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?