EdTech

The Demise of Computer Labs in Schools – What Comes Next?

Mobile devices like Chromebooks and iPads are coming to change the way schools connect their students to new technologies. Out with stationary computers, in with mobile devices!

Academic institutions have showcased their computer labs for decades as a critical resource to help students with their education and learning. We are talking about two whole generations of students that learned to use computers in these dedicated and dynamic work-spaces. The present, however, is shifting. Desktops are out, Chromebooks, iPads, and laptops are in.

The History Behind School Computer Labs

Computer labs provided access to technology that the regular student couldn’t afford and sometimes couldn’t access at home.  What’s more, if you look at these labs’ past, you can see directly into the evolution of computers. It all started with donated Apple I computers back in the 70s, to DOS-based machines and Apple II’s reign during the 80s, and the Windows-dominated 90s.

Students in the 1980s at a computer class
The 1980s version of a computer lab, with much smaller devices

In the early days, the lab simply offered access to computers, scanners, and printers for completing projects and learning basic coding skills. The labs featured scanners and graphic design software, as well as a gateway to the powerful research resource the World Wide Web meant.

Students gained great experience with new technologies and interactive materials. These not only prepared them for technical careers but also for the digital future that we’re living in.  Moreover, these computer labs became a social gathering place where students gathered to complete assignments and it quickly became a cultural element of many universities.

The Rise of Mobile Devices in Schools

Today, however, we’re reaching the end of the computer lab era. This is in part due to the rise of mobile devices, and their affordability. Students carry more computing power in their pockets and wrists than any computer lab back in the 80s combined! What’s more, these devices are becoming cheap, and extremely personalized.

Students using tablet at school
Most students own tablets at home and easily interact with them.

As a result, the computer lab has given way to the BYOD (bring your own device) trend and the inclusion of non-stationary computers at schools. Universities expect every student to have a laptop today, and many high schools are giving devices to newcomers. Even elementary schools now have tablets as a standard teaching tool in their classrooms.


Schools are planning to invest more money in tech education in the years to come, as technology has become a key player worldwide. A recent report from Promethean states that in the US, “the number of senior leaders who say they will spend most of their school’s budget on tech has more than tripled in the last year, from 3.9% in 2018/19 to 15.5% in 2019/20—putting tech as the fourth-highest spending priority.”

Enter Virtual Labs and Laptop Lockers

Nowadays, more advanced ways of including devices are appearing, some universities are even creating virtual labs, where users can install software from the lab server onto their own laptops, or log into virtual machines that provide all tools the class might need, on the student’s laptop.

In the case of schools with computer labs, the mobile alternatives are laptop lockers and mobile computing carts. These provide laptops tailored to each classroom’s needs. Students simply pick up a device when class starts, and log into their personalized cloud access.

The social scene has shifted out of the computer lab and into the Internet Café, with wireless and cellular access everywhere. Students are no longer bound to a location, but can do their work anywhere they wish.

One to One (1:1) Computing

While some schools have enough students with devices to employ a BYOD rule, many schools still have students with no access to devices at home. Enter 1:1 computing.

One to one computing (or one device per student) is gaining traction around the globe. This has caused both approval and concern, as both teachers and parents navigate the technological world in which their children live. 

Concerns with 1:1 Computing

Some schools consider it a disadvantage to not be able to afford one to one computing and are concerned that their students won’t have the same level of education as wealthier schools. In multiple states in the USA, schools are even going into debt to pay for individual student devices. Some leaders in education argue that a 1:1 policy could further separate wealthier schools from low-income areas.

Parents also have concerns with individual device policies. It is difficult for schools to successfully monitor the student’s devices, and requires targeted internet protection safeguards to keep students on track and away from harmful material. 

However, even will all of the valid concerns, 1:1 policies are being adopted globally. With opportunities for increased technological learning, students can learn advanced subjects (coding for example) from a very young age. One to one computing also allows for teachers to personalize lesson plans and homework assignments for each student. 

The Road Ahead

Universities and schools must adapt to this new era, packed with personal devices and shifting challenges. Most schools no longer have lab assistants who keep software updated. The best method for keeping tech up-to-date is to teach each student to do this by themselves on their devices. Students are learning faster than we think. They have access to guides, walk-through videos, and online classes.

If your school has access to one on one devices, teach students lessons on how to manage their device, instead of letting their devices manage them. Provide feedback from health professionals on ways to have a healthy relationship with their devices, and how to put them away for some screen-free time.

Class tools went online, homework now lives in the cloud. As a result, administration challenges are shifting to things like authentication management, access control, and mobile device management. IT teams now need to adapt to these issues and focus on delivering better experiences, without compromising their or their student’s data, or the device’s security.

Nicolas Poggi

Nicolas Poggi is the head of mobile research at Prey, Inc., provider of the open source Prey Anti-Theft software protecting eight million mobile devices. Nic’s work explores technology innovations within the mobile marketplace, and their impact upon security. Nic also serves as Prey’s communications manager, overseeing the company’s brand and content creation. Nic is a technology and contemporary culture journalist and author, and before joining Prey held positions as head of indie coverage at TheGameFanatics, and as FM radio host and interviewer at IndieAir.