Serving the Laptopless Student

With laptops prevalent on campuses, a handful of colleges are transforming their expensive public computer labs into places where students can sit in comfy chairs, sip coffee, and use their own computers. Some observers believe these examples foreshadow the death of computer labs on college campuses.

But don’t tell that to Richard Andersen, chief information officer at Virginia’s Tidewater Community College System. When the system opens a new campus in Portsmouth next month, it will unveil a learning resources center with 100 desktop computers — about five times more than the learning labs at the system’s existing campuses. And when it renovates the library at its Virginia Beach campus over the next two years, "the number of computers that we have in the new facility will probably be two to three times what we had in the old facility," Andersen says.

These centers, he says, will give students access to computers that are guaranteed to be capable of running whatever programs they will need to complete their coursework, as well as a support staff of professional librarians and other staffers trained to teach them how to use the library’s digital resources, along with PowerPoint, Excel, and other software relevant to their class assignments.

Colleges where many students are wealthy, or institutions with the budgets to supply their students with computers, might be in a position to consider phasing out public computer labs.

“When my daughter went to Virginia Tech,” Andersen says, “they expected students to come to campus with their own laptop. Each of departments told them what to use, they had provisions for students to attach to their college network, and they had support provided by the computer program at the college with a number of student workers.”

ut community colleges are different, he says. It isn’t that Tidewater is hostile to laptop users; like most colleges, it maintains a comprehensive wireless network for the many students who own laptops. However, “In many cases we have students who can’t afford to bring their own laptops in,” Andersen says. “So we make sure that everything they need to succeed at TCC is available.”

According to this year’s annual survey by the Campus Computing Project, far fewer community college students — 35 percent — own laptop computers than at other types of colleges, where the ownership rate averaged 70 percent. The overall rate at which colleges have or are currently phasing out their computer labs is still low, at 11 percent. But at community colleges it is less than 5 percent, with 11 percent expecting to review the existence of their labs in the coming year.

The rationale for a 100-computer lab is not necessarily that students at Tidewater’s Portsmouth campus would not otherwise have access to computers. While the Campus Computing survey suggested only a third of community college students own laptops, it also revealed that 56 percent had desktop computers at home.

The problem is not necessarily ownership, Andersen says, but fluency. Although plenty of students at Tidewater are perfectly handy with Microsoft Office software, research Web sites, and other coursework-relevant technology, others — particularly adult learners, who did not grow up using computer programs to do schoolwork — need help that wouldn’t necessarily be available if they were at home on their desktops or on the quad with their laptops.

Ballad of a Thin Client

Christopher Duffy, chief information officer at Peirce College — a private, four-year college that caters mostly to adult learners — also saw a demand for institution-supported computing resources.

The problem at Peirce, Duffy says, is not that students don’t have their own computers; it’s that their machines are often old and sometimes incapable of running the requisite programs.

“We’re finding these four- or five-year-old laptops that they’re trying to run current software,” he says, noting that this is probably a common issue on campuses that serve primarily adult learners who cannot necessarily afford to upgrade on a regular basis.

Instead of increasing the number of public desktop computers on campus, Peirce is taking a slightly different tack: public “thin client” laptops that students can check out like a library book.

The thin clients look like laptops, but don’t store data on their hard drives. Instead, they can run programs and store files on the college’s servers through a wireless connection using a virtualization program from Hewlett-Packard called Multiseat — meaning fewer repairs and other headaches that come with full-blown PCs. “The mobile thin client gives us huge cost savings over traditional desktops,” says Duffy.

“My goal there is that those students who don’t own them, don’t have them but need one, will literally sign it out with their I.D. badge at the library counter,” he says — in other words, make the whole campus into a computer lab.


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