Rebooted Computer Labs Offer Savings for Campuses and Ambiance for Students

New gathering places for laptop users help colleges save on upkeep

Tom Cogill for The Chronicle

A work space at the U. of Virginia's Clemons Library is among the new breed of what used to be thought of as computer labs. "Almost all our students have laptops," says a UVa official, "so traditional labs have become redundant."
December 06, 2009

No matter what the future holds for college computer labs, one thing is certain: There will be coffee. But computers? Maybe not.

Colleges are looking for ways to cut costs, and most students now own laptops that they can tote in their backpacks. As a result, many campus technology leaders are taking a hard look at those brightly lit rooms with rows of networked computers, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to maintain.

The idea of the computer lab has been dying for some time now, says Lev S. Gonick, chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University. "It used to be we would build entire buildings around labs, but that's all over now," he says.

More than 11 percent of colleges and universities are either phasing out public computer labs or planning to do so, according to this year's survey of college technology leaders by the Campus Computing Project, released last month. At colleges that have not pulled the plug on their labs, nearly 20 percent are reviewing the option. This is the first year the Campus Computing Project has asked the question.

Institutions agree that computer labs, much like student centers and libraries before them, are due for an extreme makeover. That is why several technology officials contacted by The Chronicle believe in creating work spaces that hardly resemble the computer labs of the past.

These new spaces might be lounges filled with modular furniture and plasma televisions; virtual labs that give remote laptops access to software; or bigger, better computer rooms with state-of-the-art machines and pleasing architecture that can act as de facto student centers. Fortunately for young caffeine addicts, nearly all officials interviewed said they planned to let students drink and eat while typing away—something that has long been forbidden in traditional computer rooms.

Computer Ownership Way Up

The vast majority of students at four-year-colleges—83 percent—own laptops, according to Student Monitor, a market-research company. That's up from 36 percent in 2003. Meanwhile, nearly half of the institutions who participated in the Campus Computing Project reported IT budget cuts.

"It's amazing that labs haven't died out yet," says Kenneth C. Green founding director of the Campus Computing Project. "It would seem like an obvious area to save money, but schools keep insisting they are finding value."

The computer lab is an endangered species on some campuses, though. This year the University of Virginia announced a three-year plan to phase out all of its computer labs.

General computer rooms have already died out at Case Western Reserve, which hasn't had them in two years, according to Mr. Gonick. Wake Forest University shuttered its general computer labs 10 years ago in favor of a program that lends laptops to every undergraduate.

UVa says its IT department spends about $300,000 a year maintaining the 375 public computers that are on their way out.

"We created labs when we couldn't reasonably expect students to provide their own computers," says Michael R. McPherson, the university's deputy chief information officer. "Almost all our students have laptops, so traditional labs have become redundant."

In order to make sure students still have access to the expensive software that many courses require—like 3-D modeling tools and advanced statistical programs—UVa is among the growing number of institutions trying virtual computing labs. They are not physical places, but systems that let students use the software over the network, logging in from anywhere on their own laptops.

"This means that if a student wants, he can design a 3-D car while drinking a cup of coffee at Starbucks," says Mr. McPherson. (Evidently, IT officials don't mind if you spill a drink on a computer as long as it's your own.)

Mr. McPherson says he hopes that by the time officials close the last computer lab, they will have a campuswide virtual replacement in place.

Gathering Spaces

Even as the traditional computer lab becomes something of an anachronism, colleges realize its importance as a communal space, something that cannot be replaced by virtual options.

"Computer labs as we know them today may go away, but because students have a natural instinct to gather, to sit together, to play together, to compute together and communicate together, some form of lab will exist tomorrow," argues Martin Ringle, chief technology officer at Reed College. "But if you were to take a photograph of today's lab with its rows of computers under fluorescent lights and compare it with the labs 10 years down the road, you'd have very different pictures."

Mr. Ringle says he does not want to decrease spending on computer labs, just change how the money is spent.

For him the ideal lab will be filled not with computers, but with outlets, flat-screen televisions, and places to plug in handheld devices and to project multimedia. To make it an appealing place to spend time, there will be natural lighting, comfortable furniture, and maybe even a fireplace.

Oh, and java. "The labs of the future will have coffee carts and other things that allow for a more lounge-type environment."

Mr. Ringle says that Reed is not prepared to shelve its traditional labs just yet, but that officials want to be "poised to pounce when the timing is right."

"I think it will be three or four years until these start springing up all over the place," he says.

Pennsylvania State University and UVa have already started building the Lab 2.0. Both universities offer a number of lounge-style labs on their campuses, replete with modular furniture and 60-inch flat-screen televisions. And Penn State recently turned an old computer lab into a gaming center, where Xbox 360s, Wiis, and flat screens replaced more than a half-dozen Mac computers.

Going Big

Not everyone, however, is willing to give up on providing public computers. In fact, Temple University is among those in expansion mode. In 2006, Temple opened its enormous TECH Center. The center, built in an old Bell Atlantic operations building, houses 600 desktops, 100 laptops, and a coffee shop. Officials claim this is the biggest computer lab of its kind in the United States.

"The only complaint we have had is that it's not big enough," says Timothy C. O'Rourke, chief information officer at Temple. "We are definitely not going to scale back. If anything we will eventually expand."

Mr. O'Rourke says that even though it costs the university about $1-million a year to operate, the TECH Center is a solid investment in the happiness of students. In fact, he says, in a struggling economy the university has a responsibility to make sure students have the best computer access possible.

On paper, Temple's students have plenty of access without the university's help: 98.5 percent own computers, and 70 percent of those machines are laptops. But not all students own up-to-date or robust equipment, and not everyone feels comfortable carrying a computer everywhere, says Mr. O'Rourke.

"We are an urban public institution, with working-class parents, many of which are being laid off," he says. "Not only is the TECH Center our biggest selling point to get people to come here, it's also a great way to make Temple more affordable."


Some colleges are sticking with a traditional model but looking for ways to build more lab with less money.

For Jeffrey J. Cunningham, director of information services for the department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Maryland at College Park, that meant using low-cost virtual computers in a physical lab setting.

Last year Mr. Cunningham bought about 80 devices made by Pano Logic. On their own, these little cubes have no operating system, no memory, no processor. But when hooked up to a server over the Internet, they function like any other computer (just attach them to existing monitors and keyboards, get some new mice, and they're ready to go). It meant that instead of buying computers for $1,000 per unit, Mr. Cunningham could buy each Pano Device for around $350, while also giving students access to the service from their own computers.

The transition was also a boon in some unexpected ways.

"We used to have to blast the air conditioner in our computer labs because the machines did so much work and got so hot," Mr. Cunningham says. "But when we put these in, they used so little energy that all the students started complaining about how cold it was."

Looks like another reason to offer a hot drink.