Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The End of the Computer Lab?

The Chronicle of Higher Education for December 11 has a front-page story entitled, "Computer Labs Get Rebooted as Lounges." The gist of the article is that a number of universities are "taking a hard look at those brightly lit rooms with row of networked computers, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to maintain." Some telling statistics were cited:

More than 11 percent of colleges and universities are either phasing out public computer labs or planning to do so, according to this year's survey of college technology leaders by the Campus Computing Project ... At colleges that have not pulled the plug on their labs, nearly 20 percent are reviewing the option.

In addition to saving universities money, doing away with computer labs reflects the fact that most students today have laptops and don't need access to public computers. Labs are being replaced with student gathering spaces that look more like lounges complete with

[M]odular furniture and plasma televisions; virtual labs that give remote laptops access to software; or bigger, better computer rooms with state-of-the-art machines and pleasing architecture that can act as de facto student centers. ... [N]early all officials interviewed said they planned to let students drink and eat while typing away--something that has long been forbidden in traditional computer rooms.

When we did a major renovation of the Pace Law Library three years ago, we wrestled with whether to include a computer lab. Ultimately, we built two--a training lab reserved for computer instruction and used by the library and other campus departments, and a computer lab with sixteen networked computers. In addition to the computers, the lab has a high-quality scanner, LexisNexis and Westlaw standalone printers, and two high-speed, high-volume laser printers. Most of our students have laptops, but this does not mean the lab is not used. On the contrary, there are times when every computer is in use. It is possible that students use the lab because we have not yet enabled printing from the wireless network; perhaps when that is in place, students will not need to use the lab computers in order to print. I know other students use the lab because we offer software on those machines that they don't have on their laptops. Some students cite the convenience factor of running into the lab, checking their email quickly, and going on their way. Whatever the reason, our computer lab is extremely popular, and I can't imagine how we would do without it.


Harvey Morrell said...

Our computer labs are heavily used as well even though we do allow laptop users to print to our networked printers. It's weird to see many of the lab users using their laptops alongside the desktops in the labs.

Grace Mills said...

Hmm...that's an interesting idea...turning our small computer lab into a coffee bar area.

Richard Leiter said...

Our experience is the same as yours. We've concluded that we can't eliminate the labs altogether, but we'll probably eliminate one and use the other as a lounge/coffee shop area.

When I visited China last year, one library we visited had a very large computer lab which the called "the electronic reading room." I thought that was a very nice euphemism.