What Are You Doing In That Computer Lab?

from Educators' eZine

"Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes"—Oscar Wilde

If that's the case, I've had a lot of "experience" from bringing my students to the computer lab. For example:

At times, I've used the computers as "babysitting" devices.
I've brought students to the lab without being sufficiently prepared, and, as a result, have had to spend a lot of time putting out "fires" and looking like I didn't have a clue about what I was doing.
I have gone to the lab without having a back-up plan of what to do if the computers went down and, of course, they did.

And these are just a few of many instances that don't necessarily portray me in the best light.

But I think I've learned from all of this. Our school now has a very successful after-school computer lab assisting English Language Learners, which is part of the reason that this year we were the Grand Prize Winner of the International Reading Association's Presidential Award For Reading and Technology. We've just begun several classes with our special education students using the ESL lab's model. And the same plan is being used by a large non-profit affordable housing organization, the Sacramento Mutual Housing Association, to implement ESL computer labs in all their developments. And I bring my regular English classes to the Lab often, and I think students would generally agree it's a productive, challenging, and enjoyable experience.

I'd like to share a few guidelines we use to make these Computer Lab sessions successful. They are meant more as a compass, and not as a road map. I suspect that teachers with more "experience" than me have additional helpful advice that I'm hopeful they too will share. Here is just what has worked for our students:

Use computers more to reinforce key concepts, and less to teach them.

There are zillions of free learning activities that are available over the Internet. However, students can't often ask the computer nuanced questions, and the computer can't easily give nuanced answers. Computers don't recognize quizzical expressions on student faces. A "congratulations!" message from a computer program is not the same as a verbal acknowledgment from a smiling teacher. Students can learn lots of facts from a computer—but learning concepts can be much more difficult. Computers don't necessarily teach ambiguity well.

I've had success in the computer lab by adapting an effective technique used to teach English Language Learners. It's called "Preview, View, Review." In the bilingual ESL classroom, this means giving a short overview of the lesson in the students' native language, then giving the lesson itself in English, and finally ending with a short review time in the native language and also answering questions.

Using this kind of "sandwich" method, with computer time in the middle and teacher-to-entire class interaction on both ends, can work well in a computer lab class, too. I spent nineteen years as a community organizer, and we called this simple process "Planning, Action, Evaluation." Of course, the teacher should be constantly circulating and engaging students during the computer time, too, and not just sitting at her/his own station.

Students can be producers of online content and not just consumers.

John Dewey's perspective that students learn best by doing holds as much truth in the computer lab as it does in the regular classroom. Yes, having students use the labs to type papers is certainly a valid use of time and resources. And, of course, using the lab as a source for research is obviously a critical use of computers and the Web.

I would suggest though, with the advent of Web 2.0, it is simple for students to also post much of what they write on the Web. Scribd is a free and easy way to upload what they have written, plus the audio capability of the site allows them to hear it read (which also can help students edit their own writing). Not only can others see what has been written, but they can also comment on it. Other web applications, including Your Draft allows students to post their work with "secret" urls so that only their classmates or family members can see it, but someone other than the teacher can read it. It's an authentic audience. Moderated online journals and blogs can also be used.

Geography students can easily create online maps with photos of different areas using Community Walk. They can create an online art collection from the Tate Museum. They can create their own online scavenger hunts for other students to complete with Trackstar. I have hundreds of online activities that students can use to create, and learn from, online at my page called Examples of Student Work.

Students can also participate in writing or editing encyclopedia articles on the web. This year I hope to have my students work on the Simple English Wikipedia and Wikijunior.

There is no shortage of activities that English Language Learners can create online, too. I've written about many of them in a previous TechLearning article "Samuel L. Jackson, My ESL Students, and Me".

Computers can be used to help students develop and deepen relationships with each other, not just with the computer screen.

Redwood trees can grow alone. However, they don't grow as tall as redwoods that are growing in a grove together. When they're together, their roots connect underground and get intertwined. This connection allows them to grow taller by providing a much more solid base.

I believe the same holds true with our students. Yes, students can learn something from just working on computers alone and, in effect, just developing a relationship with a monitor's screen. However, just like in the regular classroom, working together can create so many more possibilities and develop so many more skills.

Whether it's pairing-up to compete against each other on Internet word or math games, taking notes on projects that their classmates have created online and then discussing them in small groups back at the classroom, or having English Language Learners work in pairs playing online video games with one of them reading off instructions on how to win, there are many opportunities to help our students get beyond being mesmerized by the screen.

Use time in the computer lab to help develop leadership among students, and not just have them be your followers.

Dr. William Glasser has often quoted Edgar Dale's "Cone of Experience": "We learn 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we say or write….[and] 90% of what we teach."

I look for students who seem to be doing a particularly good job, or who seem to be grasping technical aspects pretty quickly, and will often ask them if they would mind helping others. I make sure my all my students know that this might happen, and at the beginning of the year we spend time talking about what the difference is between "guiding" someone and "doing it for them." And I make sure that I create these opportunities to teach for all the students in class at one time or another.

Spend less time being the controller and more time helping students develop self-control.

One way to prevent my grandchildren from drowning in a nearby creek is building a huge fence preventing access, telling them they can't go near it, and constantly nagging them about it. Another way is to ask them what they think the consequences of falling in the creek would be, how it would affect others, and discuss with them the universal lessons of being careful about water.

Which way would equip them to act more responsibly?

I've heard and read, and I'm sure you have, too, this kind of parable related to both Internet access and many other kinds of human endeavors. Yes, we need to be aware of what is on our student's screens. And, yes, we need to make sure our students are aware of how to behave near expensive equipment. However, in my experience, having thoughtful class discussions prior to entering the lab and engaging in reflective individual conversations when lapses occur tend to be much more effective in teaching life-long learning than harsh denunciations and punishments.

I referred to the importance of ambiguity earlier in this article. Neither the world, nor these guidelines, is meant to be black-and-white. It's not a question of which "side" you are on 100% of the time. Instead, it's more of a question of which direction do you tend to lean towards more of the time.

And, now, it's time for me to get back to generating more "experience."

Email:Larry Ferlazzo