The Perfect Educational Computer Lab

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

The Perfect Educational Computer Lab

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I had the following question via Twitter the other day “Hey Alfred. We got permission to overhaul our computer lab, Have you seen any innovative strategies or configurations?” Now this is a question that comes up pretty regularly among computer science teachers. Or teachers who teach computer applications for that matter. Every time the subject comes up there are a lot of different opinions. These opinions cover things like types of computers, arraignment of desks and computer tables, assorted “must have” teaching aides and more. As far as I can tell there really is no one size fits all answer. I did decide to spend some time thinking about it this week though. As I thought, one conclusion I came to is that the most important item in an educational computer lab is the teacher. A good knowledgeable teacher who cares about the subject and the students and has good classroom management skills can overcome a lot of computer lab design deficiencies. A bad teacher cannot be compensated for by computer lab design though. That being said, a few thoughts to start a discussion (I hope) going.

Computers

If you are teaching computer science a lab should have solid, modern high performance computers. Laptop or desktop they should have enough memory (a moving target), good graphics cards and good CPUs. I’ve seen schools where administrators get top of the line computers and computer labs get the hand me downs. Totally bas ackwards. Most administrators spend their time doing Office apps and email with some web browsing mixed in. They don’t need the latest and greatest computers. Students who are using the latest software development tools (MSDN AA can help here BTW) are going to be compiling and doing other things that work better on a computer with some energy. You don’t want them frustrated by old hardware with crappy graphics cards and sound cards removed. What leave the sound cards in? Why yes! How else are you going to have them create real multimedia applications? A lot of people are looking at game development as a “hook” that builds interest among students and allows for teaching of some serious CS concepts. You need good computers to do that right. Oh and hopefully you are all buying LCD monitors these days. Less power usage and heat generation plus they take up less valuable desktop space.

Network

Please have a good reliable network with all student work saved in a network location. The last thing you want is students having work spread out over a half a dozen computers and not being able to get to them because a computer is down or occupied or “borrowed” by someone. This will also let you backup everyone’s work which you really want to do. This is a general thing these days and, hopefully, not just a computer lab deal. A good network is essential in a 21st century school. Some people like to be able to cut off the Internet to the lab at various times. This is not usually that hard to do but I tend to see some good to letting students do research on the Internet even while I am lecturing. Let them “fact check” me if they way. Having students do things “bad” on the Internet is a classroom management issue just like them reading a novel under the desk is. My opinion – your mileage may vary.

Room Layout

One of the few things that most people seem to agree on is that you want a good, ceiling mounted LCD projector. Get a good one with as high a resolution as you can afford. If you can get a network (wi-fi) enabled projector so much the better. That will allow you to set up the demo system anywhere in the room and even switch systems as needed. Maybe a good way to get students to show their work without a lot of reconfiguration fuss.

How do you layout the computers? For many this depends completely on the room available and how many computers you have to stick in it. I’ve worked in some really weird configurations. If you have space though I have seen three main organizations – all with pros and cons.

Rows and rows

The traditional classroom but with computers on the desks. Variations include monitors under a glass desktop and desks with power and network connection for students to plug in their own laptops. The monitors under a glass desktop seem like a great idea but as with so many things the practice does not live up to the theory from what people tell me. This sort of arrangement is beloved by people who like neat rows and order. It can maximize the available space. I’ve taught in a number of rooms like this but it has some disadvantages. One is that you can’t see what students are doing very easily. Oh sure you can set up monitoring software and keep an eye out this way but I find that less appealing because it means you can look at their screens or their body language but generally not both. It also means that while you are talking and not able to look at a monitor they can be doing anything. You can teach from the back of the room and see what they are doing but then you can’t see faces and I like faces. Also with setups like this it can be very hard to get to students to help them out when they run into the inevitable problems.

Up against the wall

The other common arraignment is to set up the computers around the outside of the room facing the walls. Advantages are several. One is that you can have the students turn around (i.e. away from the computer) while you are talking. It also means the center of the room is free for group work which can be really handy. And of course while students are working you can keep an eye on screens. Also you can get to students easily if they are having issues.  I haven’t taught using this configuration much myself but I know a number of teachers who I respect who seem to be using it to good effect. The one down side is that you may not have room for all the computers you want/need unless you have a big room. A big room is a good thing though.

Rounds

I’ve worked in a number of labs with a bunch of round tables with computers set up on them. These sorts of labs are better for students to work on projects than for teaching. As a teacher you can see some faces and some screens but not all. Some students are going to be quite hidden in fact. But you can move around to help pretty easily assuming someone did a good job wiring and you are not always tripping on wires. These labs seem to lend themselves towards pair programming BTW. Placing books and papers can be an issue but that is true of most cases where the computer takes up most of the desk surface. The circles make it worse though in my observations.

What else?

My very first computer lab had 12 Apple IIe computers in carrels – yeah that was a while ago.  I set them up in staggered lines sort of like \/ \/ \/ It let everyone see me and I could see them and their computers. It was pretty easy to get to students to help out as well. Felt weird though. I’m sure there are other innovative setups but I can’t think of any off hand. Suggestions of things that work for you?

Other Resources

Do you need a printer in the room? I’m old school and I like to look at listings for sticky problems. So I vote yes. Put it out of the way so it is not everyone’s first choice but still easy to get to. If you are one of those people who has people hand things in on paper make sure you get a fast reliable printer. There are few things worse than waiting 10 minutes after class for all the last minute printouts to show up.

How about a scanner or two? We used to set those up as a station with a dedicated computer. This is hard to justify these days with limited budgets though. I have two printer/scanner/fax systems at home that are network enabled. Setting one of those up so students can use them from any computer in the lab may be an option to try.

Miscellaneous small stuff? Xbox controllers for creating games using XNA or teaching using Kodu. Headphones for use in multimedia applications. Speaking of headphones. I’m ok with students listening to music while programming as long as they use headphones and I can’t hear it. I know an awful lot of professional programmers who program to music. Your school’s rules may or may not allow it of course. Robots? Use them if you have them. Kinect? If you have room for one they are not that expensive and you may be amazed by what students create if you have one available. The Kinect for Windows SDK is a free download. (BTW Check out the XNA, Kodu and Kinect keywords for other resources on those items that I have blogged about )

What else? Let’s get some ideas out here. What works for you? What doesn’t work for you? What would your ideal teaching/learning computer lab look like?

 

Post by Alfred Thompson with additional profile information at Google+



  • Alfred, we invite you and your readers to check out our renovated "Computer Lab" at Bentley University, and rebranded it as the Computer Information Systems Learning and Technology Sandbox.  It's both a physical and virtual place for learning. Check out our transformation here: cis.bentley.edu/.../transformation - this 45 second video shows the construction that took place to create the Sandbox.

    Our blog at http://cis.bentley.edu/sandbox will give you a sense of the pulse of the place -- an inviting layout and bright paint on the walls is just the beginning when creating a place for exploring technology.  If you're in the Waltham area, join us at our open house tomorrow (Dec 1) from 3 to 5 pm at Bentley.  Details are here: www.facebook.com/.../122635574511473

  • Our school building was built in 1921 so we have minor issues with electricity and room size (small) that forces our labs to be arranged the way they are.  Our primary computer lab has students facing away for the front of the room in two rows.  Our other two labs are the facing the wall type labs.  There are two big advantages to these types of set-ups.  I can see what everyone is doing all the time.  I can pretty much stand in one place and at a glance see if someone is having a problem or (heaven forbid) is goofing off on the internet.  The other biggie is when I am talking they have to be turned away from the computer screen and facing me.  I know then that they are paying attention to me and not to what is on the screen.  I have taught and been taught in labs where the student looks at the teacher over the screen.  It is really difficult to get the kids eyes off the screen that way.  When I was taught in a lab like that I did not want to look at the teacher, I wanted to keep working.  There is software to solve this problem but that is another expense.  I am convinced the setup I presently have is the best compromise.

    Something I really wish I had more of are projectors that every computer could log in to.  I have one of those projectors (Dell S300wi) in my advanced lab (6 computers) and it is just so convenient to throw a kid’s work on the wall to look at.  The minor detail of $1100 as opposed to $600 puts a bit of a crimp in that conversion.  Also moving the present ceiling mount (a major operation in a 90 year old building), re-wiring and what to do with the old projector are issues.

    When you buy computers think ahead a few years.  What is nice now will not be so nice in a couple of years.  Five years ago I tried to save a buck by buying computers with a minimum of RAM.  Big booboo.  Buy better that you need now; you are going to need it next year.  Have the lab be all one computer brand and model.  My primary programming lab is made up of whatever I could scrounge.  I think I have three different manufacturers, each with a couple of models in a total of 14 computers.  What a pain.  Video and audio drivers behave differently, different ram and processor speed causes issues and of course I have to have XP and Win 7 machines.  I am an idiot.  If you go Mac, buy VMware Fusion so you can run Mac and Windows environments.  Gives the kids more options.  There is one minor glitch with that setup; Kinect supposedly will not work in a virtualized environment. At least that is what the Kinect site claims.  I have not tested it yet.   I now have Macs and PCs in my little advanced lab for this reason.

    A printer in a multi use lab is a must.  A big printer.  One that has cheap, refillable toner cartridges and is reliable as a brick.  

  • And I forgot to mention the biggest monitors you can fit/afford.  My advanced lab has dual monitors.  The programming project is usually on one and the e-book/documentation/tutorial/notes is on the other.  The kids love the setup.

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