• September 4, 2015

Rebooted Computer Labs Offer Savings for Campuses and Ambiance for Students

New gathering places for laptop users help colleges save on upkeep

Rebooted Computer Labs Offer Savings for Campuses and Ambiance for Students 1

Tom Cogill for The Chronicle

A work space at the U. of Virginia's Clemons Library is among the new breed of what used to be thought of as computer labs. "Almost all our students have laptops," says a UVa official, "so traditional labs have become redundant."

No matter what the future holds for college computer labs, one thing is certain: There will be coffee. But computers? Maybe not.

Colleges are looking for ways to cut costs, and most students now own laptops that they can tote in their backpacks. As a result, many campus technology leaders are taking a hard look at those brightly lit rooms with rows of networked computers, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to maintain.

The idea of the computer lab has been dying for some time now, says Lev S. Gonick, chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University. "It used to be we would build entire buildings around labs, but that's all over now," he says.

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, released last month. At colleges that have not pulled the plug on their labs, nearly 20 percent are reviewing the option. This is the first year the Campus Computing Project has asked the question.

Institutions agree that computer labs, much like student centers and libraries before them, are due for an extreme makeover. That is why several technology officials contacted by The Chronicle believe in creating work spaces that hardly resemble the computer labs of the past.

These new spaces might be lounges filled with modular 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. Fortunately for young caffeine addicts, nearly 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.

Computer Ownership Way Up

The vast majority of students at four-year-colleges—83 percent—own laptops, according to Student Monitor, a market-research company. That's up from 36 percent in 2003. Meanwhile, nearly half of the institutions who participated in the Campus Computing Project reported IT budget cuts.

"It's amazing that labs haven't died out yet," says Kenneth C. Green founding director of the Campus Computing Project. "It would seem like an obvious area to save money, but schools keep insisting they are finding value."

The computer lab is an endangered species on some campuses, though. This year the University of Virginia announced a three-year plan to phase out all of its computer labs.

General computer rooms have already died out at Case Western Reserve, which hasn't had them in two years, according to Mr. Gonick. Wake Forest University shuttered its general computer labs 10 years ago in favor of a program that lends laptops to every undergraduate.

UVa says its IT department spends about $300,000 a year maintaining the 375 public computers that are on their way out.

"We created labs when we couldn't reasonably expect students to provide their own computers," says Michael R. McPherson, the university's deputy chief information officer. "Almost all our students have laptops, so traditional labs have become redundant."

In order to make sure students still have access to the expensive software that many courses require—like 3-D modeling tools and advanced statistical programs—UVa is among the growing number of institutions trying virtual computing labs. They are not physical places, but systems that let students use the software over the network, logging in from anywhere on their own laptops.

"This means that if a student wants, he can design a 3-D car while drinking a cup of coffee at Starbucks," says Mr. McPherson. (Evidently, IT officials don't mind if you spill a drink on a computer as long as it's your own.)

Mr. McPherson says he hopes that by the time officials close the last computer lab, they will have a campuswide virtual replacement in place.

Gathering Spaces

Even as the traditional computer lab becomes something of an anachronism, colleges realize its importance as a communal space, something that cannot be replaced by virtual options.

"Computer labs as we know them today may go away, but because students have a natural instinct to gather, to sit together, to play together, to compute together and communicate together, some form of lab will exist tomorrow," argues Martin Ringle, chief technology officer at Reed College. "But if you were to take a photograph of today's lab with its rows of computers under fluorescent lights and compare it with the labs 10 years down the road, you'd have very different pictures."

Mr. Ringle says he does not want to decrease spending on computer labs, just change how the money is spent.

For him the ideal lab will be filled not with computers, but with outlets, flat-screen televisions, and places to plug in handheld devices and to project multimedia. To make it an appealing place to spend time, there will be natural lighting, comfortable furniture, and maybe even a fireplace.

Oh, and java. "The labs of the future will have coffee carts and other things that allow for a more lounge-type environment."

Mr. Ringle says that Reed is not prepared to shelve its traditional labs just yet, but that officials want to be "poised to pounce when the timing is right."

"I think it will be three or four years until these start springing up all over the place," he says.

Pennsylvania State University and UVa have already started building the Lab 2.0. Both universities offer a number of lounge-style labs on their campuses, replete with modular furniture and 60-inch flat-screen televisions. And Penn State recently turned an old computer lab into a gaming center, where Xbox 360s, Wiis, and flat screens replaced more than a half-dozen Mac computers.

Going Big

Not everyone, however, is willing to give up on providing public computers. In fact, Temple University is among those in expansion mode. In 2006, Temple opened its enormous TECH Center. The center, built in an old Bell Atlantic operations building, houses 600 desktops, 100 laptops, and a coffee shop. Officials claim this is the biggest computer lab of its kind in the United States.

"The only complaint we have had is that it's not big enough," says Timothy C. O'Rourke, chief information officer at Temple. "We are definitely not going to scale back. If anything we will eventually expand."

Mr. O'Rourke says that even though it costs the university about $1-million a year to operate, the TECH Center is a solid investment in the happiness of students. In fact, he says, in a struggling economy the university has a responsibility to make sure students have the best computer access possible.

On paper, Temple's students have plenty of access without the university's help: 98.5 percent own computers, and 70 percent of those machines are laptops. But not all students own up-to-date or robust equipment, and not everyone feels comfortable carrying a computer everywhere, says Mr. O'Rourke.

"We are an urban public institution, with working-class parents, many of which are being laid off," he says. "Not only is the TECH Center our biggest selling point to get people to come here, it's also a great way to make Temple more affordable."


Some colleges are sticking with a traditional model but looking for ways to build more lab with less money.

For Jeffrey J. Cunningham, director of information services for the department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Maryland at College Park, that meant using low-cost virtual computers in a physical lab setting.

Last year Mr. Cunningham bought about 80 devices made by Pano Logic. On their own, these little cubes have no operating system, no memory, no processor. But when hooked up to a server over the Internet, they function like any other computer (just attach them to existing monitors and keyboards, get some new mice, and they're ready to go). It meant that instead of buying computers for $1,000 per unit, Mr. Cunningham could buy each Pano Device for around $350, while also giving students access to the service from their own computers.

The transition was also a boon in some unexpected ways.

"We used to have to blast the air conditioner in our computer labs because the machines did so much work and got so hot," Mr. Cunningham says. "But when we put these in, they used so little energy that all the students started complaining about how cold it was."

Looks like another reason to offer a hot drink.


1. kyleniemeyer - December 07, 2009 at 10:02 pm

The comment about Case Western Reserve not having computer labs in two years is completely incorrect - not only are there multiple labs open to all students that are thriving (and completely packed in the afternoon), most departments (at least in Engineering) have computer labs for students in department courses.

I'm not sure where you got your info, but it is not correct.

2. 22104894 - December 09, 2009 at 05:58 am

It's always annoying to see the perennial suggestion of cutting computer labs crop up -- as if cutting these facilities will reap some sort of "budgetary salvation." Promoters of this often present this with a bloodthirsty glee. Please. First, for those colleges and universities where actual "computer labs" are a rather minor part of the overall IT spend, cutting labs really doesn't reap any major gain. Besides, there are compelling reasons for computer labs. First, despite "universal computer ownership" most students don't feel like carrying even somewhat light weight laptops around with them -- and they still want access to local computers when on campus. Also, there is certain software that is higher priced and more readily available in university labs. Why buy it when it's available on campus? It is true as the author states, community does matter. But the space needs to still have computers -- any computers. Oddly enough, even our old, obsolete, broken-down clunker labs (which have an embarrassingly low operating budget) are still packed full every day -- by, we've learned, students who also have laptops but who prefer the campus convenience of local access to computers. And of course, many faculty prefer to teach in spaces which include both computers and desk space. For the latter to be workable, you have to be sure each student has the same computer, equipped with the same (sometimes expensive) software, accessing the same network, etc. You couldn't easily rely on each student bringing a computer to class each day, properly prepared, etc. Well, at least not on my campus.

Maybe other IT areas should be "cut" a bit... For example, when student systems (i.e., a migration / installation quote in our case) can run into the millions of dollars -- to say nothing of the millions required annually for maintenance, enhancements, technical staff, etc. -- it seems that the cost of some of those grand administrative systems are a far more compelling area for cuts than the comparatively miniscule computer lab...

3. bent8161 - December 09, 2009 at 08:06 am

kyleniemeyer: thanks for pointing that out. the sentence should have noted that what Case Western has not had for 2 years are general computer labs. This information comes from the chief information officer at the school, Lev Gonick. While he says that there have not been general computing labs for 2 years, there are a few specialized ones that remain. We have clarified this in the story. Thanks.
-Ben Terris

4. garay - December 09, 2009 at 08:35 am

Ubiquitous learning, collaborative learning and student engagement stand to benefit significantly, as the number of comfortable learning spaces proliferate on campus.

Our teaching and learning, these days, have evolved into a myriad of activities where students need to work together, collaborate, learn and explore together. While plenty of these student activities, critical thinking, and socializing takes place online, for the traditional on-campus students, for the blended learning students, nothing beats being able to get-together face2face at a library learning commons, at a nearby coffee lounge or somewhere on campus where they can talk, interact and comfortably use technology and go online to enrich their learning experience or complete their group project.

All students, I am convinced, will welcome a substantial increase of comfortable computing learning spaces, both for collaborative learning, but also for working alone or for taking a break, jumping on Facebook, YouTube, surfing. Perhaps, part of the reason why some of our students leave their laptops behind is because they really don't have a comfortable place to use them on campus. Note that comfortable computing, comfortable learning typically involves not just a comfy lounge chair, but also nice dimmed lighting, rooms with noise management, strong Wi-Fi and power outlets aplenty. For extra credit, include nice decor and a Starbucks-like coffee shop.

Don't be surprised either if these comfortable learning spaces that our campuses currently lack are used extensively for texting and learning on iPhones and smartphones alike. Laptops and big flat screens will always be welcome for extensive work, but most of today's digital naitive students opt to do the bulk of their communicating, brainstorming and discrete surfing on cell phones.

Traditional computer labs are still useful, but, unless we figure out how to make space out of thin air, I am afraid we need to start to seriously considering the pros and cons of converting some/most of our conventional labs into comfortable technology-friendly, mobile computing-friendly learning spaces.

I am surprised no school has gone up to Starbuck to propose they take over most of their labs. I guess, you can only have so much coffee. ;-)
--- Ed Garay, UIC

5. fleurin - December 09, 2009 at 09:40 am

That's what we thought 10 years ago. With %97 computer ownership by the students there was no need to expand the computer labs, right? Well our traditional computer labs are as packed as they used to be. Here are some observation as to why: 1- the computers in the labs are maintained, upgraded, updated, far better than messy, virus loaded, unprotected student computers - very similar to their dorm rooms; 2- high quality printing, educational software (not all software function on the virtual environment)are available in the labs; 3- computer labs can lighten the commuter students' backpack load and provide to access to those who don't have PC's; 4 -lounges may be good for social computing but not necessarily suitable for a quiet study and work environment

6. watsonk - December 09, 2009 at 10:06 am

Because of the nature of how we do orientation at Virginia Tech many of our colleges need comptuer lab space where we can advise groups of students and provide a computer where they can work on their schedule. Around January the most sought after classrooms for summer are the computer labs for orientation as our departments don't have computer labs we can use. New students who come to campus for orientation do not bring their laptops or may not even own them yet. They also don't have wireless internet access, something they get as they leave campus and is needed to use the scheduling system. Thus we have to have computer labs where we can present programs, advise, and then work with the students while they complete their schedules. Those of us who coordinate orientation for our colleges and departments are fearful that this trend will make it impossible to do group advising at orientation. We don't have the staff or faculty to advise individually with students so group adivsing is the easiest way to provide them all with access to advisors so that they can get their questions answered. It seems that no one thinks about these types of new student program activities when making decisions to get rid of or cut computer labs.

7. aebrown - December 09, 2009 at 10:51 am

Your statement regarding Case Western not having general computer labs is incorrect.

Nord Computer lab is the primary general use computer lab. Nord Lab is open 24x7 to all students/staff/faculty - anyone with a valid swipe card can get into the lab and anyone with a valid network ID can log in. Students come in there to work on anything from papers, to group projects, to just going on facebook. This lab is packed during the lunch hours.

There is also Pedlc lab, where I have worked, that not only is opened to student and faculty, but has also been used by the public (mainly families touring the cmapus). Pdelc is aimed towards disability students, but students from around campus come for general use and also because it provides printing servies.

There are also collection of computeries (ranging from 3-5 computers) in public areas of the school [Fribley, Leunter, Thwing]... while not a lab per se, they are open to the public and are for general use and printing.

I am sorry, but if you received this information from Lev Gonick, he needs to take a walk around campus. Computer labs still exist and are still very much being utilized on the case campus.

8. eguzman4 - December 09, 2009 at 11:45 am

Ben Terry, I was asked to contact you about this article by my boss, the Vice President for the Division of Information Technology at my university. Can you please e-mail at PMO@utpa.edu as soon as is possible. Thank-You.


9. bent8161 - December 09, 2009 at 11:54 am

aebrown: according to Lev Gonick, the Nord computer lab is a specialized lab run by the engineering school and the plain dealer lab is run by the Educational Services for Students with students with disabilities and disadvantaged students. While both labs may be used by a general audience, they are still specialized labs.
-Ben Terris

10. inthelab - December 09, 2009 at 12:23 pm

My child is at a top-tier uni; her laptop died last April 2 weeks before school ended and finals began (everything was backed up on external media). The computer lab saved her, since it took weeks for her laptop to be fixed.
Moral: Computer labs need to be a campus resource when laptops and printers die (and they will).

11. reeselibasu - December 09, 2009 at 03:28 pm

I seem to recall reading an article recently, perhaps in this very outlet, that reported results of a survey of what students themselves reported they needed to work productively in college. Near the top, if not at the top: More/better computer labs.

Articles predicting the demise of computers remind me of articles published 10-20 years predicting paperless libraries.

Not in my lifetime.

12. fast_and_bulbous - December 09, 2009 at 06:17 pm

I can see how your vanilla surf-the-web type lab could go away, but there are a lot of expensive software packages that will always have to run on university machines. Also, we can't expect all students to have a laptop or have one running Windows/Mac with all the expected Office stuff installed.

13. timebandit - December 09, 2009 at 06:38 pm

Truly, labs can be a good idea for the reasons above, and we do need both quiet study areas and group areas.

As for use of laptops, it would be nice if more spaces were er, "laptop enabled." It is truly sad when I have to do a tour around a floor of the library only to find 1) a sea of lovely open desks and not a power outlet in sight or 2) all the desk space near power outlets is occupied. Sigh.... Oh, I forgot 3) you find a great place in the library stacks with power, only to find that the wireless is spotty.

NB has anyone else noticed a severe drop in wireless quality now that the kids can watch tv on hulu and other spots? (I sure have.)

14. 22154045 - December 10, 2009 at 06:34 am

RE: The Case-Western thread, it's interesting how all these "specialized" labs are actually general purpose labs in terms of how they are really used.

So while the CTO thinks there are no general purpose labs, and from the point of view of his balance sheet there are none (e.g., their budgets probably come out of academic dept's, not his), clearly the students use them as G.P. labs.

My school has the same situation. Officially we have no general purpose labs. IT does not support labs. But we've got a bunch anyway, supported by one center or department or another, and they're all in heavy use.

15. dtrivison - December 10, 2009 at 09:38 am

Thesis statement of this article does not apply in all cases! Have you tried using current web service with IE6? Laptops, high-speed internet, expensive software packages constitute long school shopping list.

16. terrapin44 - December 10, 2009 at 09:46 am

@bent8161 just because Lev Gonick has off-loaded Information Technology Services' responsibility to provide information technolgy services to other departments, it in no means implies that there are not general computing labs available to students. It is just cost shiftng. Just because ITS isn't operating them, it doesn't mean they don't exist.

17. 22191530 - December 10, 2009 at 11:46 am

Interesting the computer labs are becoming more like libraries' Learning/Information Commons.

18. 22191530 - December 10, 2009 at 11:50 am

My personal opinion is that this is an anti-nerd backlash, now that the Greeks are no longer the Big People On Campus. Revenge of the Nerds!

19. texasguy - December 10, 2009 at 11:54 am

In my department, I see large room filled with PCs remaining almost empty while a much smaller lounger if full of students working on projects, surfing the web and occasionally playing Dungeons and Dragons games. This is not to say that computer labs should entirely diisappear but they should focus on providing students to either specialized software or more powerful systems.

A good computer lounge should provide students withm good internet connections, an ample provision of electrical outlets, access to printers and seating arrangements allowing both group and individual work.

20. terrapin44 - December 10, 2009 at 06:08 pm

@texasguy: very good points about electrical outlets, good network conenctions, and printers - especially printers. I think one the reason why we have so many peple waiting for computers in our labs and info commons can be traced down to printing.

21. russelleerickson - December 11, 2009 at 01:03 am

Some may have missed the point in the article about virtual labs. We went that direction two years ago. Many classroom/labs here, are transforming into very inexpensive zero client devices that allow a student to choose from a menu of virtual desktops offering Mac/Windows/Linux flavors all fully loaded with the software they will need for their course work. Students can also tap into the VM servers from their laptops throughout the campus, including their dorm room. Instead of 300 desktop computers that need to be bolted down, maintained, Deep Freeze'd, and kept current, you have a few common desktop images on a VM server. There are savings, and some of that savings can be devoted to transforming the spaces into areas where students can set up their laptops in a more comfortable and pleasant setting or by outfitting certain specialized labs with more advanced and high end hardware and software.

22. bekka_alice - December 11, 2009 at 06:45 pm

Heck, we're virtualizing access for some administration logging in remotely as well. Although, as a community college system, many of our students can't afford their own laptops yet, so we'll probably still need real computers in the labs for some time to come. If we're going to allow coffee in there, though, maybe we should sublet to StarBucks for a percentage.

23. mbales - December 13, 2009 at 10:12 am

My initial hesitation is that although I have a fairly new computer, I know a lot of people who don't, and I rely on the computer labs for specific programs and it's always a competitive sport to get a computer to work on. I agree that virtualization has a lo of potential. Then there's always the very basic fact that I often leave my computer at home because I feel like a target in my neighborhood with this piece of equipment strapped to my back.

24. michiganprofessor - December 23, 2009 at 11:19 am

I don't see any mention here of the digital divide. I just completed a short article on this topic because I worry about poor students who can afford computers and high speed Internet access. In Michigan, 555,000 families don't have highspeed Internet connections. Some students must be part of these families. If 83% of students have laptops, 17% don't. Does this mean that we don't want these 17% to succeed academically since they won't have computer access on campus? Shutting down public computer labs for students will be one more step to assure that poorer students won't have an equal chance to get a college education. Long live social inequality in America!

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