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?