Changing Nature of Physical Spaces

Each Saturday I meet my friend and colleague, Scott McDonald, at a local coffee shop for an hour or so to discuss some emerging research topics we’re working towards. Each week we are amazed at the number of people in Saint’s sitting on their laptops working — most of them are doing browser based work like google docs, Facebook, and the like. It is rare that I see anyone not using the browser as the primary mode of work. That is a big change from even a year or so ago.

The same can typically be observed if you walk onto our campus and into the student union building. You see table after table of students on laptops, living in their browsers — Facebook, gmail, and ANGEL seem to be what I see. Rarely do I observe work happening in “real” applications. I am guessing that will only get more common as the Blogs at PSU gain wider adoption for writing and students begin to weave google docs into their daily workflow.

PSU HUB, Photo by Allan Gyorke

PSU HUB, Photo by Allan Gyorke

I am observing a radically changing dynamic on campus that will force us to rethink much of what we offer to students. I’m glad to see my colleague, Allan Gyorke, is leading a team looking at the design of informal learning spaces because we need to really make some changes to keep up with the new reality of mobile computing. I don’t have numbers from this year right in front of me, but I am betting computer ownership among our students is close to 100% and I am betting laptop ownership is around 80% or higher. The old argument/claim that they don’t bring them to campus is holding less water for me … just as an incidental observation, there are more laptop users all over the place than I’ve ever seen.

As I was doing some reading this morning I came across an announcement that the University of Virginia is phasing out its public computing labs. Talk about a radical move! They will repurpose several of the lab spaces to support the need for collaborative work, but the idea that the stand by public computer lab is being phased out is stunning. In the linked announcement they share some remarkable usage statistics that I am fairly sure we could gather quite easily as well … from the piece,

Lab software usage statistics from 2008 reveal that out of a total of 651,900 hours spent using software in the public computing labs, 95% of the time (over 619,500 hours), students were running commodity or free programs such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, Adobe Acrobat Reader, or Microsoft Office. All of these software programs come pre-loaded on student laptops or are available at low or no cost to UVa students. In contrast, just 5% of the time spent running software in public labs was devoted to specialized packages such as MatLab, Eclipse, Mathcad, or SPSS.

The browser is winning. The idea that all students need access to specialized, high-end software like Adobe Photoshop, MatLab, CAD, and other packages is slipping as the ability to do more advanced things in the browser expands. As more of what we do moves to the cloud, the more we’ll have to rethink services. Add to it the extreme economic pressure many institutions are facing and you have a recipe for a changing physical computing landscape. I’d be really interested to know what you are seeing on and around your campuses … are students bringing laptops to campus and do you believe they live in the browser? What should we be doing to address it?

8 thoughts on “Changing Nature of Physical Spaces

  1. I saw that same article about the computer labs being phased out at the University of Virginia and my first thought was “wow, really?”, but that was immediately followed with “well, I guess that makese sense”. As a parent of a 17-year old who will be heading off to college in three short months, this move makes perfect sense to me. My son has lived with his own laptop for years now (in fact, the laptop he has now is his second – he completely wore out the first one he had). It’s part of who he is and I can’t imagine him not having one. I think as more and more schools start using laptops it’s just a natural progression to have students bring laptops with them to college.

    Also, having been a part of several EDUCAUSE discussions and groups related to informal learning spaces, I think it’s incredibly important and something we at Penn State really need to think about. Do we need to have computer labs all over campus that are set up the way the are, or would it be more beneficial for students if we had labs that could easily transition into collaborative, creative spaces that encourage students to spend time there? I’ve seen some great examples of informal spaces at some ELI meetings and it’s exciting to think about ways we can design those spaces on campus.

  2. I think this makes a lot of sense. I know one of the things that we have talked about is the idea of key serving software to student laptops. From my point of view this is the next step in the disappearance of the lab and the emergence of the laptop as lab model. If students can log-in and key serve the high-end software they need to their laptop wherever they are, there is even less need for the labs. Need SPSS for a homework assignment? No problem, key serving to the rescue. I think this move is (yet another) critical step in eliminating the brick and mortar restrictions on the higher education classroom and opening the learning environment up. Long live mobile computing.

  3. If it was up to me, I would have remodeled (years ago) most of our computer labs into comfortable notebook friendly lounge areas, with comfy chairs, indirect lighting, a super-fast wireless LAN and some wireless printing.

    I would have kept just a few traditional labs opened, with fast desktops to run specialized cpu-intensive apps, …and I would have converted most of our instructional computer labs (those with ceiling-mounted projectors, projection screen, presenter’s station etc. to be more notebook-friendly.

    I would have used some of the savings in renegotiating some software licensing agreement to give students the option to install certain commercial software on their machines, for free.

    Today, schools could also standardize on, say the inexpensive Acer Aspire One netbook, and offer it to incoming students or those who may need it, for say $200; the subsidized netbook would include some pre-loaded software, free tech/repair support and free battery swap desks spreaded throughout campus.

    On the other hand, the UIC Student Multimedia Lab I am putting together is an example of what modern specialized computer labs might look :: fast video rendering workstations with 32″ flat screens can can also be used for collaborative learning projects. (I wish UIC had group study rooms with large flat screens for walk-in collaboration, but we don’t, so I am trying to show their usefulness as well in an otherwise multimedia production lab environment).

    I thoroughly agree with your posting :: mobile ubiquitous connected computing is indeed where it is at. I further call is comfortable computing, anytime, anywhere.

  4. I agree with the changing situation of the common student. What I feel we have to consider is the idea that a university must provide accommodations for the non-typical student situation. The spaces would be better used as a collaborative environment but can not become completely phased out. Some space must be provided for the students who may not own a laptop, even if that space becomes a much smaller one. I don’t want to assume that your intention is to completely phase out the labs as they are but, for argument sake, we should not leave out the obligation that educational institutions hold for all students, not just the typical ones. Does this mean that we shouldn’t progress with the changing times here at Penn State? Absolutely not, we would quickly become irrelevant if we did not move forward. If it is not fair to say that to attend Penn State you must already have your own laptop then perhaps we should rethink the services provided to incoming freshmen. With the innovation of increasingly inexpensive technology, maybe we could begin to provide the option of laptops to student as part of their tuition so aid can be provided to acquire them. There would be a lot to work out with a situation such as that but it is considering the idea that we should not remove a service without providing another equal service for those who may need it.

  5. @Michael Brooks Completely agree! The digital divide is real and by segmenting the haves vs the have nots even further is dangerous territory. There are lots of great reasons to reimagine some of our spaces — but the wholesale closure isn’t even being discussed … as a matter of fact I haven’t heard anyone at PSU suggest we close any of our labs. The only conversations I hear now are about rethinking pieces of labs. Students still show up without machines and use ours for quite a bit of time. I think this will be the case for a few years to come. I was honestly just blown away by the UVA decision and wanted to layer some PSU thoughts on it.

    @ Ed Garay The thing I worry about with the NetBooks are their inability to handle non-cloud tasks. As an example, our College of Education’s teacher education programs require students to buy a MacBook … they do this b/c they can rely on the superior (and easy to use) digital content creation tools. NetBooks, as of yet, do not allow for any sort of prosumer level digital media production. I am betting that will change, but for now it is an issue.

    Thanks to both of you for your comments!

  6. @Cole Camplese I am curious what the future holds for Apple in the NetBook field. Rumor has it that Apple has ordered touch screen displays that are to ship by November this year, as you may be aware. Without remembering the exact size I think the displays were somewhere around 8 to 10 inches. It would not seem that the standard MacBook mini would be the direction Apple would go with this. I would predict a more iPod Touch on steroids (because everyone else seems to be) planned for these screens. The possibility of it running Snow Leopard combined with some of the best thought through Usability in the industry (it doesn’t take much) would make this a distant possibility for ease of mobility, creation tools, and an overall good time. A pair-able Bluetooth keyboard would complete the package.

  7. Virginia had *300* PCs in its cluster — and one campus. I would be very slow to generalize from such a small operation to PSU, where one unit manages 5,000 desktops. There’s also some serious data on why students prefer to do academic work in clusters rather than in residence halls and apartments. Environment matters; so do apps that students cannot otherwise access.

  8. @John T. Harwood Still surprising that a University would be so open and aggressive about changing course like this. I love the directions we are going here at PSU — experimenting with different kinds of spaces that can support more activities. The collaborative spaces, the Digital Commons, and the soon to be opened Education Gaming Commons all represent some really cool things for us to look at. I think the long term is cloudy — will students still want to use our machines? Or will they prefer to use our printers, software, and spaces with their own machines? I have no idea. I’m eager to watch the UVA story unfold. BTW, thanks for the comment!

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