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?