Thursday, 19 June 2008

Future of student computing

RUGIT meeting today in London. Unusually, we had quite a discussion about student computing. I say unusually, because RUGIT normally concentrates on those matters specific to research-intensive universities, ie research. It made a pleasant change to talk about students.

We talked about student computing rooms or PC clusters, and whether their time was up! Most of us have a student population where over 90% of them come to university with a PC, and more often than not, that is now a laptop rather than a desktop machine. Why are we therefore providing PC clusters - taking up space, staff time, software licences, hardware refreshes..... Why don't we just let the students get on with it and use their own laptops. Think of the space and money and staff time we would free up??

Well would we?

Our experience - and interestingly this was mirrored in many other Universities - was that our PC use is higher than ever. It doesn't matter how many additional PCs we put out, students want more, and they want them available for longer - 600 of ours are now available 24*7. So, why do they use our clusters rather than their own laptops?

Well, ours are faster because they're connected to the wired, rather than the wireless network. They also have around 300 software applications on that students can't afford to buy, and most of our campus licences won't let them use on their on machines. There's a reluctance to bring laptops onto campus - they might get stolen, or damaged, and there's never a power socket around when you need one.

Some places - including us - are looking at using thin client technology and virtualisation to deliver applications through a web browser so that students can in effect get the managed service on their own laptops. But, there are many issues to overcome to do this, some technical, but a lot relating to licencing. And is it not better to have students' work saved on our filestore which is secure and backed up, rather than their own hard drives?

So, will we still be providing student computing rooms/clusters in 5 or 10 years time?

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