08 June 2008

Reimagining the Computer Lab

The title of the article is "A Computer Lab the Students Use, But Never See." This means that the lab described has something in common with the one at my school: students never see it. In a building with 1400 kids, there is one computer lab...plus another that is booked half a day every day for the computer science classes. It's fortunate that science classrooms have some computers, or else my kids would never have some semblance of access to digital resources. I know a lot of people think that kids can just use computers at home, but many families just have one machine (and some have no computer)---and there are lots with only dial-up access for the internet. Asking students to use resources that are unavailable and/or blocked at school (such as e-mail or wikipedia) to complete work is unfair. While I doubt that the high school is likely to be full of kids with laptops in the near future, I do like the idea of a Virtual Computing Lab.
Users enter it remotely, from their own computers in dormitory rooms or libraries. They get all the features they've had in the past, including access to expensive software packages, like 3-D modeling tools and advanced statistical programs, that they need for courses. But now the programs run on powerful computer servers behind the scenes, instead of on desktop PC's. And this lab never closes.

Officials here also say that the virtual lab could be the beginning in a more fundamental shift, one that could change the way technology staffs on campuses do business. The goal of the virtual-lab approach is to build Web-based tools that professors can control on their own, without having to ask permission from a staff member to add something to a university computer.

"I got tired of telling users what they couldn't do," says Samuel F. Averitt, vice provost for information technology at North Carolina State. "The central-IT guy is about control and ownership. We're trying to get out of that business, and say, Do it however you want to do it."

What a refreshing mindset that is, don't you think?

I heard this week that the U.S. government (specifically the FCC) is going to auction off a chunk of the broadband spectrum so that the winning company could build a free public wi-fi network. Should this happen, we would likely be years away from it becoming reality, but I already can't help but wonder how this might impact schools. When the district DIS doesn't control the signals used to connect to the internet, their precious filters will be useless. GoogleApps? Wikipedia? YouTube? All available for the classroom. Yes, other things---inappropriate things---will be available, too. But if students are using their own equipment with an independent source for internet access, will schools have the same responsibilities for protecting children? Or are they only accountable for their own hardware, software, and infrastructure? If a student comes to my class tomorrow with a laptop and an aircard, are they allowed to use it as they please---just as they do with their own pencils and paper?

There are new tools and platforms available daily, it seems. If we are already making a shift in how we use our hardware (from traditional computer labs to virtual ones), when will the shift in how we use the intangible pieces (e.g. software) with students come?


Joe said...

I love how people view computers as something dramatically different than paper and pencil. Earlier this year we had a student Moodle message another student a typical junior-high school nasty message. The dean wanted me to delete the sender's account for the remainder of the year (nearly three months) in spite of the student's need for the account to accomplish academic activities. I refused with the advice that we don't ban paper and pencils just because students write notes, so why would we ban a student from using Moodle for the same offense? Finally he listened to reason and gave the student the appropriate consequence for defaming another student's character from our code of conduct.

On another note, I also think that the smarter and more informed the "rest of us" get when it comes to technology, the more the DIS-type folks will have to change. Its easy for them to have answers to questions we barely understand, but its much more difficult for them to justify locking everything down and saying "no" once we genuinely understand how the hardware works and its realistic safety concerns.

The Science Goddess said...

I certainly hope so. Sometimes, in the midst of this, it's hard to think that anything will ever be different.

I keep telling my students to be advocates for themselves. They have all the social networking tools they need. They need to show the school district (in a positive way) what the power of these is.