Friday, March 27, 2009

Computer labs in a ubiquitous computing world

Ars Technica has an article up called, When every student has a laptop, why run computer labs?

It's a good question. But before I go into it, I should mention something. What I do for WWU doesn't have a lot to do with our labs. The biggest interaction I have with them is for printing and maybe some Zen or GPO policies. I also know some of the people who support them, and I sit in meetings where other people gripe about them. So I'm speaking as someone who works around people who deals with them, not as someone who deals with them or has any decision making power.

Why run computer labs?

In the beginning it was to provide computers to students who didn't have one.
Then, it was to provide on-campus computers to students who didn't have a laptop.

Now that almost every student has a computer, and most of those laptops, it makes a less sense. Centralized printers where they can print off assignments from their own hardware? Yes. 60 seat general computing labs? Um.

The point is made in the Ars Technica article that specialized software that students generally wouldn't have, such as SPSS or the full Adobe Acrobat suite, are a good reason to have them. This is true. We have not only the general computing labs run by ATUS, but we also have special purpose labs run by ATUS and the various colleges. We now have a lab that has a large format printer, something I guarantee no student has in their dorm or apartment, and a flat-bed scanner. One non-ATUS lab has VMWare Workstation installed on all the workstations. Some of the general computing labs are actual classrooms some of the time.

In our specific case, we have one software package in universal use that greatly encourages the existence of the general computing lab.

The Novell Client.

In order to get drive-map access to the NetWare cluster, you need that. This is not a package you want to inflict on a home machine without the victim knowing what they're in for. So we need to provide computers with the client installed so students can get at their files simply. WebDav through NetStorage goes some of the way, but it can be tricky to set up.

If we were a pure Windows network, it wouldn't be so bad. Both OSX and all the major Linuxes come with Samba pre-installed, which eases access to Windows networks. Printing isn't quite as convenient, but at least you can get at your files easy enough once you're inside the firewall.

In the end, except for our NCP dependencies, we could possibly close some of our GC labs to save money. However, we do track lab utilization, and those numbers may tell a different story. I know some students don't bother hauling their laptop to campus so long as they can use a lab machine for a quick social-networking fix. If we start closing labs those students will start hauling their gear to campus and we can save money. I still think we need to provide general access printers at various spots, which is something that Novell iPrint is rather good for. We also need to provide access to the special software packages that are needed for teaching, things like SPSS and MatLab.

The role of the computer lab has changed now that all but a few students have laptops. We still need them for specialized teaching functions, but general access to computing is no longer a primary function. The convenience factor of simple internet access drives some usage, and it may even be a majority. But the labs aren't going away any time soon. Their printers, even less so.

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