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Why Computer Labs Alone are Never Enough
Author: Neven Jurkovic, SoftMath | September 27th, 2012

We received this note recently from Neven Jurkovic. He writes:

As more and more schools move toward a full, ubiquitous integration of 1:1 technology, this comment is sometimes made: “We already have a computer lab. Why isn’t that enough?” Here is an explanation of why computer labs alone can never be sufficient. If we truly want student learning to be able to occur anytime and anywhere through the use of technology, we need to be able to clearly explain to all stakeholders why the old computer lab model is simply not sufficient to meet students’ needs.

Too Little Access: In many schools which rely solely on a computer lab, students are only able to spend 1-2 hours per week using technology. This is simply inadequate for sustained work on any significant project. For students with no Internet access at home, one or two hours of computer lab access per week will not help them to overcome the digital divide they face.

Learning is Unpredictable: The biggest flaw of the computer lab model of technology integration is this: You can’t always predict when technology will be beneficial to student learning. Your students might be writing an essay when suddenly one student wants to correctly attribute a favorite quote, another student needs to check on an APA formatting issue, and yet another needs to quickly research something pertaining to his topic. With 1:1 technology that is integrated into the classroom, those students could immediately do all of those things. In that moment, a computer lab session scheduled for next Tuesday doesn’t help much.

Learning Occurs Everywhere: Not only does the computer lab model restrict when student learning can take place, it restricts where that learning can take place. Portable 1:1 technology that can go home with the students allows tech-enhanced learning to take place beyond the walls of the school and outside of the hours of the school day.

One of the keys to anytime/anywhere learning is true device independence of instructional software. Specifically, most successful software will be available in an old fashioned desktop version, web version and a mobile version. Why are all three modes important? A desktop version still provides the most power and speed; it will most likely have the richest set of features. The web version has the advantage of increased accessibility and in cases when the user doesn’t have access to their own hardware (i.e. an internet café). While the feature set is typically reduced in the internet-only version, an advantage for the user is that updates are fast and transparent. Finally, in a world where we will soon have more mobile devices than people, a portable access (via a smart phone or a tablet) is becoming increasingly important. As these devices are getting to be more and more powerful, the corresponding educational applications are also becoming more and more powerful and will soon be competing with lower-end desktops. This, combined with 24/7 accessibility makes it a winning combination.

However, it is important to remember that just having access to 1:1 technology doesn't necessarily mean that expected learning will occur. In an ideal world, 1:1 would refer to student-teacher ratio rather than student-device ratio. This, of course, is not likely to occur, but at least we can strive to make our devices (that is, the software running on them) as much teacher-like as possible, enable differentiation among students of varying capabilities, and assist students as they gradually move from observing the solution process to taking an active part in developing it. This is our goal for Softmath's math tutoring program Algebrator, which includes a natural solving strategy and context sensitive explanations as an integral part of the software and implements a form of "visibility" where elementary math steps can be hidden from more advanced students but shown to the beginners. Granted, no software can impersonate a teacher, but with today's technology, we get better and better at supporting learning anytime and anywhere.

-Neven Jurkovic.

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