A Case for Computer Rooms

Computer rooms were on top of every primary school’s wishlist back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  In some cases, companies like Intel and HP were involved in sponsorship deals where they kitted out schools with completely networked solutions.  My first two schools both had computer rooms.  Every week I would usher 30 excited kids to a converted classroom and spent 45 minutes giving them their technology kick for the week.

This usually involved sticking a CD-ROM into a drive and letting the children practice a skill in maths or English.  Other times, we opened up Microsoft Word and children would spend their golden three-quarters of an hour typing as much of a project as they could manage before the next set of 30 excited kids banged on the door.  Then we would walk back to the classroom and rely on paper the rest of the week.

Some schools did have a stand-alone computer at the back of the classroom, often covered by a table cloth, which protected it against any wandering specks of dust.  It generally lay unused for most of the year unless there was a child in the class who “needed” some time out.  In fairness, some teachers tried their best to divide one computer between 30 children with rota schemes and whatnot but ultimately it wasn’t an ideal set up.

In late 2003, the Irish government realised that most of their schools didn’t have Internet access in the classroom and the Broadband Rollout was initiated.  First up, schools had to fully network their schools.  All of a sudden the computer at the back of the classroom could “talk” to the computers in the computer room.  By 2005 every school in the country had Broadband Internet access.

One day someone had a bright idea.  Rather than taking 30 children up to a computer room for 45 minutes per week as their sole time on computers, wouldn’t it be better if their classrooms had more computers so children would have access to them all week.  Four computers in a classroom can give up to 12 children computer access at any one time as it’s much better to have 2-3 children at a computer than one.  (It encourages collaboration).

Some schools did just that and computer rooms turned into libraries or extra classrooms around the country.  As computers get smaller and cheaper, the concept of laptop trolleys bring the advantages of computer rooms to classrooms without the need for a separate room.  Interactive Whiteboards, Handheld devices, Tablet PCs, Wireless connectivity and other interesting new networking technologies mean that the computer rooms are no longer a must-have for schools.  In fact, they seem a little bit dated.  Why lumber 30 kids to a room with computers when your own classroom should have enough to do the job?

So, what’s the point of this article?

I think schools who kept their computer rooms are lucky.  I’d love one now.  With a huge shift towards constructivist learning, where child-centred education is starting to become more and more accessible thanks to technology, I see computer rooms as a great opportunity for children to learn together at their own pace.  I can see children blogging at their own level, designing buildings in 3D virtual worlds at their own pace and programming games using tools like Scratch and Storytelling ALICE.

Combined with having 4-5 computers in the classroom, all networked to the computer room so children can access their work no matter where they are in the school, I see the combination of computer rooms and classroom computers as a viable and potentially powerful set up (at least until  every child has their own laptop in the classroom).  Add the fact that a computer room opens up the school to the wider community where parents, staff and local groups can be trained in traditional computer skills makes a school computer room a very attractive prospect for everyone.

I would love to be able to open my school in the evening to community groups to teach computer skills.  I would love to run training sessions with staff in our school where we would all have access to a computer each.  I would love to run after school computer clubs where children could learn new skills or design new concepts.  I didn’t think I would say this but perhaps there is a strong case for opening that computer room again.

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