Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Do we need student computing rooms?

In the middle of a review of our services at the moment. Dr John Bielec, CIO at Drexel University has been over a couple of times before, and is here again for a 3 day visit. He's spent a lot of time talking to us and our major customers, and will produce a report of our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. It's always been very helpful in the past and is a good "health check" of what we're doing.

One of the areas we've spent some time discussing today is whether we should continue to provide student computing rooms and PCs in the Information Commons. Given that we know that about 90% of students are arriving at University with a PC, (mainly laptops), why are we still not only providing them but are increasing their numbers? Despite opening the Information Commons two years ago with 550 PCs available 24*7, plus another 1000 across campus, why is "increase the number of PCs" the most requested improvement to our services in our student satisfaction survey? The University of Virginia has announced that it will phase out most of its student computing rooms over the next 2 years.

Walking round the IC today, nearly all of the PCs were in use, and there were many students with laptops. The wireless network is fairly pervasive over the campus, so why is there such a demand on our PCs? One answer is that the managed service gives access to the specialist teaching applications - but we know that these aren't widely used. Most of our services - mail, VLE etc - are web based and could just as easily be accessed from laptops. So, what would happen if instead of increasing the number of PCs we started to reduce it? Would more students bring their laptops onto campus? It would certainly save a huge chunk of my budget which could be put into improving other services. What are the barriers to students using their own machines - their weight, security, battery life, easily damaged? If there's any students reading this I'd love to know the answer!


Anonymous said...

I suppose my main reason for using computers in the IC rather than bringing my own is that they're there. My laptop is heavy enough that I don't want to be carrying it unless there's a reason for it, certainly not every day just in case.

And although the Managed Desktop software that I most often use is just web browser/MS Office, I'd had coursework requiring use of applications that I didn't have on my laptop but was available on Managed Desktops.

If there were no (or fewer) computers in the IC, I suppose I would make the effort of carrying my laptop around much more, spent less time in the IC, or tried to rely more on the computers in my department's computer rooms when they're available (during the day when the rooms are not reserved for teaching).

(2nd-year Information Management UG, lia07mes@....)

Tim said...

Dear Chris,

many thanks for your blog about CiCS and your work; I've found it a consistently informative, useful, and challenging way of sharing information. I wanted to respond to your recent post about computer rooms, as it touches on some areas particularly close to my heart; and while I can't provide the student voice that you were seeking, I hope that I will be able to articulate some of the concerns that some of them might have.

I work with part-time mature students, frequently from non-traditional backgrounds. For them "study at university" simply does not equate with "presence on campus" - they fit their studies into evenings, weekends, and whatever time they can make in their busy adult lives. When they do come into university, they want to make the most of it, hence the welcoming of the IC and the development of more flexible services elsewhere. Access to ICT is a key part of this, as not all of our students have access at home to computers. Where they do, it may be shared amongst their family, leaving them again trying to fit their studies around other commitments.

The learners with whom I work do not mostly own laptops, and do not have the privileged access to ICT that many full-time students in this institution enjoy. If this university is to live up to its commitments on widening participation, then it needs to ensure that there barriers, whether material or cultural, to equal participation, are as low as possible. Providing access to ICT facilities, and avoiding assumptions about the level of material comfort enjoyed by "typical" TUOS students, are crucial components of this.

Best wishes, and thanks again for your blog,


Markuos said...

I think there are other models to ICT provision for students that could be considered and that would be inclusive.

One example I've seen adopted in the US is to move away from a rolling programme of centrally providing on campus desktop PCs to one of subsidising students' purchase of their own laptops. There are a number of advantages to this for both the university and the students.

From talking with students, a view commonly expressed is the worry of damage, loss or theft if they bring their laptop onto campus. There are also issues of provision of enough electrical sockets to plug laptops into in the IC. (I think this was probably an error or oversight in realising how students would want to use the building, when it was commissioned.) (We as staff experience this phenomenon at conferences, I certainly have.)

However, if there is an advantage to bringing laptops into lectures then I would predict students would do it. This needs a change in emphasis within the lecture structure. But this has to be done well. I have seen in the last week articles where laptops are being cited as a distraction within lectures and students using them 'inappropriately' are seeing lower grades in assessment compared to their peers. So there would need to be appropriate advice for both students and faculty about laptop use in lectures.

I think (or perhaps hope) that we are moving away from the standard Office suite being the staple for student computing requirements. There are hosts of alternatives that whilst aren't as functionally rich as there desktop alternative, do provide a high percentage of functions that the majority of people want from such software, and introduce some added benefits. Also, I suspect that employers are now looking for graduates with increased adaptability in their ICT use - i.e. the ability to find and use the most appropriate software or service for a task. I believe bluecloud can assist students to develop such skills.

Chris Sexton said...

Thanks for the comments folks - will feed them all in. Just one point on the last comment - there's plenty of power for laptops in the IC - no error or oversight - all carefully designed in. Every desk without a PC has a power socket, and there's floor boxes with sockets in all over the place.

Nick Skelton said...

To add to the other comments: at Bristol we find the same - students prioritise more public computers very highly when surveyed.

What's wrong with students own laptops? I've explored this in focus groups with students. In short, they aren't as reliable as the facilities we provide. Students value our public pcs as they "just work". Their laptops typically suffer from viruses, spyware, flat batteries, need constant security updates, etc.

I'm not a fan of universities directly subsidising student ownership of laptops, but we should provide services such as laptop clinics to address these problems - while also strongly investing in public computers.

Steve said...

Just an observation I've made as a student who has recently started using their laptop much more frequently around university- there is a lack of knowledge of using services on your own laptop.

For example being able to print to campus printers from my laptop is something most students are amazed at. This extends to services like webmail which now I use with outlook on my own laptop(allowing me to view all my emails in one place).

These little additional functionalities which have taken me some time to find and then use are what has led me to using my laptop and better education/promotion might help other students as currently the campus PCs seem 'easier' and more 'convenient' to use.

Anonymous said...

An article about this just came up on Ars Technica and I thought you might be interested.

Anonymous said...

I don't carry my laptop round with me as it is too heavy to have in case I need to use it and I don't always come straight from my flat to a lecture or back to it after so it then becomes a security issue.
If I find I've got a spare 20 minutes or so I often go to the IC to use the computers so am glad they are there.

Anonymous said...

A way to free up computers for those who actually want to do work would be to ban facebook on certain floors. As much as an avid user as I am of the site there's nothing more annoying than wanting to get on with work and find a large proportion of students with only one window open surfing 'facebook' using up valuable computing resources.

The likes of Matlab and other expensive and powerful software is not available easily on home computers so access to a uni networked pc is vital.

Anonymous said...

Laptop = heavy and a hassle to bring to uni, as well as a security issue.

Why would anyone want to deal with the hassle of carrying a laptop to university when its not necessary?

I mainly use the IC computers to print things off and to research things between lectures. I know that it is possible to print from your own laptop, except the application refused to install on my laptop when I tried to, so I have to come into university to do so as I don't own a printer.

I know the majority of students have laptops but there are still some who don't or don't have MS Office who need computers. You mentioned there being around 1550 computers around the university...well when you consider how many students there actually are, that's really not that many.

Many people like to work on uni computers, its like why do people come to the Silent Study areas instead of working in the comfort of their own home? It's because they prefer it, its more productive for them, they have access to everything they need. Just like I don't want to bring my laptop to uni, many people don't want to lug 10 books home.

I used to work in the IC a lot last year. I worked in Western Bank for a while until the silence got to me (i.e. any noise made was heard immediately by everyone like someone unwrapping a sweet) and I got annoyed at having to change libraries as soon as it got to 8pm.

Although, I mostly did research in the IC then wrote them at home, partly due to difficulty in getting a computer and partly due to preference.