Recently, many universities and colleges have phased out campus computer labs, often citing the high cost of operating these facilities, particularly when the majority of students now own computers.
When colleges debate the future of their computer labs, however, the discussion should be less about phasing out labs and more about rethinking what labs could and should be in this era of wireless notebooks, smartphones, multimedia and collaborative technologies. IT leaders also need to examine why and how students choose to use computer labs over their own notebooks.
At Temple University, we had an opportunity to create a major new computer lab several years ago. In planning this facility, we examined students' study habits and visited a number of large-scale labs across the country. In our new lab, called the TECH Center (short for Technology, Education, Collaboration and Help) we address the present-day needs of our students.
Cost was a major factor in creating the center. We had many departments running small labs with specialized hardware and software. They couldn't afford to keep these facilities open during the times that students needed to do their work. By consolidating into one large megalab, we were able to control costs and offer students what they needed, when they needed it.
In designing the center, Temple focused on what students want and need to succeed at college. "We wanted a comfortable space where students would feel safe and could study alone or collaborate in groups," CIO Timothy O'Rourke says. "We wanted all the software they might use in their coursework to be available in a single, 24-hour facility."
What we didn't want was row upon row of impersonal machines and uncomfortable furniture. We wanted to provide every student with all the technology tools they might need for their studies, regardless of major.
We focused on five features when designing our lab: tools for collaboration; cloud and mobile technology capabilities; high-end video and audio production tools; an open, social environment; and increased focus on student convenience and customer service.
Today, the TECH Center (nicknamed "Club Tech" by our students) has more than 1 million student visits annually. It is a 24-hour facility with 700 workstations, staffed by both full-time lab managers and student workers. In addition to hundreds of computers, the center's amenities include a 24-hour Starbucks; comfortable, notebook-friendly lounge furniture; and vending machines stocked with ear buds, No-Doz, Kleenex and thumb drives.
Students have access to more than 150 software applications – all the major apps they use in their courses – as well as a variety of printers, plotters, scanners and other peripherals.
Open to All
Another factor that's key to the lab's success is its interdisciplinary nature. The TECH Center is open to all students, not just the engineering, science and architecture students who typically used the lab in the past.
There are also recording booths and electronic keyboards, where students can work on music and other audio projects, regardless of their major. With audio and video so accessible today, our multimedia studios are used by a broad cross-section of students, not just music or film majors. Our lab also features breakout rooms where students can practice presentations or share research.
The lab is packed with a mixture of Macs and PCs. And, because many students prefer to bring their own notebook, the lab is wireless, including wireless printers. There are extra electrical outlets for students to charge their portable devices, and IPTV for students to watch television using the lab workstations.
For a modern lab to succeed, it's important for the staff and administration to understand that today's lab must be flexible. Colleges have to offer a place that's as comfortable for the students who want to study alone or rest for an hour as it is for groups of students who want a place to work collaboratively.
At the TECH Center, we offer space for collaboration that doesn't compete with the college library. While some functions of the modern computer lab and college library may overlap, these issues should be fairly easy to sort out. Labs will never replace libraries (or librarians) as vital information sources. But labs can complement libraries by offering easy access to technology and multimedia applications, as well as computer expertise and advice. The best labs will become a place for students to study, relax and receive much-needed tech services.