The Future of the Computer Lab

This year, I’ve been serving on a committee that distributes technology funding for teaching within my college.  One of things that these funds do is maintain computer labs in departments and programs across campus. Many of the computer labs that these funds will renovate are difficult to keep up to date (and currently rely upon computers purchased more than 5 years ago which is an eternity amidst today’s fast moving technology cycle),  relatively small with fewer than 40 computers, and serve relatively focused constituencies (typically limited to particular departments or programs). These three issues: the difficulty in keeping labs up to date, their small size, and their focused constituencies led me to think a bit about the future and function of the computer lab in the modern university.

As a preemptive caveat, I’ll admit that I do not teach in a computer lab and our department does not make use of one.  On the other hand, I have been involved with building a lab and have observed student behavior and the tech scene over the past 10 years.  So with that framework, I’ll offer some observations here and invite everyone to critique, expand, explode, or reject my observation in the comments!

1. The desktop computer is on the verge of extinction.  Computer labs are almost always associated with the desktop computer.  At the same time, a Pew Study (h/t to Mark Grabe) released last month has shown that just over half (57%) college-aged students have desktop computers whereas 70% of them have laptops.  The reasons for this are pretty clear.  Laptops are now powerful enough to handle all but the most robust computing needs. To be sure, the limitations of laptop computers – particularly at the extreme high end of, say, complex graphics production, video editing, controlling scientific equipment, or other processes that require significant computing power – still require desktop work stations with massive, multicore processes, massive amounts of storage, and robust cooling capacities, and ability to be customized and expanded. These environments, however, are fairly rare outside of upper-level or even graduate research programs.  Few students ever explore the fringes of their laptop’s computational power (except perhaps when they are playing games).  The growing preference for laptop computers among “millennials” makes clear that fewer users and ultimately software makers require the kind of performance limited to desktop hardware.

2. The cloud can do almost everything.  My suspicion is that while personal computers will continue to become more powerful, the real growth in computer power will come through leveraging “cloud” based computing.  In other words, powerful, remote computers with many, many times the power of even the most robust desktop will be available to handle the most demanding processes. Unlike a desktop or even a laptop which is designed for a single individual, cloud based computers can accommodate many users, sometimes simultaneous, and thereby reduce unnecessary duplication of processing power common to a computer lab where processing loads are often distributed unevenly across all users.  For example, processor intensive functions – like graphics rendering – now typically reserved for the most powerful desktop computers, can be sent out to the cloud where clusters of powerful computer can more efficiently and quickly handle demanding tasks.

Moreover, companies like CiTRIX are working to bring even common software to the cloud (like the Adobe suite of image editing software) making it possible for students to use specialized software which is not running on their computer, but in the cloud. The student’s computer become just an access point for the computer power of the cloud and the software running in that environment.  This both eliminates the need for students to purchase expensive, specialized software for one or two classes and eliminates the need to limit software on a group of designated machines in a computer lab environment.

So cloud computing is not only more powerful, but more efficient. If a student can leverage the power of cloud computing from their laptop, why do we need to provide a lab full of powerful desktop computers?

3. Decentralized learning.  Cloud based computing will become more and more important as programs turn toward increasingly decentralized models of instruction. The physical computer lab is based on residential, spatially local models of instruction.  While it is my hope that universities will always have classrooms, labs, and physical locations, I am also aware that the move toward online instruction will make some of these facilities less important for the definition of university education.  Students taking a class from around the world will no long be able to use a computer lab located in a particular building with particular hours and particular physical hardware.  Just as cloud based course management software like Blackboard or Moodle facilitate spatially decentralized learning models, more specialized software will also gradually become available in an online environment making the hardwire computer lab as marginal as the bricks-and-mortar classroom.

4. The line between a classroom and lab is increasingly blurred.  As Anne Kelsch has discussed, new models for classrooms – particularly those designed around the principles of active learning – have incorporated many of the features of the traditional computer lab directly into classroom space. While computer labs do have the benefit of physically concentrating students working on similar projects and problems, the classroom as computer lab brings that focus to even a finer point.  Spaces like the SCALE-UP classroom take computers from the lab (where my mind’s eye sees banks of computers facing the wall or arranged in ranks) and organizes them both in physical space and through software to encourage students to work together.  While labs have always been teaching spaces, the line between the lab and the classroom will become increasingly blurred.

5. The new economic normal. Computer hardware is expensive to buy, to maintain, and to keep current. Public universities are under increased pressure to trim budgets and use resources more wisely. Traditional computer labs will not remain a cost-efficient way to provide students with access to computer power, software, or a sophisticated instructional environment.  Specialized labs will continue to exist for particular kinds of highly-specialized computing needs or to support certain learning environments, departmental or program based computer labs designed to serve diverse constituencies will soon fall victim to the changing economic realities of American university life.  While many of the more powerful and specialized cloud based solutions are not inexpensive, they offer structural advancement over desktop computing by leveraging economies of scale.

Crossposted to Teaching Thursday

One Comment

  1. you may be interested in my recent post on the subject at http://knowledgegeek.blogspot.com/2011/02/whither-university-information-services.html.

    Basically libraries are becoming irrelevant and except for a few specialist requirements, computer labs doubly so, and we maintain these more out of habit than anything else.

    We are in a transition stage, and consequently things are imperfect but that is no reason to not consider radical change, which in retrospect, will not seem that radical

    Reply

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