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Computer Laboratory Considerations

Problems and Solutions

November 29, 1996
Greg Vogl
Ponhofi Senior Secondary School

There are many obstacles to the success of the proposed computer laboratory. If it is to be successful, the following issues must be dealt with. Some must be considered when designing the laboratory; others will become important after it is built and equipped.

Natural Damage

Fire and Smoke
A fire could completely destroy computers. Electrical shorts are a common cause of fires, and the computers will use a large amount of electricity. Even the smoke from a small fire could cover the insides of a computer with dust and ruin the electronics. The wiring of the building should include safety features.
An electrical surge caused by lightning could destroy the electronics in a computer and monitor. Even ordinary power surges, dips and failures could affect the electronics and hard disk data over time. It is strongly recommended that all computers be powered by UPS units, or at least surge protectors.
Water can cause electrical shorts in computers and destroy the electronics. Spilling a drink on the keyboard can easily ruin the keyboard or make the keys stick. If the windows are left open, a rain storm could ruin several computers. Food and drink should not be allowed in the lab. Windows should be left open only after the floor has been washed to let it dry.
The heat of a hot summer day could destroy computer electronics, especially if a fan to cool the CPU or power supply suddenly failed. Humidity can also damage computer electronics, and even in Namibia it can get humid on some rainy summer days. Air conditioners help to reduce heat and dehumidify.
Dust can clog the fan and power supply and cause overheating of circuit components. The room should be kept clean, and the insides of the computers should be cleaned of dust once per month with compressed air. The door and windows should not be left open, especially on windy or rainy days. Students should remove dust from their shoes before entering.

Human Damage

Crime is on the increase in Namibia. Also, the school is only about 10 km from Angola, a very poor country emerging from years of war. If the lab becomes known, it could tempt some thieves. Some theft, like the removal of expensive memory chips from inside the computer, is very difficult to notice because they are small and the computer may still run. The most likely theft is of small, portable items such as CD's, diskettes, mice, mouse pads, keyboards, speakers, paper, books and magazines.
Security and supervision are essential. All items should be marked with a black marker as Ponhofi property. A list of serial numbers of all equipment should be made. Portable valuables including paper should be kept in a locked closet or cupboard. Money collected for printing and computer disks should be stored in a locked cashbox. The key should be kept in a safe place. Computer manuals, books and magazines should be treated like reserve materials in a library.
Wear and Tear
Students do not know what will damage a computer and what will not. Ignorance is more likely to damage hardware than software. They need to be taught immediately by their computer teacher what they should and should not do. The administrator should teach all teachers and supervisors that use the lab the rules and how to teach them to the students.
If the lab is left unsupervised, students could sabotage the computers. This can occur with software as well as hardware; students can change the default settings in many programs, including the operating system, by accident or as a joke.
Students might also delete or change crucial files. File management is a very time-consuming job, and it can be made worse if someone intentionally creates, deletes, renames or moves files that should not be. The two preventative measures that must be taken are security restrictions (e.g. through the Windows 95 Registry Editor) and backups (e.g. with Windows 95 Backup and a Zip drive).
Software downloaded from the Internet often contains viruses that can destroy all information on the hard drive of affected computers. They are often spread by students bringing in disks of games that a they or a friend downloaded.


The project budget should include all the costs associated with repairs (transport, hardware, labor, time, etc.).
Qualified Administrator
Someone with some computer experience should be around to handle minor hardware and software problems with the use of the computer manuals. Telephone calls to the vendor should be kept to a minimum. It is much easier to solve the problem on-site than over the phone, and the administrator should not assume that the vendor support is reliable. A little knowledge could save many trips to Windhoek. Someone knowledgeable needs to set up and configure the network, file system and applications and do regular preventive maintenance like backups and restores, scandisk, defrag, deletion of temporary files, etc..
Transport of Equipment
Someone with a car should be able to take a computer to Windhoek for repairs. The equipment would ideally be purchased from a company with repair facilities in the north of the country, but currently Windhoek is the only place in Namibia that has reliable repair facilities.
It might take a long time to have the equipment taken to the repair shop, repaired and returned. This could interrupt classes if it involved many computers or the instructor's computer.

Teaching Problems

Qualification of Teacher
To teach computer studies, the teacher should have had several computer courses (ideally a computer or computer-related degree). To teach computer literacy, experience is more important than formal classes.
Qualification of Students
Computer Studies students should be among the best students overall in the school. Computer Studies and even Computer Literacy involves learning a large number of computer terms. All of the on-line help is in English. The students should be good in English. Computer Studies involves some basic mathematics, especially for computer programming.
Teaching Materials
The school needs to have enough good textbooks, teacher resource books, and lesson plan ideas. They are difficult to find in Namibia and may require going to South Africa.
Student diskettes should be stored in covered plastic boxes that each can hold the disks of one class. They should be handed out only when needed and returned before the students leave. The disks should be numbered with a black marker or large computer-printed sticky labels from 000 to 999. A spreadsheet list of student names and disk numbers should be kept in a secure file. Students should be charged N$ 5 for lost or damaged disks.
Electrical Outages
An electrical outage could ruin a lesson plan. Alternative non-computer lessons should be ready for this possibility.

Administrative Problems

Computer Game Playing
If students are allowed to play computer games whenever they want, it will completely disrupt classes and individual work time, and will replace learning with entertainment. Game-playing quickly wears out keyboards and mice (and supervisors) and prevents others from working, so it should be restricted to fixed times in the weekly schedule. Asking students not to play games is not enough; the games must be made inacessible to the students. This might require a gaming account with a password that the administrator can change on all machines at once. If the problem is large enough, it may be necessary, though unpopular, to delete all non-educational games from the computers.
Overuse of Resources
Students might want to print a large amount of information for personal, non-school use, so they must be charged a fixed amount per page (50 cents or N$ 1) for non-required printing. They also might use too much hard disk space and should be restricted to 10 MB on the hard disk of the computer assigned to them, or 5 MB on the file server. If they want more than one floppy disk (or if the one assigned to them becomes damaged and needs replacement), they will have to buy a new one (for N$ 5 or 6).
Internet Abuse
Giving students access to the Internet could present a few different problems. For example, some might download large files, send a large amount of electronic mail, or spend a long time with chat programs or interactive games, which could become costly if resources are charged according to usage time or download file size. Others might access pornographic or other potentially controversial information or broadcast offensive messages over the Internet.
Security and Hacking
Some computer users, if not properly monitored, might gain access to private computer files, such as their grades and school records, future test papers, letters written by teachers and other students, etc. Also see vandalism above. It is better to be too secure than not secure enough. Users should not be able to run arbitrary programs without logging on to a special account. Students can be denied access to some of the features of the computer, such as the Windows 95 Explorer, My Computer, DOS prompt, the Settings, Find and Run options of the Start menu, using the Registry Editor and Passwords Control Panel.
Outsiders and Non-Class Periods
All people using the computers during non-class periods, including Ponhofi students, must sign a sheet with their name and class or organisation. People who are not currently Ponhofi students or staff might want to use the lab. This should normally be permitted, but they must agree to the same rules and conditions as the Ponhofi users. As they are not under the control of the school disciplinary committee, they must also present suitable identification, agree to additional conditions such as financial liability (paying for the repair or replacement of damaged equipment), and sign a sheet with their name and ID number. All computers and tables should be numbered with black marker so that if there is a problem with a computer, the most recent user can be identified.