Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Bring Your Own Device

Ever notice how computer labs are always full right before term papers are due?

There’s a reason for that.  But it’s frustrating both for students and for colleges.  It’s frustrating for students because sometimes they can’t get the time they need on a computer to do a good job writing and rewriting a paper.  (As every former or current composition instructor can tell you, writing is rewriting.)  Even if they do, the environment isn’t always conducive to concentration.  And heaven help you if you walk away from the terminal for very long.  

A student waiting for a terminal might well wonder why the college doesn’t just offer more.  But open access labs big enough to handle peak demand would be underused most of the time.  And they’re expensive.  Not only do you have to pay for the hardware, software, and electricity, but you have the cost of people monitoring the labs, the cost of reasonably savvy IT people at the (relative) ready for the inevitable breakdowns, and you have the substantial opportunity cost of space going underused most of the time.  Institutionally, general-purpose computer labs are almost nobody’s first choice for how to use scarce space.  (Dedicated-purpose labs, such as Mac labs for graphic design classes, are a different issue.)

For many years, there wasn’t really an alternative.  Computers were expensive, bulky, and fussy, and asking students to cart them around wouldn’t have made sense.  I’ve never heard of typewriter labs, but for a while, that’s effectively what many computer labs were.  I remember well the Pepto-pink computer building at Williams, where I wrote papers by inserting a 5 ¼” floppy into one drive to load WordPerfect, and another in the other drive to save my paper.  I thought it miraculous that I could insert a new paragraph on page two without having to retype pages three and beyond.  Which is to say, yes, I’m old.

The computer lab model hasn’t really changed since the Reagan administration.  The computers may be more sophisticated now, but the basic layout and logic are the same.  

But now we have portable devices with wireless internet.  We have wireless printers.  We have wifi on campus, and elsewhere.   Chromebooks with real keyboards can be had for two or three hundred dollars.  

I’m wondering if it’s time to move from the room full of desktops to bring-your-own-device, at least for general-purpose paper writing.  (Again, dedicated labs for high-end uses, like video editing, are a separate issue.)  Assuming we could get the wifi backbone to a consistent level of performance, and we could come up with a reasonably elegant way to address printing, it strikes me as a far more student-friendly and institution-friendly way to go.

Students could use their cheap laptops (or equivalent) both to consume OER materials and to write and research papers.  Since they’d have their own devices, they’d have access to them whenever and wherever they need access; they wouldn’t have to camp outside a computer lab waiting for an open seat.  They could take writing breaks to gain fresh perspective before returning to a draft that doesn’t quite work.  

Cost is an issue, but it’s much less of one than it used to be.  If each student rented a chromebook for a semester and used it to access OER, they’d come out ahead financially compared to buying books, and they’d have portable writing and research machines at their disposal.  And the campus IT department would be liberated from trying to maintain all those labs.  Printers would still be an issue, but that’s a much more manageable scale.

Of course, it’s never that easy.  Off the top of my head, I wonder about part-time students, network security, and inevitable requests of IT for repairs anyway.  But the security issue strikes me as already up for grabs -- students have phones with wifi now -- and the IT requests would likely be fewer than we already have.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a campus move away from labs and go with bring-your-own-device?  If so, did you (or it) learn some hard-won lessons you’d be willing to share?  

Law schools routinely require a computer purchase for 1Ls, with tech support... But that's a different student body, and it contributes to high student debt.

If a laptop could be had for the price of a semester's worth of books, And those books would be free online,MIT would work well. I suspect a clever use of student technology fees could significantly subsidize computer purchases... Perhaps a student could be eligible to buy one every so many credits?

Many studies have shown hybrid courses are the best way to learn.. So, partially online courses.. so, if every student had a computer, the school could move toward hybrid courses as the default delivery.. Keeping completely face to face courses only where necessary for other reasons (Art studio courses, for example..).

I have not seen that transition, but requiring students to bring a particular computer to college (with a promise that the freshman-year specs will remain acceptable for 4 years) is not a new idea. Decade ago? But not at a CC.

I will comment on your concern whether "we could get the wifi backbone to a consistent level of performance". How well do you filter different parts of the network? Ours was not planned with any vision that streaming movies to phones over the student access to WiFi or facutly offices could overwhelm the professor streaming video to a classroom computer. How much moves around entirely inside, and how much is in the cloud in another state, and how much has little to do with school?

By the way, there is a bit of a gap between reading an OER text on your phone or tablet and writing a term paper on your phone or tablet! My own informal surveys show that most students have a computer at home, even if it is not networked because they are not gamers and have what they need via a phone. They sneaker net (flash drive) the paper to campus for revision and printing.
I was just in our undergraduate labs today. This is not a CC, it's a Software Engineering program, so it's not quite the same thing. But we have a bunch of desks where students use their own computers, a bunch of desks where students could use desktops (but usually don't), and some big screens which students can plug their computers into. (Helps for programming).

Our wifi infrastructure appears to work well enough for this.
What about a roll-out cart in the library where students could check-out a chromebook as a transition and way to test whether it's a plan that they'd get behind?

Alleviates the 'peak demand' issue for the computer lad...
And the campus IT department would be liberated from trying to maintain all those labs.

Eh, but that fleet of semi-official chromebooks (or whatever) doesn't maintain itself. Someone has to be there for the students when there are issues, and to re-image the machines when they come back. And if it's truly BYOD, where there can be a wide range of different devices, support requirements can easily go up, not down.

That's not to say the other advantages don't win, but a set of fairly homogeneous, IT-controlled lab machines is *way* easier to deal with through automation than a bunch of laptops not entirely in ITs control.
I forgot to mention that one alternative to the use of desktops is to go to a server-client system where the client at the workstation is little more than a screen and a keyboard. Studies show that (apart from streaming movies) students are either on Facebook or using Word or ppt or using a browser to access a homework system or an OER. None of these require much cpu power. We plan to go that way as existing hardware ages out. (We would keep a small block of computers we already have for graphics and video work in our main study area and one other location.)

As noted above, we also have open tables where students use their laptops. Our only mistake was not having power at every table! Don't forget power if you move to a bring-your-own model!
" I’ve never heard of typewriter labs."

You're really not so old, DD. I brought my portable manual typewriter to college, but when it was time to finish the term paper I often used the "typewriter lab" in the school's 24-hour library in the wee hours of the morning. You could rent an electric typewriter for 25 cents an hour.
Our library used to have laptops to borrow. About two years ago, they got rid of them both because of the maintenance, and because the cost had dropped enough that most students could afford them. (We're a public R1, but with over 60% Pell eligible, first gen, etc). We still have computer labs, and my sense is the library printers get a lot of use when papers are due.
Security for BYOD is hard if you need people to have access to internal resources/servers. It's pretty straightforward if they just need Internet access.
Big companies frequently upgrade and replace laptops that would be perfectly adequate for most college student uses. In Schenectady, there are retired GE engineers (in the ElFun Society = "electric fun") who refurbish those laptops. The SCCC TRIO program gives these refurbished laptops to students for whom purchasing a computer would be a hardship. Students seem very happy and satisfied with this arrangement.
Our [wifi backbone] was not planned with any vision that streaming movies to phones over the student access to WiFi or facutly offices could overwhelm the professor streaming video to a classroom computer.


I no longer rely on our wifi and internet access, as in addition to being unreliable it also gets incredibly …s…l…o…w… when lots of students are watching videos. Which is a lot of the time — the library computers are used more for watching videos than they are for work, and even when they are working many students stream a music video (on youtube) in the background so they have music over their earphones.

Also, have you thought of power? Adding extra plugs is expensive; dealing with injuries from people tripping over extension cords can also be costly.
Even I'm old enough to remember when my school had a pool of typewriters for students to borrow for their college apps.

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