IT Forum Perspectives

Are computer labs going the same route as classrooms?

by Kevin Danchisko

An IT Forum member recently asked us about our thoughts on the state of computer labs as he determines what computing resources to include in a new building.

After reflecting on the question, we came up with a list of considerations to keep in mind when rethinking your institution’s approach to computer labs.

1. Many students use computer labs more for the software than the hardware.

ECAR’s 2014 Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology found that 90% of students own a laptop, 86% of students own a smartphone, and 47% of students own a tablet. ECAR stopped tracking ownership of desktops in 2014, but their researchers estimate that approximately half of students own a desktop. So why are students using computer labs?

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Institutionally-owned hardware still provides certain benefits, like access to liscensed software, but as desktop virtualization becomes more common, this need will decrease as well. Many students also print from computer labs, but as institutions enable printing from personally-owned devices straight to institutional printers, fewer students will be printing from computer labs.

One of our members recently switched from an institution-wide three-year computer replacement model to a four-year model to fund virtualization of the university’s computer labs. While computer labs may not have outlived their usefulness yet, now is a good time to consider plans that allow for fund reallocation to prepare for the next wave of unplugged: bring-your-own-device to use-any-device.

2. Computer labs won’t completely disappear in the near future because there will be the rare student without a personally-owned computer. However, the number of computer labs should gradually decrease over time.

Access is a core tenant of higher education. As access to a computer has become a necessity for today’s student, institutions must continue to provide public computing resources for those students who require them.

According to the 2013 Campus Computing Survey, over 80% of university IT departments support public computing labs. Since students without personal devices represent a small minority of students (less than 10%), the quantity of computer labs should decrease accordingly. At many institutions, though, this is not the case.

One master’s university CIO with whom I spoke lamented the fact that the university had over 100 computer labs to serve only 5,000 students, when a few in select central locations (e.g., the library) would probably serve students just as well.

3. The line between computer lab and classroom will become blurred as computer lab design follows the evolution of classrooms into collaborative learning spaces.

Many institutions are incorporating active learning concepts into classroom design, focusing on active groups of students rather than passive, individual learners. These new classrooms may offer flexible furniture arrangements and monitors to which students may connect their own devices, like the Interactive Learning Space classrooms at Ball State University. This concept is quite a contrast from the traditional computer lab design of fixed rows of computers and chairs.

One CIO with whom I spoke hopes to transform the 66,000 square feet on campus currently dedicated to traditional computer labs into multi-functional teaching spaces. These spaces would have enhanced wireless accessibility and facilitate students using their own devices and collaborating with their peers. As computer labs and classrooms continual to evolve, eventually they will become the same spaces.

4. Institutions should analyze computer lab usage to make data-informed decisions about computing requirements.

I recently read an article about the IT team at Concordia College tracking students’ printer usage in an effort to identify potential savings opportunities. Institutions should do the same type of analysis around computer lab usage. CIOs with whom I’ve spoken believe that most campus members would vastly overestimate the percentage of time that computer labs are actually in use.

Getting rid of computer labs may be unpopular—faculty see them as attracting students, and students do sometimes use them—so CIOs will need data to back any ideas of replacing computer labs with other spaces. Bentley University’s IT staff has been able to track lab usage information through its redesigned computer lab—the “Sandbox”—which requires students to swipe into the room.

IT Forum Members, Learn More

Our study, Redefining the Academic Library, illustrates how progressive academic libraries are evolving in response to challenges brought on by the digital revolution and provides case studies and best practices in managing library space, staff, and resources. Access the study.

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