Edtech for Edleaders: Computer Rooms Today

While computer rooms have largely fallen out of favor, they continue to be maintained in many schools. As more diverse computing devices have entered the educational market and Internet-only notebooks became more popular, computer rooms have become more important for providing capacity for specialized purposes that require sophisticated software that must be installed on devices with full operating systems installed and that meet other hardware requirements.

For example, high school students working on the school newspaper may use their smartphones to capture images and draft stories using G Suite which is accessed via Chromebooks. When the students prepare the newspaper to print, however, they will use desktop publishing software that is installed on workstations in a computer room. That software allows for far greater control over the layout of the printed newspaper (and the production of electronic editions) than is possible to devices with less capacity that are used for early drafts of articles. Both are necessary for producing the final product.

While some computer rooms are filled with newer desktop computers with the greatest capacity of the various machines deployed in the school, other computer rooms are often filled with the oldest machines. In schools, IT managers tend to extend the life of devices as long as possible to ensure long-term value from the purchase, so older computers are nursed along with little software installed and provide minimal, but still useful, functionality. Teachers whose students need to find information on the Internet or who need to create word processed documents, presentations, or spreadsheets may find a five-year-old desktop computer with only an office suite installed to be perfectly sufficient. Some faculty even prefer to use such systems with their students as they provide fewer distractions to students than systems with more tools installed.

One strategy that has become popular (among some IT professionals in schools) for leaving computers in service when the operating system is no longer supported is to install Linux on the computers. Linux is an open source operating system, so it can be installed without paying licensing fees, and it tends to be updated by the community indefinitely, and it (generally) requires less processing capacity than commercially available operating systems, so it can stay in service longer and on older machines. A teacher who creates a valuable lesson using a particular Linux application will find it continues to be available, in an unchanged form for as long as the computers are functional. A similar lesson focused on a web-based application or a commercial operating system may find the site removed or the application becomes is incompatible with the operating system before he is done using it.

The reasons commonly given for schools to adopt a one-to-one effort is to provide every student with a device, thus ensure there is a sufficient number of devices available in all situations (as long as the device is present and functioning with the student). As Internet-only devices have become an (inexpensive) option, many have used those to fill in the one-to-one fleet. While much curriculum can be designed to use the limited capacity provided by Internet-only devices, some curriculum necessitates students use more sophisticated devices. Access to technology that provides specialized function cannot be reasonably provided in the same numbers as Internet-only notebooks, so teachers must schedule time to use shared resources. In general, if teachers can schedule the resources they need with minimal management needs and minimal disruption to their plans, then it does not represent a threat to sufficiency. (Of course, the qualifier “minimal” is open to interpretation.)

Even in one-to-one environments, there are situations in which teacher must share computing resources. This can include computers with full operating systems, specialty printers, high resolution projectors and similar devices. Such devices that cannot be provided in indefinite numbers must be shared among teachers. The need to share and access to those resources and schedule time and activities so that everyone has similar access is a part of managing the technology-rich classroom. Sufficiency decisions must be made with the respect to the other demands of financial and support resources, and one support system that must be maintained by the IT professionals is a public system for viewing schedules and reserving time to use shared devices. IT is reasonable to insist such schedules be available and that teachers use them.