Computer labs may turn out to be the problem rather than the solution, says Ray Barker
Have you been driven mad by not being able to use the computers in your school when you really wanted them? You've planned it, the kids are inspired to use ICT, it fits perfectly with what you want to do, you feel confident it's going to make a difference... then you can't get into the computer lab because it's been booked by another teacher.
You probably breathe a sigh of relief anyway. You never liked trooping 30 kids through the school, getting them sorted out in the lab, dealing with the technical matters, then herding them all the way back to class after not finishing what you wanted to.
Whatever happened to those moments when you could choose what resources and approaches you wanted because they were just right? The latest research from the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa) reveals that on average, primary schools have at least one computer lab compared with 5.5 in secondary schools. Across these labs a primary school will have an average of 10 computers, while secondary schools have an average of 113 computers.
Ten years ago primaries didn't want to know about labs, they wanted the computers in the class. Secondary schools by contrast have always gone for labs as they are more subject-driven; pupils move classes, they see a variety of teachers and subjects are taught in discrete units, so the labs can be timetabled. They supposedly make management of ICT easier.
However, there are now some rumblings that labs may come back to haunt us.
What's brought this to the fore is the amazing growth in interactive whiteboards. At primary level in 2002, only 37 per cent of schools had a whiteboard - that has risen to 73 per cent. The percentage of secondary schools now with boards stands at 92, with an average of 6.2 per school.
Sounds great, but are these boards being used? This depends upon where this equipment is sited - and a great many of them are in separate computer labs. Of primary schools, 44 per cent say their boards are being extensively used and only 25 per cent say they are not really being used.
However, at secondary level only 43 per cent report "heavy use" and a huge 47 per cent say they are hardly used at all. Why should this be?
Well, it could be due to the fact that many boards at primary level are in the classroom and so can be used as a teaching tool whenever needed. As teachers have used them and become more confident they have realised their power and have used them more.
As everyone knows, if a board is screwed to a wall in a computer lab, then it is much more difficult to make effective use of it daily (and by the way, why is it never fixed at the right height?). Do you know when you want to use an interactive whiteboard? Can you fit this into a small period every week? The research suggests that such principles of ICT management can lead to teachers not using the equipment and so becoming less confident.
In the past, the technology was seen as the problem and not the solution.
Just when the tide was turning, our research indicates that computer labs can distance teachers from the technology rather than giving them more access. Another sign is that fewer desktops are being purchased in primary and secondary, but the laptop market has grown enormously. More interactive devices and peripherals such as data-loggers and digital video cameras are also being bought rather than replacements for large computers in a separate room.
Wireless technology at last seems to be taking off as well. In 2002 only 8 per cent of primaries had wireless networks, now 24 per cent have them and more than 50 per cent said they intended to purchase them. Almost half of secondaries have a wireless network. Use of such technology offers more possibilities to the classroom teacher - it's immediate, it's technology on the move, technology that motivates and enables creativity - not just about teaching ICT. Where do computer labs figure in this scenario?
Ray Barker is the director of the British Educational Suppliers Association
* A summary of the research is at www.besa.org.uk