Return of the Computer Lab?

So, things move in cycles.

In the beginning, there were computer labs in schools. Apple IIe computers in nice rows, or better still all facing the wall so you you could see all the kids’ screens in one sweeping glance. Not long after that, we connected them all together with Phonenet cables so they could have (gasp) a shared file folder.

Anyway, things moved on. Computers became more integrated into the curriculum, so they moved into the classroom where the core curriculum action was, instead of being a “field trip” to the computer teacher in some windowless room elsewhere in the building.

Before long, though, the three computers against the wall in the classrooms weren’t enough. So we tried to cram six in there, and a networked printer. Then we had laptop carts (scary, heavy things) with a laser printer on top competing for space with a wireless access point. You didn’t want to run over anyone’s toes with a 20 laptop cart, I assure you.

Next step, 1:1 laptops for the students, and they went home with the kids as well. Some schools ran 1:1 programs smoothly, and others had quite a few challenges with reliability and curricular integration. Early educational-specific computers, like the Emate 300, didn’t catch on because they seemed too limited or too unusual.

As I ponder the Asus Eee PC, I’m sure it will receive the same criticism as other palm top computers– the keyboard seems too small, there are 20 programs I can name that won’t run on it, and the screen is only seven inches diagonally.

At the same time, I could see something else happen. They might sell like iPods. Or a competitor to the Eee PC might sell like iPods. In other words, they may be around in great numbers, and they may or may not be allowed in schools.

Despite the small keyboards and screens, and the inability to run either Final Cut Pro or Mathematica, I wonder if the future isn’t going to include computers that are bigger than cell phones, smaller than Macbooks, and cheap and cool enough to sell like iPods. I also wonder if they might eventually be a reasonable choice for reasonable computing, like web research, some writing, and organizing your time and files. This might be a significant or majority percentage of what students need to do during a fair chunk of the school day.

However, it’s unlikely they will do Final Cut Pro 4, or Mathematica, or Adobe Creative Suite 7. Maybe the computer labs are coming back, not only to do things that palmtops can’t, but also to exceed what the home desktops can do as well. They could support a balanced response to the horizontal needs (routine) and vertical needs (exceptional) of the modern student.

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