Awkward presentation problems growing more frequent . . .

Labs Aren't Classrooms

Conrad Weisert
December 16, 2010

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An upsetting surprise

I've had the experience several times of arriving to conduct a course in an unfamiliar location only to discover that the "classroom" is actually a computer laboratory, with a monitor screen and keyboard at each student's place. This happens even when I specifically request from the course sponsor a normal classroom or a conference room. They often believe that this is a good thing, and assume that I should really be pleased to have all that up-to-date equipment available to my students.

If I try to make the best of it, I find myself looking out at an audience of monitors, behind each of which is a student whose face I can't clearly see. Furthermore, I see only the backs of the monitors, so I have no easy way of knowing whether a particular student is following my visual aids, taking notes, checking E-mail, or playing a computer game.

Furthermore, the students don't feel as if they're participating in a group. They can't see one another clearly. Their view of the instructor and the screen and boards is partially blocked. They're tempted to retreat into their private computer environment and tune out the course.

Protesting

When I've protested and asked to be moved to a normal room, I've sometimes been assured that there aren't any! If this is a computer course, I'm advised by the local education coordinator, the students will surely need computers.

If I arrive early and am alone in the room, I turn off all the machines and, if cables are long enough, I set the monitors and keyboards on the floor under the tables. I got scolded after the fact by one U.S. Government installation, and at the next class I found the equipment secured by short cables with sturdy locks.

Trying to explain

Using a lab for a classroom is helpful, I explain, for introductory courses that drill the student on low-level technique, such as GUI navigation. This course, however, is about concepts. We need each student's undivided attention to the presentation and the discussion. They will work computer-based exercises outside of class.

Typical room requirement

The ideal kind of room for a concept-driven course depends on the number of students. Based on long experience my preferences are:

Number of students

Room set-up

  < 11Conference table
  12 - 20U-shaped tables with open center
  18 - 30Traditional classroom
  > 28Auditorium

Other rquirements for all courses are: