One of the sessions I attended today at Educause discussed whether there was a future for the IT ‘lab’ in universities. The session featured three institutions. One (Temple University in Philadelphia) had opted to invest in a central facility where there were the traditional computer rooms, flexible working space to allow students to work collaboratively, specialised facilities and catering outlets. The building has developed into the hub of the university with ever increasing numbers of students passing through its doors. This contrasted sharply with the experience at the University of Virginia. There the bulk of the IT labs had been ripped out and replaced with flexible learning space or had been converted into standard teaching space. The small computer room that remained was solely for the software that could not be virtualised for technical or licence reasons. The middle ground was represented by George Mason University where there are central IT facilities but there are no plans to expand them. Instead there will be increased investment in virtualisation to deliver services to students.
Three differing approaches but what were the reasons for the differences? Some lay behind the facts behind the headline stories. The University of Virginia has 100% computer ownership by its student body and of those students 95% own laptops. The university is entirely residential. So given the demographic base of their student body and their residential campus, it makes perfect sense to utilise the student brought IT as a resource. However, Virginia haven’t as yet closed down the departmental IT labs where perhaps subject specific software resides. So it is not a total close down of lab based IT facilities. Temple on the other hand is a city centre university. Students don’t want to carry their laptops with them (and not all have them) – they want a secure environment on site which offers them all the facilities they want. And the Tech Club offers them the facilities they want – students are engaged in determining what facilities are available and what they want are more student focused computing space. In between is George Mason – multi-campus and students with a range of demographic backgrounds. Their investment in further virtualisation is tempered with the knowledge that not all of their students will have access to high bandwidth broadband to accommodate delivery of virtualised services.
I took the opportunity to visit two universities in New York before heading to Educause. Both still have central IT labs. Columbia is largely campus based but not 100% – so there is a requirement still for central IT so students don’t have to bring their laptops onto the campus (open wireless access may allow students in Columbia accommodation off-site to access central resources or to print locally – unfortunately I didn’t establish whether that was the case). It was clear from my visit to New York University that students there do not bring their laptops on site. There were well utilised central IT facilities, including specialist equipment such as video editing suites and group working facilities. But there was also a well utilised laptop loan scheme within the main learning resource.
So is the traditional central IT computing lab dead? It may be possible to largely dismantle central facilities in campus based universities that are wholly residential but there are no such institutions in the UK. Facilities like the Information Commons at the University of Sheffield are, like the Tech Club at Temple, very well patronised by students. Laptop loan schemes are increasingly common and allow students to work collaboratively or individually, and to access centrally provided resources. There has been heavy investment in ensuring that much of the estate can be used flexibly – both in providing movable furniture in central facilities and in providing pervasive wireless networking to enable any area in the campus to be converted into working space, be it group or individual. There has been some progress towards a virtual desktop but the issues highlighted in all three presentations of licensing and scalability remain barriers to widespread adoption.
So the IT lab isn’t dead yet and it won’t be until students are comfortable bringing devices that they can use for their study to and from the campus, until all software that they use can be made available in a virtualised environment and until those devices are light enough to carry and have sufficient battery life to get through a full day of study. It may be possible to largely eliminate the central IT lab in campus based institutions where there is close to 100% ownership of laptops (and credit to those institutions that can manage it) but there are few institutions worldwide that fit into that category. Most have a significant body of students that live off campus, who may not have ready access to high speed broadband. For them, some central provision is, and will continue to be, essential.