Having made the decision to do away with the classical stand-alone computer lab, and having determined that laptop-based mobile labs were not a viable option, I began to look for ways to bring standard, desktop computers into the normal classroom. Clearly doing this would require some specialized equipment. It wouldn't be possible to outfit the standard classroom desk/chair combination unit with even the smallest desktop computer.
I had seen labs in magazines with specialty tables that housed the computer under a glass top. This allowed the user to have a full desktop workspace and still have easy access to a computer. While this option looked appealing on the surface it quickly became apparent that there were some significant design flaws. Firstly the glass top was prone to glare, making it difficult to see the computer screen below it. The companies that sell these desks also offer partitions that can be placed on top of it to block out the glare, but they take up valuable desktop space and contribute to another problem with this desk design. With the computer placed below the desk, teacher supervision becomes almost impossible. Not only can the teacher not see what's on the computer screen, they can't really know if the computer is even powered on.
That led me to two different pop-up style desks from two different companies. The first was the Evolution Flat Panel Desk from Spectrum Furniture and the second was the Flip Top series of desks from Electronic Classroom Furniture Systems. Both of these desks hide the computer under the desk when it's not in use, providing a full-sized desktop- more than twice the size of a typical student desk/chair combo. When the student needs access to a computer it simply pops up from inside the desk. These desks allow for better teacher supervision of computer use (you can't use the computer without it being obvious that you're using it) and eliminate the glare inherent in a glass-top desk.
I asked each of these companies to provide a sample desk for our planning committee to inspect, and both were happy to do so. After almost of month of hands-on experimentation our teachers decided they liked the flip-top model from E.C.F.S. the best. They decided that it offers a cleaner line-of-sight than the Spectrum desk and it's flip-top compression hinge design is less likely to be abused by the students than the pneumatic push-button assembly of the Spectrum design. Both desks were superbly designed and solidly built. Both companies offer outstanding warranties and both were willing to tweak their designs to produce a custom model specifically for our installation. In the end, I think it really came down to the collective personal preferences of our staff.
The architect firm that is handling the design and construction of our new campus provided a very nice scale drawing of what one of our 750-square-foot classrooms will look like with these desks installed. The rooms are designed to accommodate up to 32 student desks, and will be initially outfitted with 24 desks, with the understanding that we can pull desks from rooms with fewer than 24 students to put into rooms with more than 24 students. Each wall will have enough network and electrical connections to feed the rows of computers, and the desks will have built-in power and network extension channels. This should keep all of the wiring completely out of sight (and out of reach) and produce a clean, professional-looking classroom/lab setup. Preliminary estimates show that we should be able to install 16 of these technology-heavy classrooms, including the desks and the computers, for less than the construction cost of the five labs that were originally proposed.
When the idea of bringing computers into the classroom first arises, most people immediately turn to laptop computers to do the job. Indeed there are a number of one-to-one laptop initiatives currently underway all over the country. The idea is to give every student a laptop that they can take with them from classroom to classroom, and even take home with them in some cases. This allows any standard classroom to become a computer lab with very little modification. Honey Grove has a number of such "mobile labs" in our Elementary and Middle School campuses. The trouble is they're not as mobile as they're cracked up to be.
The biggest problem with laptop computers is that even the best laptop can't make it through the average school day on a single battery charge. At some point they have to be plugged in to recharge. There are a few ways to go about this. One way is to buy an extra battery for each laptop and a charging station for each classroom. That way when a battery dies the user can simply but the dead battery on the charger and pop a charged battery into the laptop. This works really well, but adds to the cost of a mobile lab by a large margin. Another way is to see to it that there are ample electrical outlets available in each classroom. The biggest problem with this method is that there are often electrical cords scattered throughout the room, which can lead to a much higher rate of accidental damage.
Another problem with mobile labs is that laptops simply aren't as durable as a desktop computer and are more difficult to repair when they break. Laptops are designed to be lightweight and portable, and it's these very design attributes that makes them inherently more likely to sustain damage during day-to-day use. Replacement parts are rarely available from any source other than the original manufacturer, and even then there's no guarantee that the parts will be available in a couple of years. Manufactures continually roll out new models, and it would be impractical for them to keep warehouses full of parts for older models. Even when the necessary parts can be procured they're often very labor-intensive to replace, and often doing so in-house will void the manufacturer warranty.
Finally, laptops are very expensive. A single 24-unit mobile lab complete with extra batteries, external chargers and a storage cart can cost three times as much as 24 desktop computers. After the initial purchase price is considered, the cost of repairing them is often many times the cost of repairing a typical desktop computer. Factoring together the high initial cost, the cost of ongoing maintenance and the fact that the average usable life expectancy of a laptop computer can be half that of a desktop computer, it was clear that mobile labs were not the solution for our new High School.
Early on in the process of planning our new High School, the Superintendent came to me with a definitive mandate: Design a school that will serve as a benchmark for other schools in the area of technology integration.....and do it as inexpensively as possible. This was no small task, but one I was excited to tackle.
One of the primary complaints that our teachers have in terms of technology in our current building is the somewhat limited access to computers. Currently we have two dedicated computer labs and a library/media center equipped with 24 computers that serves as a third lab. The scheduling of our technology-centric classes, such as Business Computer Information Systems and Digital Graphics and Animation ensures that our two dedicated labs are filled most of the time. That leaves essentially one lab available to meet the research needs of the core classes (Math, Science, Languages, etc.) This simply is not enough.
At first blush the answer seemed simple- add more labs. In the early planning meetings we began throwing out numbers- four labs minumum, five would be better. That would provide the necessary access for our technology classes and provide two (or three) additional labs to be used for research and testing. With the proposed mandate of online testing in the future, we would need far more capacity than we have now. We could make do with four labs, and could be comfortable with five. Then came the price tag. The Texas Education Agency requires that a computer lab be a minimum of 900 square feet in size. At an estimated cost of $125 per square foot the total cost for for the construction of a single computer lab would be $112,500. Five such labs would cost $562,500 just to build. That doesn't include equipping them with computers or the ongoing costs of heating and cooling such large spaces throughout the school year. In short, computer labs are expensive.
So, I began looking for alternatives. I needed to find a way to provide our students and staff with the technology they needed at a price the taxpayers could actually afford. The answer was to eliminate the computer labs entirely. Instead of creating a handful of very large rooms with many computers, maybe it would be better to bring the computers into the classrooms. If we could do that, then we could provide ubiquitous access to computers without the construction costs associated with building computer labs, or their continual upkeep. This was clearly the best course of action. The next hurdle was figuring out how to bring computers into the classroom in a way that was cost-effective, sustainable, and functional.
This section of the Tech Notes blog will contain posts related to the planning and construction of the new High School campus of Honey Grove I.S.D. Planning began in the spring of 2007, with ground-breaking scheduled to begin in the summer.
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