Rethinking mobile labs

We've rolled out several mobile labs. Some people like to call them COWs (computers on wheels); I prefer to call them opportunities.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

We've rolled out several mobile labs. Some people like to call them COWs (computers on wheels); I prefer to call them opportunities.

The labs, as a result of failing, aging, and otherwise decrepit machinery have replaced stationary labs across the board. We went for the mobile labs to save space and electricity and provide the opportunity to use the computers in regular classroom settings rather than needing to truck down to the computer lab for "computer time." We've focused on the elementary level for mobile labs because space constraints are the most significant in these buildings and transitions from room to room can be a bit more challenging for the average 3rd grader than the average 10th grader.

Unfortunately, although we replaced the stationary labs with mobile labs, we didn't replace the usage models. The labs still roll from classroom to classroom for 30-minute blocks which facilitates our use of RTI software, but makes for a couple big problems:

  • A schedule that can accommodate daily sessions for all classes makes for quick transitions and lots of shoving laptops in and out of carts. It leaves little time to check the computers for damage or proper shutdown and usually results in a messy cart by the end of the day that isn't ready for a complete overnight charge.
  • Where is the transformative classroom integration? Half an hour is hardly time for a writers' workshop, a video project, creation of presentations, or recording and analyzing data from science experiments.

This last piece is especially important. Laptops should be about 1:1 experiences, even if those experiences can't happen all day, every day, in true 1:1 fashion. Hour or 90 minute blocks are far more appropriate for the sorts of activities to which computers are really well-suited in the classroom. 30 minutes of time spent on a particular piece of learning software makes a lot of sense, but the transition and setup of a rolling lab make such short bursts really impractical.

More and more, we're moving to a dual model in our schools. Leave the carts for project work, writing, research, etc. Check it out for an hour or even a day. Most districts have plenty of aging computers that can be deployed into a small stationary lab; thin clients provide plenty of inexpensive options as well. The stationary lab (or even mini labs in classrooms) can be devoted to learning software which rarely requires state-of-the-art machinery.

The ideal, of course, is for every student to have a laptop and be able to access it anytime it's needed or appropriate. The reality is that most schools need to share resources. Given that, we've certainly had to examine the best way to share those resources and how we can make student experiences with laptops enriching, rather than just stressful.

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