Smartschools, Moving Beyond PC Labs

The last few decades have seen governments, universities and schools invest in PC Labs as an attempt to integrate ICT in education. Various technologies have been touted as ideal for these PC labs that include Desktops and Thin Clients. Educators have struggled to fully integrate these technologies because classrooms are special places, the desks are smaller, the kids are smaller, they sit really close to each other, they move around the classroom a lot, sometimes they sit and lean over to their friends and they get up and walk just two desks over! This is just a little bit different from an office setup.

Classrooms require special technologies to conform to the way of actually working, of moving around. The computers that we design for classrooms need to accommodate such differences, they need to enhance it, such that the kids can actually prefer it and celebrate that the classroom is a different space from the office.Schools today recognize that IT literacy is critical for success in the worldwide digital economy. As such, basic computing skills are a requirement, or at least an aspiration, of every education system. To address the need of providing these skills to as many students as possible, countries have often opted to deploy relatively affordable PC labs. A PC lab is a dedicated classroom where students use computers to acquire basic technology skills. Knowledge; whether ICT, social studies or maths, is acquired at a basic level, with a minimal amount of collaboration. PC labs are a common starting point for information and communications technology (ICT) in education.

 

Learning environments have now evolved into the Collaborative Era of the 21st Century, in which the new generation of technology tools enable timely content creation, interactive collaboration networks, decentralized information sharing, and access to global knowledge and information resources. The Collaborative Era creates a unique opportunity for technology integration

ICT’s have proven to be key in transforming the education sector particularly through effective use of the computer labs and computers in classrooms. In a perfect world, every school would have both a computer lab and computers in every classroom. This could be actualized if there are innovative teachers with the capacity to utilize the resources. The use of computers within a classroom setting is superior to the use of computer labs in promoting the integration of ICTs across the curriculum.

In computer labs, students have access to about 1/50th of a computer in school. If we want technology to have an impact on educational practices and learning experiences, we need to enable access on a bigger scale by bringing the computers into the classroom. This will enable teachers and students to have more exposure and access to technology, and create a real life scenario as opposed to having all the computers in one lab; thus creating an environment similar to the work place.

In reality, the following scenario exists in most computer labs in schools: shiny, new computers which are under-utilized because either the school cannot afford to have an additional staff member taking care of the lab or the appointed staff member does not understand the value of ICTs in teaching and learning; only teaching students basic computer skills, or the computer lab is usually only utilized by teachers typing marks, doing research and preparing papers.

Would the same be true if the computers were in the classroom?

Some Zimbabwean schools have both school libraries and classroom libraries. It is critical that schools acquire technology resources in order for every school to have a computer lab and computers in the classrooms. In a case of choosing one over the other, it would be more crucial to have computers in the classrooms, mainly because teachers would then have constant access to their classroom computers thereby ensuring that any particular technology is adding real value to their lesson. Thus, computers in the classroom can become a part of daily teaching and learning life. Technology in real life is no longer something we go to a special place to use. It is around us in “real life” and the classroom is “real life” therefore it should resemble real life.

With the dynamism in the world’s technologies, it is apparent that computers do not get any younger. A computer’s relevant life is about 3 to 5 years. You get much more value out of having those computers in daily use than in shutting them in a lab for occasional use. We can re-frame our Public Relations materials to say we have state of the art computers in every classroom instead of we have a brand new computer lab. Our definition of computer in this post is already outdated. Tablets are putting cheaper mobile access in the hands of students all the time. Nevertheless, many of us are still scrambling to put together a working computer for our rooms. Let’s put our limited resources in the hands of teachers and students and not lock them away like Rapunzel in her tower, keeping them safe but out of use and help our children walk into the 21st century, heads held high, with a better understanding of technology and its impact on their professional and academic lives.

The convergence of affordable technology and connectivity enables students to emerge with 21st century skills. These skills can now be developed through advances such as these:

Curriculum Reforms: The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education has introduced the new curriculum. This curriculum intends to build skills on top of the traditional 3Rs of education (Read, Write and Arithmetic).  ICTs have been identified as an effective enabler in the delivery of this curriculum.

Technology: Affordable, rugged, state-of-the-art computer technology designed for educational environments.

Connectivity: Affordable, high-speed Internet connectivity to rural and remote areas, and intranet connectivity within schools and communities.

Digital Curriculum: Collaborative rich media applications, digital content and curriculum localized for language and culture.

Professional Development: Readily available training to help teachers acquire the necessary ICT skills to assist students and fully integrate technology into the education process.

Improved Learning Methods: Interactive and collaborative methods that help teachers incorporate technology into their lesson plans and enable students to learn anytime, anywhere using technology.

Integrating ICT into core instruction delivers more educational and financial value than traditional PC Labs and paves the way for full 1:1 eLearning

Classroom eLearning, which brings technology into the classroom, has emerged as the best alternative for school systems that are not ready to implement 1:1 eLearning or want to move incrementally toward a 1:1 environment. Using mobile carts or Computers on Wheels (COWs), Classroom eLearning delivers significantly more value than traditional PC Labs and helps school leaders develop the expertise, skills and confidence needed for successful 1:1 eLearning.

Best, BUT how can that be done

Classroom eLearning provides a more flexible, cost-effective, and educationally powerful alternative to PC labs. Accompanied by effective professional development and curriculum resources, classroom eLearning makes technology a normal part of the educational experience rather than an isolated activity conducted in a separate room. The focus shifts from technology-skills acquisition, to using technology as a tool to transform teaching and learning in the classroom. While classroom eLearning can be as simple as a few desktop PCs stationed in one area of the room, the more powerful model involves mobile carts (COWs). These carts, holding multiple PCs, are brought into the classroom, and students are able to use a dedicated device for part of the day.

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