Wednesday, 25 June 2008

The computer lab as a crutch

Once in a while I find a blog that is interesting reading, it talks about computer labs at schools and how they are being used.

I ran into a thought provoking blog post the other day. Mike Sansone is a blog coach – a consultant who makes a living helping people blog better – wrote a post called “Are Computer Labs a Crutch?” In it he says that “the computer lab shouldn't be the first (or only) stop in teaching computer and Internet skills.” He’s right about that I think. He lays out a structure for an Internet workshop that sounds pretty good to me. Of course the schedule calls for a class session that is 75 to 100 minutes long and that isn’t happening very often. Perhaps in a school with a long block schedule. The plan is good though.
One of the things he suggests that I used to good effect is to start with a demo. In computer applications classes or programming classes the first thing I tried to do was to demonstrate what I wanted students to learn. I found this to be surprisingly useful in applications classes. Often students had no idea what an operation was supposed to look like. While some students figure it out from the book a lot of students really need to see it live in action before they can picture it for themselves. Personally that is true for me. Show me what you are going to teach me. Then teach me. Then let me try it for myself and then let’s review. That to me is a great way to teach and learn in a computer lab.
But honestly the title of his post made me think about other ways that computer labs in schools are used improperly. The problem I see too often is computers, usually in labs, being used as little more than babysitters. I don’t mean by “computer teacher” who generally take full advantage of the teaching resources the lab provides. No I mean “other” teachers who sometimes take advantage of a computer lab and student’s willingness to go to the lab. The student gets out of class and the teacher gets rid of a distraction. And of course to administration it looks like the students are leaving for educational purposes. I guess in theory they really are. The plan to do research. Or perhaps work on a paper. Sounds good in theory and sometimes it actually works that way. Not sure it is a way to bet though.
There are a couple of problems on the lab side if it though. If the lab is empty there is no, or at least insufficient, supervision. Perhaps is the lab is a monitored study hall, or a library, or a dedicated research/work area this is not a problem. Expecting a computer teacher on a prep period to supervise students isn’t really fair though. And if the lab is in use, for a regular class, it really gets to be a problem. I don’t know any other classroom that teachers feel free to send students to without prior arrangement. Can you see students showing up at a social studies class saying “our teacher sent us here to read your copies of Newsweek” or showing up to gym class saying “we’re just going to play basketball while you run you regular gym class.” But it happens in some computer labs.
Clearly a teacher can say “no you go back to your regular class” but the room has been disrupted. So often if there is room a teacher will let them stay. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it becomes disruptive. Either way it tests a teachers classroom management skills. But really this is trivial.
The real problem is that far too many students still do not know how to use the computer resources they have. So they waste a lot of time. People sit back and think “oh good they are getting a lot of computer time” without realizing that much of this time is wasted. This also contributes to the idea that computers are not helping. No tool that is not well used can really be of real help. We need to teach students how to really use the tools we hand them. And we really need to get over the practice of using computer labs as a dumping ground for distracting students.

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