High-Tech Comfort

Feb. 1, 2001
The influx of computers into classrooms means schools need to pay more attention to ergonomic furnishings.

A decade ago, the idea was little more than a pipe dream. Computers in every classroom? Schools could barely afford essential equipment and supplies, let alone these expensive machines with an unproven track record in education.

But in the blur of progress that was the 1990s, technology became cheaper, more powerful and more innovative. Educators began to view computers not as a high-priced experiment, but as a vital tool for educating students.

By the turn of the 21st century, computers have become as commonplace in a school building as a chalkboard or bookshelf.

But to use all those computers, students have to have something to sit in while they’re clicking away at the keyboard. The furniture a school chooses to accommodate its computers can be pivotal to successfully integrating technology into a school.

“Simply putting technology in without the appropriate support furniture is going to cause more problems than it solves,” says Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Unexpected consequences

At many schools, administrators are still getting used to having access to computers and the potential it offers students. They haven’t focused on issues such as ergonomics.

“They’re in the first phase of ‘Wow, great, we’ve got this technology, what can we do with it,’ ” says Hedge. “Soon, they’ll be in the second phase of seeing the problems it can create.”

Hedge outlines many of the potential problems at Cornell’s ergonomics website, http://ergo.human.cornell.edu.

Inger Williams, an ergonomics consultant who helped the Oregon Public Education Network set up a website on computer ergonomics for elementary schools (www.open.k12.or.us/cergos), says schools that pay attention to ergonomics can avoid some of the problems businesses had when personal computers became prevalent.

“In the ’70s and ’80s. businesses didn’t think much about where to put computers,” says Williams. “They were put up on typewriter tables, or places that were too narrow or too low.”

Providing comfortable, appropriate seating for students and staff using computers is not just a matter of enhancing the learning environment. Having the wrong kind of furniture or using furniture incorrectly can cause serious health problems.

Health risks

Poor posture when typing on a keyboard can lead to pain or other trouble in the back, neck and shoulders, hands and wrists, and eyes, says Hedge. Health problems most commonly linked to computer keyboard use are cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), sometimes known as repetitive stress injuries. The best known of these disorders is carpal tunnel syndrome. Keyboard users who type with their hands and wrists in the wrong positions often develop pain and numbness in their hands.

The occurrence of these types of injuries has climbed steadily since personal computers became ubiquitous in the workplace. Hedge warns that as student use of computers accelerates, schools may begin to see more incidences of CTDs.

The best way to prevent these problems is to have furniture that allows students to sit properly, to have the computer lined up correctly, and to have the keyboard and mouse within comfortable reach.

“Ergonomics has become a buzzword in business, but not yet in schools,” says Williams. “Most schools are not aware of these issues. We have a long way to go to educate schools.”

What works

The kinds of furniture that works best ergonomically for computer use are those that enable students to have their feet on the floor, knees bent at a right angle. The keyboards should be at elbow height with the elbows bent at a right angle, so that the hands are straight and relaxed. The mouse should be close to the user so it isn’t hard to reach, and the monitor should be at eye level.

“Most schools have monitors that are way too high,” says Hedge. “It sits on a pedestal that sits on top of the computer, and students have their necks tilted back.”

Because school computers typically have to accommodate students of many sizes during the day, flexibility in furnishing is vital.

“You should start with a really good chair that is comfortable and can accommodate a wide range of sizes,” says Hedge. “Separate desks and chairs give you more flexibility because you have two things you can adjust.”

The types of furniture that satisfy students’ ergonomic needs are as varied as students themselves. And many products that may accommodate adult needs may not work well for students. An administrator can’t just flip open a catalog, order one kind of chair or desk and solve a school’s ergonomic issues.

“There isn’t a single, easy solution out there,” says Hedge.

Even if they wanted to, schools usually don’t have the money to buy new equipment, so they often rely on what they already have—tables, desks and chairs that might not be ideal for computer use.

“Schools might think it is very expensive to solve these problems, but it doesn’t have to be if they know what to look for,” says Williams.

As part of her work with Oregon schools, Williams worked with students to help them devise ergonomic solutions. For chairs that were too low, students found old books to boost them so their eyes were aligned with the monitor. If the chairs were too high, those same phone books or even an unused three-ring binder could be used at footrests so that students’ legs were not left dangling. To get the appropriate lower back support, students used pillows or foam cushions.

“The kids figured out ways to make it work,” says Williams.

SIDEBAR: The lap of luxury?

Laptop computers have become popular for many reasons—they’re smaller, lighter and more portable than their desktop counterparts. Many colleges are mandating that students have laptops.

But in terms of user comfort, the compact size is a drawback.

“Ergonomically, they aren’t great,” says Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University. “Laptops inherently violate one of the rules of ergonomics.”

Because the keyboard is attached to the monitor, it is virtually impossible to position both correctly at the same time. This difficulty is one of the reasons a separate keyboard became part of the standard design for desktop computers.

The ergonomic deficiencies of laptops were not considered major when laptops were being used primarily as secondary machines used when people were away from their desktops. But as laptops have supplanted desktop units in more offices and on college campuses, laptop users have had higher incidences of musculoskeletal injuries, says Hedge.

Hedge says those who use laptops extensively should consider getting an external keyboard so that users can arrange the keyboard and monitor appropriately. Some laptops come with a docking station so they can be used as a more traditional desktop machine when portability is not needed.

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