We Don't "Do Computers" Anymore!

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by Gary Hartstein for The DigitalJLearning Network

During the mid to late 1990s I was teaching for a public school district.  I’m often shaken awake – usually during an important meeting – by the vivid memory of marching my students to the computer lab once a week.  The lab was equipped with enough outdated Apple computers – later replaced by repurposed Macs – for the entire class to practice mouse, keyboard and occasional math skills.  In other words, they mostly played games for 45 minutes and most of these games were about as academically rigorous as eating the pizza they served in the cafeteria.

Fortunately that model evolved with time to one that, in theory at least, supported the work teachers and students were doing in class.  However, in many places, the once-a-week trip to the “school arcade” was transformed into 45 minutes of teacher prep and schmooze time while a media specialist or an educational-technology teacher  babysat under the official guise of helping with research for a project.

Back in those days technology was seen as a separate entity from “real academics.”  We “did computers” once a week. Technology purchases were driven by extra money, not academic need.  Fortunately for all, times have changed and we’ve evolved once again.  Unfortunately, many of us missed the memo.

The DigitalJLearning Network has allowed me to work with some wonderful teachers and administrators, supporting their adoption of online and blended learning.  I believe the majority of educational leaders would agree that giving students more access to content in meaningful ways is a good thing.  I also think most would agree that using the best resources available to differentiate instruction is also good.  And I sincerely hope many would agree that the ultimate goal of education is not to simply fill students’ heads with pre-chewed information for regurgitation, but to help them learn how to learn for life.

Blended learning can help address these important needs and many more.  But it can’t happen without access.  Too many schools still cling to the antiquated, yet comfortable, computer lab model.  Not only does this limit students’ access, it limits teachers’ ability to incorporate the tools of today with the learning process.  In other words, students don’t learn many of the skills they need to survive in the information age.

Once or twice a week access is not enough.  If I had my way, school computer labs would be dismantled and the computers redistributed to classrooms.  Once a school makes that move, the next step is to determine the best way to give more students more access.   Internet access and bandwidth would need to be addressed first – then the actual devices. 

Perhaps the eventual solution is laptop or tablet carts that can be shared by multiple classes.  Maybe it’s a lease program that provides all students with their own devices.  Maybe it’s creating a manageable Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program.  Or perhaps it’s something else.   Whatever it is, I know that good tech planning, in which curriculum drives the technology, should lead  schools in the right direction.

I’d be interested in learning how other schools have addressed computer labs and the issue of giving students more access.  Has your school tackled this issue? Has it been manageable?  For those who want to address it, but haven’t, what’s holding you back and what would help you get there?