Come back, computer lab, all is forgiven

Why is it that all innovators seem to have an “either-or” mentality, an all-or-nothing approach? “Out with the old, in with the new!” seems to be their call to action, yet sometimes – I would say often – the new is not as good as the old. At least, not so much better that the old should be dispensed with altogether.

This is most certainly the case in the context of the tussle between computer labs (old) and personalised, mobile, computing (new). It is held to be axiomatic that new schools, or new builds of existing schools, neither need nor should have computer labs. The analogy that is often used is that you don’t have to go to a special pencil room to write. Another analogy is that people who work don’t have to go anywhere special to use a computer. They have all the tools they need at their fingertips: if not on their person, at least on their desk.

But these analogies are false, the arguments red herrings.

There are no pencil rooms because the nature of the technology is such that pencil rooms are unnecessary. Pencils are and always have been portable enough for any classroom to be transformed into a “pencil room” for the purposes of a handwriting lesson. As for the workplace argument, contrary to what you might think from listening to government and business pronouncements, the purpose of education is to educate, not emulate industry, nor to train young people to be in a work environment. It’s a false analogy anyway, or at least a selective one. If the equipment required is, say, a supercomputer, or a special high-end computer and, for example, a 3D printer, as far as I know the people who work with such equipment do not have their very own set-up on their desks: they go to where the equipment resides.

Nevertheless, forget all this, because matters of fact will never convince a zealot. Let’s, instead, ponder the practical issues. Why are computer labs worth keeping, from a purely pragmatic point of view?

In the following article, I use the word “computer” as a shorthand for “desktop computer”, and “laptop” for “laptop, netbook and tablet”.

Logging on

You can go into a computer lab first thing in the morning and switch all of the computers on, and leave them on for the whole day. That means no waiting while they are spring to life – although the verb “spring” may not immediately spring to mind when 15 or more computers are all trying to access the network at the same time. With laptops, you don’t have the luxury of being able to leave them on all the time. Incidentally, from a “green” point of view, I think that switching computers off and on throughout the day can use more energy than leaving them on all day, and there is, after all, the “hibernate” mode.

Keeping going

When you go into a computer lab, you can assume that all of the computers are going to have power. Not so with laptops. Even a laptop or tablet whose battery lasts for several hours may have run out of juice by the time the last lesson arrives. And as a Head of ICT recently reminded me, a laptop battery which lasts 5 hours now will not do so in 6 months’ time.

Handy hints

A big advantage of a computer lab is that you can put up posters explaining how to do things. A simple notice telling people how to access the system if they have forgotten their password, or are a guest in the school, is invaluable. You can do that sort of thing to some extent with laptops, in the form of a small booklet or a notice stuck on the device itself, but such solutions are much less robust than the humble wall poster .

Come together

As Tony Parkin pointed out recently in his comment on In ICT, the past is not what it was, having to share a computer in a computer lab led…

… to some of the most creative and collaborative learning as two pupils discussed and worked together to address challenges. Like to remind those who bang on about '1 to 1' computing that there were some good points in pair working!

Keep it clean

In my opinion it is much easier to keep a computer keyboard clean than a laptop keyboard. The difference is probably only marginal, but it seems to me that you can be more vigorous on a computer keyboard because if you accidentally damage it you won’t have damaged the computer itself.

Sit up straight

Young people are getting taller and taller. Is there a potential problem regarding posture, given that the taller ones may have to hunch up over a laptop on a desk? I think posture issues are easier to resolve in relation to a desktop computer.

Don’t move

Here’s a conversation the last time I had a faulty laptop:

Repair person: You’ve been moving it, haven’t you?

Me: Yes, it’s a portable.

RP: They’re not meant to be moved around.

Me: ! (= stunned silence)

Admittedly, solid state components render this less of an issue than it was in the past, but the fact remains that, on the whole, laptops are not as robust as computers, and were not designed to be moved about continually.


There are obvious advantages to having technology that goes to where the student wants to use it – but I am yet to be convinced that computer labs have outlived their usefulness.