Are computer laboratories needed in elementary schools? Three separate incidents have me thinking about this question.

It started when I was visiting a school district that had eliminated elementary school computer labs because it had run out of classrooms and needed to recapture space. Closing down the computer labs was an easy way to do that.

The decision to eliminate the labs was couched in good educational philosophy: Computers should be available in the classroom. By redistributing the computers to the classrooms, they would become more available.

The philosophy may have been legitimate, but the execution was not. When I walked through the schools, I seldom saw a computer turned on, much less in use. As teachers explained, adding a fourth or fifth computer in a classroom with 25 students didn’t significantly change what they could do.

The lack of a computer lab also made it difficult to teach computer skills to a whole class or even a large group, something that children need in a district that serves an economically mixed population.

Another Viewpoint

A few days after I had discussed the situation with the superintendent and school board (I recommended planning for 25 to 30 computers in a single space in each elementary school), two news articles came to my attention.

The first was from Canada and was headlined“How Computers Make Our Kids Stupid.” It was about a private school outside Toronto where some elementary school students don’t get to use computers at all; they are introduced at the ninth grade level when, presumably, students will be able to make better use of them.

If elementary school students are better off without computers, it would certainly appear that schools could dispense with computer labs.

The story, however, was less than the headline. The teacher involved was one who felt elementary students didn’t need computers; fellow teachers, the majority, did not agree. They were not sure that computers really aided children in learning, but they felt that exposure and learning how to use computers was vital to elementary education.

The second article was an Associated Press report from New Hampshire, and it was startling. A school board had fired the librarian in its K-8 school in order to hire a computer teacher. The board claimed that it had to hire a computer teacher to meet the state’s computer curriculum standards.

I have difficulty making sense out of that. In most schools, librarians are the people who spend time teaching children how to find information and do research, whether with books, computers or other sources. (According to the article, this was true in the school involved.) The days when many librarians saw their job as“protecting the books from the children,” are long past. Librarians have become the vital research center for whatever school they serve. Replacing a librarian to increase computer teaching just doesn’t compute.

A Space for Computers

This brought me back to the question of the importance of computer labs. If computer skills are to be taught at the elementary school level, every school needs a space where a large group, possibly a whole class, can be taught. But it needn’t be a separate designated lab.

Personally, I favor putting 25 to 30 computers together in or adjacent to the library, with a glass partition separating them. That provides some sound separation but also permits observation and supervision, making both library and lab easier spaces to use with minimum staff. Since very few elementary schools have both a full-time librarian and a full-time computer teacher, this adjacency makes it possible for either of them, or for any classroom teacher, to supervise both spaces, making both full-time active learning centers.

By combining the spaces, a school accomplishes two things: it keeps the computer lab open and under supervision whenever there is a librarian or other staff member in the library. It also guarantees that the computer lab will not be one of the victims when school boards decide to meet their facilities needs by converting spaces currently used for other educational purposes.

Come to think of it, if combining computer lab and library would ensure the preservation of program, maybe we better start thinking about building art rooms and music rooms into the library, too — but that’s another column.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."