Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The End of Computer Labs?

When I go to my middle school Tools for Technology course the last period of today, I will greet my four students who will eagerly begin their Innovation Projects. Yes, you read that right.  FOUR students in an elective class that I think is really cool and lots of fun.
Last night was Back to School Night for our middle school and high school.  As parents walked around the school visiting with teachers, I had visits from parents of a high school study hall student, four kids I had in elementary school, and a family of high school students I've never had.  I did have one mom of a technology student who tried to catch me but missed me. (I had to get home to relieve the sitter!)  
This past summer, we partnered with a local university to offer a middle school summer camp where students would learn how to build an iOS app.  While the content of the app was not going to be particularly fun (tracking earthquakes, not slinging birds across a screen), it was still a pretty cool and innovative idea. Not many 13 year old children are building their own iOS apps. But... we had to cancel because of lack of interest.  We needed a minimum of 10 students sign up; we had one.
Last school year, we realized that we had no technology offerings for our high school students. After some pondering, wild crazy ideas, and research, we landed on GenYES.  This is a curriculum designed to train students to help teachers integrate technology into the classroom.  Not only do teachers start to learn about technology integration, it helps students learn some software and apps they might not be exposed to, gives them a glimpse of the teaching profession, and helps them acquire some responsibility and maturity. We cancelled it; no one signed up.

What's up with the lack of interest in technology courses? (Please don't say it's me!)

More than a decade ago, I wrote my Master's thesis on technology integration.  One thread in my research was from a group of teachers who felt that computer labs should be a thing of the past. Instead, all those computers should be evenly distributed throughout the classrooms to facilitate better integration. The thinking was that computers skills should not be taught in isolation but integrated within content areas. After all, we don't have a pencil and paper lab, why should we have computer labs? 

While this is a novel idea, it has never reached a school where I taught.  Computer labs and computer classes are tried and true mainstays of modern education.  As a regular classroom teacher, I always appreciated computer class, because the computer teacher tried to support what I was doing in the classroom and coordinate lessons to fit my curriculum. Now as a K-8 computer teacher, this is my livelihood, and I would really appreciate keeping computer labs around.

When I wrote my thesis, the idea of 1:1 technology programs were revolutionary.  The state of Maine was in the process of rolling out a 1:1 program to every middle school student.  Apple was experimenting with desktop computers.  ACOT gave each student and teacher in the program a desktop to use in school and one to use at home. However, back at the turn of the century, this type of technology infusion was rare and unachievable for most schools. Today, students of all ages are using iPads, Chromebooks, and other devices in regular classrooms, many of them in 1:1 or BYOD situations. What visionaries pushed for 10+ years ago is a reality in many schools today.

Now the questions remain... Do we really need technology courses? Are computer labs still necessary?


I spent eighteen and a half years as a regular classroom teacher, slogging away on the front line planning lessons, grading papers, communicating with parents, disciplining kids, going to meetings, keeping rooms clean, and doing all the stuff teachers do.  Technology integration was my passion and I still felt like I never did it justice.  For teachers who are not as passionate about technology or not as skilled, this is a massive mountain to climb.  In fact, many do not bother trying.

A computer teacher can come alongside a regular teacher and help in a couple of ways.  First, every student needs to learn technology skills.  I recently realized that a number of our kindergartners had no idea what "click" means and many of my elementary kids needed a lesson in "right click."  I also am working with all students from grades 1-6 to learn how to save to a flash drive using folders to keep it all organized.  Regular classroom teachers don't have time for all this.  Second, I am in a position to ask teachers how I can help them.  Helping them with projects, I can push their students in different directions technologically that a regular classroom teacher may not have thought of.  When I was hired at my current school, I got in on my love for technology integration.  The truth is that most of my really great ideas were really derived and implemented by our computer teacher who worked along with me.  Third, as students gain confidence they start pushing the technology envelope.  Their pioneering causes teachers to learn on the fly and allow them to try new things.

However, I'm starting to see that our middle school and high school models may need to change to be effective.  Students need to see relevance to their lives in order to pursue something.  While I see great value in some of the things we've offered here, students don't.  And they show it by not coming.

By middle school, most students have arrived at a skill level similar (or even beyond) mine.  Here are some areas of focus I think we need to be relevant to our teenage students.
  1. Different devices.  Different apps. Different platforms. Different browsers. Do we use Microsoft, Apple, Google, or a combination?  What student has what device? Which apps do pretty much the same thing?  It's a confusing world, and more and more a lot has to do with personal preference more than anything else.  Wouldn't it be cool to have a lab where students could experiment with different hardware, browsers, programs, and apps?
  2. By high school, technology learning should be more divergent toward students' proposed career path or personal interests.  This may not be feasible in a small school like mine, but students will be more likely to take an elective if it is seen as a step on the path toward what they are going to do in real life.  Photography, web design, and networking are all great options.  These, of course, will need to be taught by highly specialized teachers.
  3. Coding. I don't need to say more.  Just watch the video at http://www.code.org/.
  4. STEM or STEAM? The more I think about the future of technology in schools, the more I think this concept is the best program moving forward.  Teaching across the curriculum will help students learn the interconnects between science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. This is no small change.  It will take expert training and most likely will require team teaching, but this will take computer use out of the theoretical and  relate it to a number of different content areas.
It will be interesting to see the path our school and other schools like our take from here.

What kind of technology courses does your school or district offer at the middle school and high school levels? 

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