The Computer as a Barrier

We finally got the school year underway this past week after a delayed start due to Hurricane Irene ravaging New England. Last year at this time I was just embarking on an amazing journey known as Operation LAPIS in one of my Latin I sections and I spent a great deal of time in that first week posting my thoughts here (you can find the links on the right.) With the new year starting, and the plan to go “all in” with practomimetic learning across all of my Latin courses (both Latin Is and a Latin II), I was eager and excited to get the year going.

Unfortunately for me, I found out on the first day back that the level of tech integration that I had last year was actually going to be worse this year. Our building (one of many on a campus that serves 2500+ high school students) traded a single mobile laptop cart of 30 computers for a stationary lab of 26 desktops -- only 23 of which were actually working on day one. Our building houses almost all of the world language classes and about half of the science classrooms in addition to special education and a sprinkling of history classes. In all, there are between thirty and forty classrooms in the building alone and yes, you read that correctly, one physical lab of 26 desktop computers is what is available to those classes. In 2011.

While I don’t want to spend time talking about the logistics of that set up, and the need for a real push for better access in our school, I do want to spend a little bit of time talking about the new lab and why it is actually a terrible space for learning to occur.

In my classroom last year, with the mobile laptop cart, I was able to group the students into their year-long teams for LAPIS on day 2. They had their laptops in front of them and they were sitting face to face with their teammates, interacting in both real space and the virtual one. The first night last year, and the first night this year, were identical: the operatives rushed home to create their Google accounts, register with the TSTT and post welcome messages to their new teammates in their team forum.

Here’s what I wrote about the class when they came in for day two:

I saw the non-LAPIS class first and it was a fairly standard experience: they file in and sit in silence before the class starts, it is still a struggle to get them to open up to myself, to their classmates, to volunteer, to answer questions or contribute. Nothing new or nothing surprising there. Usually by the third week they start to come around and by the end of September we’re really in full stride with the atmosphere that carries through the rest of the year. The LAPIS class, on the other hand, which came in directly after the non-LAPIS was an entirely different story. They came in chatting to one another and immediately started talking with their teammates. The dynamics for the rest of the class stayed at that elevated level. While doing activities, a far greater number of hands shot up to volunteer, they more readily engaged in discussion back and forth about topics. They responded to comments made by fellow classmates. They more actively engaged with me. To say there was a stark difference between the two classes after just one day would be a gross understatement. There is absolutely no question in my mind that this came as a direct result of the relationships that they began to forge online the night before in the Team Forums.

This year, during the whole first week, the new recruits in Operation LAPIS couldn’t remember who was on their team, nor pick them out of a crowd. In fact, there was almost no socializing among the students. They looked very much students in the first week of a traditional classroom setting. I might even wager to say that they were even worse. How could the same process (creating accounts, registering, posting, etc) produce such different results?

Turns out I was actually a little bit wrong in my analysis then. It wasn’t only the fact that they were communicating in their team forums the night before -- although, it certainly had a big impact. Comparing notes from last year to this year I’ve found out that there’s another variable that has a huge impact; the traditional computer lab.

The new computer lab is laid out in, what I would consider, a terrible fashion for any kind of community learning or even learning in general. There are computers along the back wall (the student backs are turned around from the IWB in the front of the room), and on the sides there are a couple short rows of 2-3 computers, face to face. This means that some of those students, too, are facing away from the visuals on the IWB. Because the towers are on the tables, along with the computer monitors, the students cannot physically see the students sitting across from them, making communication across the table virtually impossible. There are also only 26 stations -- most of our classes are now getting dangerously close to 30 (both of my Latin I sections are now at 28).

The traditional computer lab and the computers in it, in this case, is actually a barrier to the kinds of social and collaborative learning that we’re hoping to foster with our style of game-based learning. Heck, the kinds of learning any classroom should be trying to foster. Even the returning Senior Operatives (my Latin II class) already mentioned that they really dislike the lab and want to return to our old classroom with the laptops. The computer lab is a relic of the past; something that has no place in a modern educational setting. With as many different kinds of internet enabled devices out there, and the prevalence of wireless infrastructures in other parts of the “real world”, any place, any where, can become a computer “lab”. The computer shouldn’t be the focus, the main attraction, like it is in the traditional lab. The device should just be one of many tools at the learner’s disposal.

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