Are computer labs an outdated option?

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A couple of decades ago, computer labs gave students the opportunity to access a computer. But circumstances have changed over the years, having a laptop or a personal computer is no longer a rarity among students, so are computer labs still a good investment for schools?

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Computer laboratories represent great benefits for educational institutions, from paper savings to greater efficiency and safety in evaluations (Farag, 2018, Küppers et al., 2018, Harron et al., 2017, Wang 2017). A couple of decades ago, computer labs gave students the opportunity to access a computer. But circumstances have changed over the years, having a laptop or a personal computer is no longer a rarity among students, and they have good features without needing to be expensive, so are computer labs still a good investment for schools?

According to Brown and Wilson (2018), one-to-one instruction in programming courses is the perfect scenario since a student gets the teacher's full attention while he can customize the student's feedback. However, they also point out the unrealness of this scenario. With this in mind, the question and challenge of every teacher is: how to attend individually all students and clear the range of doubts that arise in a common 1-hour session? While, on the other hand, a novice programmer, after having attended tutorials, websites, documentation, and notes, the best thing he can do to solve doubts is to contact a colleague and ask for help (Carey and Papin, 2018).

Considering this context, professors Erika Ibarra, Sandra Miranda and Guillermo Lara, of PrepaTec campus Morelia, implemented, during the Fall semester 2018, a project with the intention of providing more and better advice to students taking programming classes. The project consisted of installing a computer laboratory administration software that allows the user to communicate at all times with the administrator (during the class), in this case, the teacher, via text or voice. In addition, the teacher can monitor the screen and activity of each of the students and can communicate with the student privately at all times.

We need to ensure that computer laboratories have the necessary characteristics to remain useful. Otherwise, they will become part of the decoration of our educational institutions.

But the implementation did not yield the expected results, given that from the beginning, obstacles that had not been considered started to emerge. Students were reluctant to use the lab computers because they preferred to use their personal laptops even though the laboratory computer would give them the opportunity to receive direct advice from the teacher during the class.

At the end of the semester, a survey was applied to the students in order to deepen the problem, a total of 27 students answered the questionnaire, among the most outstanding results we have that:

  1. 33% of the students indicate that they have never used the software, 60% say they use it only 1 to 5 times during the semester; while only 7% used it between 6 and 10 times. In short, the use of the software was low.

  2. 55% of the students who used the software responded that they liked to use it. The reasons were:

    • I can ask questions that I do not understand without my classmates finding out

    • I can earn coins (we used gamification to promote the use of software)

    • I received a response from the teacher very quickly

  3. On the other hand, the reasons given by 45% of the respondents to explain their dissatisfaction with the software were:

    • I prefer to call the teacher to my place and speak to him/her

    • I prefer to work on my computer where I have everything I need at hand

    • Lab computers are slow

    • The lab computers have Windows and I use macOS

    • The response from the teacher was slow to arrive

  1. Finally, 50% of the respondents indicated that they would use the software to a greater extent if it were installed on their laptops.

Most students own a laptop, so is the use of computer labs still a profitable option for educational institutions?

From the above, it can be seen that students prefer to work on their laptops; The use of gamification encouraged students to make use of the laboratory computers, but before that, virtually no students left their computers to use the lab PC during the class. It is worth mentioning that 100% of the students in the class have a laptop and the programming environments we use are free or in a web environment. Hence the question, is the use of computer labs still a profitable option for educational institutions?

The intention of this article is to invite teachers, laboratory administrators and educational authorities to carry out an analysis and evaluation of their computer laboratories. I do not mean to say that these are a useless resource or in disuse, what I expose is the need to ensure that they have the necessary characteristics to remain useful, that they are an investment and not an expense. Otherwise, they will become part of the decoration of our educational institutions.


About the author

Sandra Miranda Leal (sandra.miranda@tec.mx) is an engineer in Computer Systems and a Master in Information Sciences and Knowledge Management. She is a full-time professor at PrepaTec at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Morelia campus, and teaches, among others, the subjects Computational Logical Thinking and Mobile Application Development.



References

Brown, NCC. y Wilson, G. (2018). Ten quick tips for teaching programming. PLOS Computational Biology 14(4): e1006023. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006023

Carey, M. y Papin, J. (2018). Ten simple rules for biologists learning to program. PLOS Computational Biology 14(1): e1005871. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005871

Farag, S. G. (2018). Computer laboratory teaching management system for improving teaching and learning. International Journal of Online Engineering, 14(9), 182-189. Retrieved from www.scopus.com

Harron, N. A., Saod, A. H. M., Ramlan, S. A., Razak, F. A., Ishak, N. H., Sadimin, S., . . . Ismail, N. (2017). ComTrack: Implementation of innovative computer lab management tool for academic institutions. Paper presented at the ISCAIE 2017 - 2017 IEEE Symposium on Computer Applications and Industrial Electronics, 132-135. doi:10.1109/ISCAIE.2017.8074964 Retrieved from www.scopus.com

Küppers, B., Politze, M., Zameitat, R., Kerber, F., & Schroeder, U. (2018). Practical security for electronic examinations on students’ devices doi:10.1007/978-3-030-01177-2_21 Retrieved from www.scopus.com

Wang, F. (2017). Research on the paperless examination in the university public computer laboratory. Paper presented at the ACM International Conference Proceeding Series, 52-55. doi:10.1145/3157737.3157752 Retrieved from www.scopus.com