problems for schools arose.  What technology do schools need; what do we want students to learn; and who will teach this new technology?  Solutions to these questions provide the history and the ultimate demise of school computer labs.

As technology within the classrooms was at its infancy the idea of what to teach appeared simple – how to use a computer – the basic skills.  These skills are the container for the ‘what’ of curriculum for computer science at the time (Egan, 2003).  Consideration as to methodology was not included in the implementation.  The primary focus was to provide students access and skills not methodology.  What happens when everyone has the basic skills?  This lack of concern for methodology and short-sightedness for the integration of technology within education ultimately becomes contributing factors to the computer labs redundancy.

Technology soon evolved into a major component of funding for school boards as provincial governments direct dollars to equipment and curriculum.  Courses at the high school level in Ontario are developed to teach students computer skills (e.g. word-processing, databases, webpage design).  As the access to technology and the advancement of technology becomes more available additional courses are added (programming, multimedia).  Computer labs became more prominent at all levels of schooling elementary through to high school.  Governments were supporting schools through the supply of computer labs in order to prepare students for the competitiveness and global interdependence within the economy (O’Sullivan, 1999).

The concept of having a designated computer lab was very common.  Computer labs are convenient in that they house enough computers for a class of students, and accommodate large group instruction.  However, they require a designated room, they are not always available due to demand and supply and, most importantly, do not encourage shared project based activities.  The alternative to having a designated lab would be to distribute computers throughout the classrooms; however in either case the amount of computer use was dependent on the teacher and classroom setup (Jenson, Brushwood Rose, & Lewis, 2007).  Another factor that impacted if and how computers were used was the implementation plan for the school and teachers.

…what was striking in conversations with teachers, administrators and technology support staff was how often the location and arrangement of computers not only enabled or disabled use of those machines, but often re/structured and re/defined in significant ways the kinds of instruction and tasks teachers envisioned with their students. (Jenson, Brushwood Rose, 2006, p. 7)

The identification of where computers are located and how they are to be used is critical to the computer labs evolution and impending extinction.  Government policy continues to fund the investment into technology for schools without direction for implementation (Jenson, Brushwood Rose, & Lewis, 2007).

The implementation of a technology classroom resembled the traditional classroom in many respects.  It had students sitting in rows or along the perimeter of the room.  Each student was assigned a particular computer as they would be a computer and the teacher would provide a lesson, allow students to practice their skills (similar to a black line master/worksheet) and the teacher would be available for questions and then assessed at some point.  The skills would be transferred and the students had access to the technology; policy maker were fulfilling their promises students were learning technology (Jenson, Brushwood Rose, & Lewis, 2007).  The issue of course arises as students are no longer digital immigrants but are the first group of digital natives processing through the school system and they do not require computer skills, they already have them (Prensky, 2011).  Disconnections occur between what curriculum is to provide, teachers professional knowledge and what the real needs of students who are already technically literate.  Government policies that “most often mean the allocation and distribution of funds for computer and networking infrastructure” need to evolve using curriculum (Jenson, Brushwood Rose, & Lewis, 2007, p. 11).  The implementation issues will continue to exist and expand as the technology evolves, however the more immediate need for change is in the pedagogical realm – how do we integrate technology with education (Jenson, Brushwood Rose, & Lewis, 2007)?

Governments used policy documents in an attempt to answer this question.  Government policy “shifted from a skills-based focus…to a focus on technology integration” (Jenson, Brushwood Rose, & Lewis, 2007, p.86).  This meant that the curriculum reflected the integration of technology at all grade levels and all courses.  Ideologically, the notion that technology is an essential part of curriculum and that it can be integrated into schools successfully with consideration of the structural limitations and opportunities adds to its value in education.  Since technology is integrated throughout subjects and grades, students should be able to integrate and expand skills in a variety of subject areas.  Ultimately, they should weave them together with personal experience and learning to create meaning between the spaces representing their own personal technical history; in other words a metissage of their individual technical literacy/learning (Chambers, 2004).

Although this is the goal there are a few significant barriers to achieving this outcome.  The most significant is the comfort with which the teacher knows and wants to integrate technology into their classes.  Teachers’ personal experience with technology or lack thereof will contribute to their overall integration into their classes (Weenie, 2008).  Teachers not only require access to the technology, they need knowledge, training, technical proficiency and personal understanding to reach a comfort level for integration (Weenie, 2008).  Professional development for teachers has traditionally focussed on curriculum and pedagogy.  These were areas in which teachers are comfortable, knowledgeable and relational to their own experiences.  However, the introduction of technology to the digital immigrant teachers become techno-lingual?  The divide between teachers and technology is clear and is further exacerbated by many instances where the board’s information technology (IT) plan does not involve the school and its individual needs.  Support for the technology is provided through IT technicians who are unfamiliar with schools and educational processes (Jenson, Brushwood Rose, & Lewis, 2007).  Boards and governments are missing the greater issue at hand: if the teachers are not comfortable using the technology, then it will not be used (Jenson, Brushwood Rose, & Lewis, 2007).  The concept of technology integration requires the exposure to and use of technology in a variety of learning opportunities so that students and teachers can enhance their learning experience.  The idea of integration is to move away from skills based teaching of the worksheet: the ‘what’ of computers, to the higher order thinking skills, project based inquiry learning and collaboration: the ‘how’ of computers (Egan, 2003).  This is a fundamental shift in how teachers perceive and use technology and in some cases their own educational philosophy and teaching style.  How do we get teachers to move away from traditional knowledge and skills based learning to those high order thinking skills?  Technology can be a conduit, but the computer lab is not conducive to constructing these types of skills.

Teachers need professional development in the area of technology.  This was true with the introduction of IT at the schools and it is still true now decades later.  The traditional role of professional development for teachers was to provide them access to the experts and have them share the information and bring it back to implement into the classroom.  What is significantly different here is that the people with the expertise or knowledge in the area of technology are not teachers (Jenson, Brushwood Rose, & Lewis, 2007).  They have excellent knowledge of technology and networks but they do not have the understanding of how schools, classrooms, and teachers function.  Professional development for teachers started as it did for the students by providing them with the basic skills.  This continues to this day as schools and boards update processes and programs.  If teachers are going to truly integrate technology within their classrooms they not only need the basic skills they need the pedagogy integrated into the professional development as it relates to their grade level, subject area and skill level (Jenson, Brushwood Rose, & Lewis, 2007).  In addition, they need supports not only in the form of ensuring the technology is working properly, but in respects to mentoring, educational technology dialogue, sharing of best practices and peer support.  It is within these spaces that comfort, knowledge and creativity will be woven and the desire to include technology as a vital part of the classroom experience realized.

The opportunities for integration would be too difficult to achieve with the limitations of and accessibility to the computer labs.  Technology has advanced to provide alternatives to the computer lab and integration of technology.  The ability for wireless internet to all classrooms is quickly becoming standard within schools.  The advancement of technology to provide the power of a desktop computer in a net book, tablet, or Smartphone is already immersed in the general population and is infiltrating the educational system.  These types of technologies can and should be integrated into the classrooms on a regular basis.  They are portable, user-friendly and have the capabilities as a desktop computer.  The cost is significant so schools are integrating newer technology as the funds become available.  What should not be missed with this transition is the fallacy that classrooms should be stocked on a one to one ratio for students to computers.  Ideally it should be about four students to one piece of technology (Mitra, 2010).  Let us not forget that the technology is a tool in the learning environment and that the larger goals for educators is for students to learn, experience and become proficient in the higher order thinking skills which requires collaboration.

Consider the environments in which we are preparing our students to enter.  The workforce, now more than ever, relies on work teams to accomplish company goals and vision.  This is clearly evident in the development and success of one of the largest internet companies, Google.  Not only did the founders have a clear vision of what they wanted their search company to accomplish, they were clear in the attributes of the people they wanted to hire.  Googlers had to be intelligent, but more importantly had to be ‘out-of-the-box’ type of problem solvers (Levy, 2011).  Founders, Page and Brin, provided significant perks for their employees to encourage creativity, ingenuity, explore personal interests and still remain dedicated to Google and what the company stands for (Levy, 2011).  They reinforced these key values and culture in how the workspaces were designed to encourage collaboration, open dialogue, and a flattened hierarchal structure; these are all qualities that are evident in the learning process.  Google is a learning community with a focus on search knowledge on the Internet.  Our classrooms are small learning communities that should reflect the characteristics for higher order thinking skills.  The integration of technology into these learning environments can only enhance the learning process and outcomes.  These are not specialized skills that require a designated technology classroom, but rather are practices that need to be integrated into classrooms and curriculum.

Computer labs may have had a place at the introduction of technology into schools and were extended to provide access to more students.  They could be considered a vessel for students to fill with specific skills – the ‘what’ of technology (Egan, 2003).  Computer labs however could not evolve past this stage.  They could be enhanced by upgraded machines, faster processors, and new programs, but they cannot adapt to the need for the fundamental change in methodology for how technology should be integrated within curriculum.  As an administrator, I see the limited use of our labs have had in the past few years.  Limited in its actual occupancy and in how they are used with students.  Our school has specifically chosen to dismantle these incurable labs and replaces them with a variety of wireless devices that are accessible to all classes.  The methodology of teaching as collaborative and inquiry based is the focus and integrating technology as a tool to enhance learning is our schools IT vision.  These types of activities no longer require a computer lab, they require a technically literate teacher who is able to integrate technology into curriculum and encourage collaboration among students.  Some twenty years after my mother not only gave me the skills to type but the opportunity to see the potential of future technology, I see a potential change in educational use of technology.  I recognize the impending extinction of computer labs due to its limitations and inefficiencies and the potential opportunities for flexible integration of technology into individual classrooms promoting methodology versus content.


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