Are School Computer Labs Obsolete?

In some schools, traditional computer labs are going obsolete or being repurposed.
Image source: Flickr CC user woodley waterworks

Once upon a time, the school computer lab was the ‘it’ place to be at school. Kids were privileged to enter a magical room filled with bubble-shaped computer screens and tall terminal towers, and a new world would open before them on blue screens. Today though, many kids as young as elementary school tote iPads and smartphones to school and can do as much with a tiny digital device as they can with the bulky machines in the computer lab.

With this dizzying change in technology, schools are faced with a dilemma. Is it really worth it to build or continually upgrade computer labs? Many schools have already deemed them obsolete.

Are the Days of the Computer Lab Over?

For example:

In Newark, N.J., the Licking Valley Middle School bought Chromebooks for its 528 students. While the laptops cost $477 each for a total of $252,000, the district was able to pay for them by eliminating several costly school computer labs.

In Burlington, Massachusetts, the high school purchased iPads for its students when teachers decided that they wanted to use the Internet as source material for their lessons. The district paid for the iPads by eliminating computer labs and traditional textbooks.

In Baltimore County, the school system eliminated their computer labs and gave students and teachers tablets and laptops while cutting the jobs of 100 technology teachers.

Redefining What a School Computer Lab Can Be

These schools decided old-fashioned computer labs were dinosaurs and made them obsolete. Many more schools in California and across the country have done the same. Other districts, however, continue to dedicate space for computers and technology, finding innovative ways to keep their computer labs relevant. For example, in Santa Barbara County, the Bishop Diego High School built a broadcasting studio and multimedia center where students can learn the ropes to become the next television news anchors and magazine editors.

We previously wrote about a school in Connecticut that kept its computer lab but upgraded and enhanced it. They installed a woodworking bench, 3-D printer and scanner, and a MakerSpace unit where the kids can model volcanoes, among other neat things.

A computer lab or any educational technology initiative, including alternatives to a traditional computer lab, will likely be expensive. And that’s why we are interested in this issue. Computer labs take up space that could otherwise go to teach art or music or that could be eliminated to reduce new building budgets. Space does have a cost. By state regulations in California, a computer lab used for instruction usually must be a minimum of 960 square feet. If a school building project will cost $150 per square foot, conservatively, but often much more. If the computer lab isn’t useful or relevant, then it is money and space wasted.

Reasons to Keep School Computer Labs

That being said, we can also see why some districts want to dedicate spaces for computer labs. Here are some deciding factors:

Desktop computers: Many schools are offering computer-based courses in applied math, engineering and graphics where all the students need to work at a powerful computer terminal. While laptops can be loaded with the required specialized software, the hardware is costlier and has smaller screens that make it harder to work with engineering plans and graphics. Transferring large data files can also cause problems when the computers are not networked.

Technology teachers: While kids these days might be fairly tech savvy, there is still such a thing as computer science. Schools with computer labs usually employ trained technology teachers, which can develop innovative programs and serve as a point person to help keep the district’s technology up to date. Also, many districts have combined the functions of a library and a computer lab, creating media rooms where kids can learn research skills from trained teachers and librarians.

Fairness: Districts also have to be sensitive to the demographics of their districts. With schools in poorer neighborhoods, for example, the kids are far more likely to not have computers at home or own hand-held devices. The computer lab may be their only opportunity to learn critical technology and computer skills.

Schools Should Plan Carefully When Changing School Computer Labs

There are good arguments for dedicating space for computer labs in schools, just as there are good reasons to do away with them when districts find a workable alternative. When a school system decides how it plans to teach technology, it is making an important instructional decision but also a real estate decision. A district should consider carefully before eliminating or changing its computer labs and integrate these plans with the district’s technology and facilities plans. As always, a district should not try to do this alone, but should seek the help of an experienced commercial real estate consultant early on in the process.

If your school is considering changing computer labs, you don’t have to go it alone. You can get a thorough analysis of all the available options from a consultant whose community values align with your own. Contact DCG Real Estate today to learn more.