Wednesday, July 22, 2015


The Dreaded Computer Lab

(I should clarify: “dreaded” modifies “lab,” not “computer.”  Although they aren’t mutually exclusive…)

Like any good future-oriented sort with a nerdy streak, I harbor a host of techno-fantasies about the future.  They have varying degrees of plausibility, to the extent that it’s possible to estimate these things.  (Tricorders?  Check.  Beaming up?  Not so much…)  But this one seems plausible enough, given technology that already exists.

Imagine: a campus with good enough wifi, and a sophisticated enough printing system, that students could borrow or bring chromebooks or something similarly simple and cheap, and work on papers or assignments wherever they happen to be.  We wouldn’t need to dedicate nearly as much square footage to general-purpose computer labs.  Students wouldn’t have to fight for spaces in labs, or try to concentrate on a paper while surrounded by other students clackety-clacking away under fluorescent light.

We could still have specialized labs in areas where that makes sense: graphic design, say, or CIS.  And we’d still need a few open-access labs for folks with miscellaneous circumstances.  But homework would be infinitely easier if students could work on it wherever, whenever.

Even better, ubiquitous access would enable ‘flipped’ classrooms, hybrid delivery, and all sorts of improved access for students with disabilities.  

In a comment to yesterday’s post, an astute reader noted that many students who currently lack access to a laptop try to do homework on their phones.  Leaving aside the issue of typing -- the typical phone keyboard is not a friendly environment for a six-foot-two adult male -- many sites and formats don’t adapt well to mobile.  Tablets are less bad, but the issue of a keyboard remains.  With a cheap laptop, though -- or even a tablet-and-keyboard combo that doesn’t suck -- a student should be able to do most of what would realistically be assigned.  

General-purpose computer labs have their charms, but at this point, they seem like monuments to the 1990’s.  They’re often impersonal, cluttered, and dreary.  From an institutional perspective, they’re expensive and high-maintenance.  They’re the current version of ditto machines.  

Has anyone out there seen a large-scale chromebook or laptop rental program work on a commuter campus?  Is there a trick to it?  Is there an obstacle I’m not seeing?

My comment about taking a distance learning class on your phone was actually about broadband access (in some rural areas, a phone or a phone hot spot is your best bet) -- but point taken. My students can do their homework on a smart phone, but they can't write their lab reports on one.

I think your biggest problem is lack of information. What do they own, and how do they connect those device(s) to the internet? I'm no longer surprised by how many have computers (laptop or desktop) purely for gaming, using a network supplied by their apartment complex as part of the rent, and use it only secondarily for writing. And they might edit a document in the cloud using a differnt device.

Also, FYI, our computer lab is now predominantly study areas with tutors. IIRC, we are actively looking at a server-client approach where the computer lab or similar areas (including faculty offices and classrooms) will not contain a "computer", just the device that runs the screen and software that interfaces to one. To feed off of your nostalgia, this goes back to the (expensive) smart terminals, (cheap) dumb terminals, and, before that, the teletypes! common in days of yore.
At an R1 state university (so slightly wealthier students than community college, but not by much), just about all students have laptops adequate for writing papers, and routinely carry them about and work on them. Wireless is ubiquitous on campus (at least indoors—outdoor connections are a bit spotty), and students have come to count on it. There are still computer labs, and they are well used, but these tend to be places for specialized software (for doing 3D modeling or engineering CAD) that is too expensive for students to buy themselves. The computer labs are also frequently used for group instruction, to make sure that everyone is using the same machines with the same software installed, so that instructors don't have to debug weird idiosyncratic setups while trying to teach a class.
Just remember that a good table, a good chair, and control over light and temperature still make it easier to work effectively. A campus is (among other things) office space for the students, and that requires a certain amount of dedicated space and equipment even if students bring their own computers. Budgets being what they are, that space will probably be open and cheaply furnished.
Until 2 or 3 years ago, our library had laptops to check out. They were well used. They phased it out because of cost and maintenance issues. Our library printers get tons of use: students may have laptops, but not printers.
At our school, a couple departments are starting to agitate for dual monitors on the computers. With the rise of e-textbooks, they're finding student difficulties are increasing as they lose the ability to simultaneously switch from book to app. Note that this is primarily in the programming and CAD areas, where step 1 tends to be a variant on "recreate (or retype) this".

For these groups, much as I hate to admit it, personal devices might be less then ideal.

For those with tablets or even just phones, I'd like to see a Bluetooth receiver attached to a small USB hub suitable for connecting a keyboard, mouse, and charging cable (if it could support video as well, even better - but I'm sure there are some significant performance issues to overcome even if the standards don't need to be developed). This way the student could sit down, use their own device (instead of ours), and still have decently-sized accessories.
I know that my former institution, Indiana University Northwest, has moved strongly in that direction, although I don't know where that process is now. You might get in touch with Carol Wood (, who is one of our tech honchos, or Tim Sutherland (, the director of the library, where a lot of study spaces have been reconfigured for wifi access. (Feel free to let them know I suggested that you contact them.)
Most spaces around campus have way too few electrical outlets for the explosion of laptops that's happening, and sometimes the outlets are far from the tables. Fix that, and the printing thing, and you're already almost halfway home.
Toughbooks might make the maintenance issues easier, or just having enough netbooks/Chromebooks that your IT staff can do swaps quickly and easily. Yes, this sounds like a problem that could be solved with a reasonable quantity of money.

In general to read and edit what you wrote a large screen or two or even three is much better.
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