Friday, 23 October 2009

Less pcs, more comfy chairs and clean carpets

I am beginning to think something quite strange: maybe we should start reducing the number of computers in FE classrooms. This is pretty weird stuff from me, I know. I teach various computing / ICT units for courses at a Further Education college. I've been saying for years that every member of staff should have a computer and my suggestion that we should have a 1:1 ratio for students to pcs was regarded as slightly mad. Yes, staff should all have one but I'm not so sure that I want rooms full of computers for students any more.

A little while ago I visited a college which had had substantial rebuilding and lots of new classrooms. The people showing me round were clearly really proud of the shiny new rooms and all the new equipment. I remember walking into one new classroom and there were rows and rows of black boxes and screens before my eyes. It was awful, even quite threatening. There was precious little space on any desk for anyone to write or place papers, despite the small footprint monitors and pc units. It reminded me of those language labs some schools used to have. It was like the sole purpose of the room was to provide access to a computer screen and keyboard.

I think they'd crammed 45 machines into the room. Then, at another college, I visited a library where gigantic monitors were lined up against each other on desks all over the place. Beautiful screens but, boy, did they dominate the whole environment.

At my own college there has been a gradual replacement of the big beige monitors with the little black (inevitably Dell) screens and there's no doubt that the extra horizontal space is welcome, along with the better speed of new machines. There, by not cramming the place so much there is, at least, still an airy feel to rooms and room to do something else. Not a lot, though, and there are several rooms where I have more students than chairs, never mind computers! That, and chairs with backs that never stay in position and make access to some parts of a classroom quite impossible, is another story.

What has started to happen, though, is that students have started to bring in their own laptops, some netbooks are appearing too and, unable to access the college wireless network, they solve the problem by utilising their own mobile broadband sticks or accessing via mobiles. I am waiting for the smarter ones to work out how to display mobile internet images on the monitors! My feeling is that this is quite a natural move. They are using a familiar pice of equipment. It probably contains all the applications and files they want to access. It's rather like bringing in your own pen and notebook instead of using the standard stuff dished out to those who forget. I see this use of personal equipment escalating. Another interesting observation is that whereas all the monitors are standing near vertical at head height, the laptops and other devices are far more angled and the general position of students appears much more relaxed whilst still attentively so.

I have less trouble seeing students when I don't have to peer across or around all the displays. I get their attention more easily too when I want to talk about something or show them something on the whiteboard or smartboard. It's as if their smaller screens, less intrusive on their immediate visual environment, are easier for them to be diverted from by whatever antics I employ.

So, where does this lead? My first thoughts are that we could clear all but a few of the college machines from most of the rooms I use and reclaim the horizontal space and have a much more pleasant teaching and learning environment. (This would have the immediate benefit of allowing every room in the college to have a few decent machines. Currently other departments struggle to get access to computers and often have the limited choice of the endless rows of 96 black screens in the rigidly disciplined, no talking and pretty unpopular IT Workshop or occupying a computing department room thus leaving computing students with a room with zero equipment).

It's not something that will happen overnight because although nearly all my students do have a laptop, I accept that this may not be the case in other disciplines and it is only a small proportion who have a mobile broadband facility. But it is changing, and fast.

Something that could be considered would be opening our wireless network (or some part of it or a specially created one - sorry, I'm not a network person!) so that the mobile broadband wasn't a necessity. As I have said in a previous article, saving documents in some allocated part of the student network isn't that important these days as there are alternatives.

There will always be a need for a few computers for students to use - for those who don't have suitable equipment or if theirs breaks down. Tutors would need to keep an eye on what was being accessed but no longer would students be needing to spend time getting around net nanny systems or having to use applications that aren't quite what they would naturally use elsewhere. Perhaps the savings in future IT equipment budgets could support the provision of some laptops or netbooks, even broadband subscriptions, for students. Things they can use anywhere rather than fixed items they can only use in one place. No-one need be excluded. Yes, the rich parents may provide kids with top of the range kit which will make others jealous but is that really any different to the range of clothes they wear or their forms of transport in the car park or bike shed?

There will also still be a need for computer labs where units require specific applications to be used which students wouldn't be expected to have on their own equipment and some rooms will inevitably stay fully equipped. But I believe the vast majority could be totally refurbished with decent desks and chairs, blinds and carpets so that the room is attractive, clean and genuinely inviting rather than formal or threatening. We don't need a rebuild, we need a rethink and clean carpets.

[I'm not talking about schools here, just institutions for 16+. Not sure about the provision for younger people. They may need to retain current standard equipment for a bundle of other reasons.]

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