The Changing Role of Computer Labs
in Higher Education
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.
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."
Taken from Rebooted Computer Labs Offer Savings for Campuses and Ambiance for Students, Chronicle of Higher Education, December 6, 2009.
It may be worthwhile to note that our own Foreign Language Media Center offers on-line testing, foreign language support in terms of spell checking, simplified diacritic generation, and Asian character generation, and of course equipment that most students cannot afford to own.
Where access matters!