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Obsolete Thinking About Technology


1930 Studebaker
1930 Studebaker

When Microsoft announced the release of Windows 95, with a promise of a stable, secure, easy to use, plug-and-play operating system, it seemed that the computing support industry was on its way out.

Now, over a decade later, and after numerous revisions of Windows, it’s clear that the demand for computer support has increased more than ever before as Windows has become more complicated and susceptible to viruses and other problems. Computer support never became obsolete, only those who thought it would became obsolete.

An article on Obsolete Learning Technologies featured on 29 December 2009 by Inside Higher Ed listed Language and Computer Labs among the top 8 obsolete learning technologies.

Language labs are basically gone – computer labs are not far behind. With almost all students coming to campus with their own laptop it makes little sense for colleges spend precious resources on a roomful of desktop machines. I’m wondering if thin clients are even necessary – wouldn’t it be more cost effective to have a few loaner laptops available for students when their own computers break down? Could money saved on computer labs, maintenance, upgrades, staffing etc. be re-directed to learning technologies?

How delightfully naive to imagine an academic world with all students coming to campus with their own laptop. For schools looking at ways to save money, this would seem like an obvious one: remove all of the computers and have students bring their own. Problem solved, right? Well, not exactly. Here are a few reasons why students’ personal notebooks will not likely replace language or computer labs:

  1. Cost of Ownership. The state of Maine has a goal for all seventh graders in the state to have a notebook computer (source), but even that limited goal has some challenges. Maine chose Apple computers which have a much lower cost of ownership. Yet, most educational organizations and institutions aren’t savvy enough to buy what cost less to own, they will likely buy what costs less to purchase. There’s a huge difference.
  2. Support Costs. The real problem is that technology needs to be supported regardless of who owns it. When institutions adopt standardization of hardware manufacturer, operating system, and applications, the hardware and software support diminishes considerably. Parts are interchangeable and systems all have the same user guide. A “fleet” of college owned computers can all be managed automatically to have the latest software, updates, and virus protection. This wouldn’t be possible with students bringing their own array of computers to school. Supporting a wide variety of brands, operating systems, and programs would increase the expertise and number of support staff needed.
  3. Software. Beyond these basic aspects of support, there’s the question of compatibility and system requirements for academic software to function properly. Would all of the students have computers that meet the needs of all software? Who would install that software on hundreds or thousands of computers? Perhaps the institution could purchase and configure standardized computers and give them to students. Maybe build-in remote management could allow for automatic updates to be installed.
  4. Theft. Desktop computers in a lab can be locked down and monitored. Notebook computers are easily stolen.
  5. Damage. Notebook computers are usually built with plastic parts and tend to be more susceptible to damage than desktop computers. In addition to poor quality materials, they are knocked around more than desktops. This is a bad combination. Increased usage will mean a greater chance of damage.
  6. Isolationism. There is still a need for students to all be together in a classroom for one-on-one interactions. Online courseware and collaborative software helps people interact using their computers, but it lacks the dynamics of a real group of people in a room.
  7. Motivation. Ask anyone who has tried independent learning. While it works for some, most people find that group education in a classroom is more effective.

Conclusion. Thinking that Language and Computer Labs are obsolete should be among the top 8 obsolete ideas about technology right up there with the idea that Windows computers will not need any technical support.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com