Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Are Computer Labs Still Necessary?

Earlier this week the University of Virginia announced that they have begun a three-year plan to phase out student computer labs. A Chronicle blog post about this yielded a number of comments, largely negative ones. Certainly this conversation is happening at more and more institutions as we look at ways to cut costs: are computer labs still necessary? Historically labs are needed for three primary reasons.

Provide computers for students who do not have them. We often make assumptions about our students. Today's net generation students are always connected, so they must all have a laptop, right? The 2008 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology reports that 16.8% of survey respondents own a computer older than four years and 1.5% own no computer at all. While this is a minority, there are students who still have no computer at all or have one so old it is likely not much more than a glorified typewriter. This doesn't account either for those students who might have a computer but still have dial-up access; my step-sister falls into that category and certainly she would choose a campus lab over trying to work over a painfully slow connection. Granted, the percentage of students who own a laptop increases each year, but it still isn't all students, and short of a mandated laptop purchase program, it probably won't be for quite some time.

Access to specialized software and equipment. For those connected students who do have a fairly new personal laptop, it is likely that they do not have access to SPSS, Matlab, ArcView, and other specialized software packages. Even Photoshop or other components of the Adobe Creative Suite--why pay for those applications if you only need them for a single class? For those students who run an alternative OS at home, they may need access to Windows or a Mac platform. In addition to software, labs usually offer scanners and printers that students may not have access to at home. Space in a typical residence hall room is at a premium--if you even own a printer and/or scanner, why would you take up precious space when you could use the shared resource in the lab?

Convenience. If you have a short break between classes, it usually isn't worth going back to your room. This is particularly true of commuter students who often camp out for most of the day on campus. What a great opportunity to get some work done in between classes--check the course management system, email, Facebook of course, and maybe start writing a paper or doing some research with library databases. For those who have a laptop, who would want to lug it around all day, particularly if it is a 4+ year old brick. Even if the laptop is light, why carry it and risk theft or damage--the parents would not be happy! So enter the computer lab (and the library) for computers available for general use at students' convenience. I realize the convenience argument has less weight in these difficult budget times, but knowing students, I suspect it remains a much higher priority for them than we realize.

So what's the answer? "Yes, but..."?

Obviously there will be fewer and fewer students who need the labs because they have no other computing access. It will be a slow process for 100% of our students to be connected, but that doesn't prevent us from slowly reducing the number of lab machines.

As far as specialized software, more institutions are looking toward virtualization, something that I personally find very appealing. If I bring my own computer to the lab, why can't I use campus-licensed software on it? There are several notable virtualization projects out there already, and I expect we'll see more of these in the next couple of years. I hope many institutions consider putting resources into this area.

So as we are slowly reducing our number of machines, perhaps reducing our entire footprint on campus by consolidating labs as well, and we are working toward a more virtualized environment, what do we do with our lab spaces? As a commons person, I do like Virginia's solution:
ITC understands that students need collaborative space where they can bring their laptops and mobile devices to conduct group work, especially as the curriculum becomes increasingly team- and project-based. As one example of how this need might be addressed, the computing lab on the fourth floor of Clemons Library was recently repurposed. This space has been transformed into a technology-rich collaboration area in a joint effort between the Libraries, ITC, Office of the Provost, Facilities, and Housing.
Basically they have transformed the area into a commons-like space. Very cool.

I hope this becomes a trend to reinvent computer lab spaces in this fashion. Last year IT on my campus reduced the number of machines in a few labs and added/rearranged furniture to create spaces that were more comfortable and conducive to group study. These redesigned spaces have affectionately been dubbed "hublets" as IT sought to capture some of the elements of the Hub in these labs. More on that in a future post.

Killing Cockroaches

Do you ever get stuck in a rut of crossing the easy things off your to-do list but neglecting those larger items? Or focusing on those issues which are the loudest, but not necessarily the most important? I know I do; after all, it is so much easier to take care of those little things first or those things that are in your face. What a sense of accomplishment you have when you've done ten things instead of just barely scratching into one. Of course, that often isn't productive as the larger, more important issues keep looming.

Yesterday Penelope Trunk wrote about Killing Cockroaches, Tony Morgan's book focused on leadership. She was interviewed for the book, particularly regarding time management. What's the killing cockroaches part all about? Basically when Morgan was a city manager, during an important meeting he heard a woman down the hall screaming about a cockroach. He left the meeting to go down that hall to kill the cockroach. As Trunk puts it:

Really, all time management discussion is about this: How to know when to kill cockroaches and when not to. It's about why we spend time doing small, stupid stuff that crawling around in front of us instead of the stuff that makes life meaningful.

Other than working on a few presentations, lately I've been spending much of my time killing the cockroaches. I really need to look at the level of staffing in the commons at our benchmark institutions, but I haven't settled down to start doing the research. I need to do some long-term planning for our video windows; lately I only run about a month or two ahead on exhibits. I have a list of promotional ideas that I've put on the back burner, some since we opened two years ago. It's too easy to keep ignoring these things. Time to get to work.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Learning Spaces

The new issue of EDUCAUSE Review focuses on learning spaces. This should be of particular interest to those of us in a commons environment. I'm looking forward to reading the entire issue--stay tuned for comments.

Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day recognizing Ada Lovelace, one of the world's first computer programmers, and a day where bloggers draw attention to women excelling in technology:
Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants. The list of tech-related careers is endless.
To participate in Ada Lovelace Day, a blogger should sign the pledge, then post today, March 24, about a woman working in technology. I know it's getting late, but consider writing today about a woman who has influenced you.

I am so honored and thrilled that my friend and colleague Alex Grigg has recognized me today. Thank you, Alex!

Update: OK, I blogged too soon. I should recognize two more dear colleagues today: Catherine Lavallée-Welch, my inspiration for starting a blog in the first place, and Sarah Glassmeyer, Web 2.0 law librarian extraordinaire. Thank you!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Popular Posts on the Information Commons

I've picked up some new readers and thought it might be helpful to recap some of my favorite commons-related posts. Most all of these are focused on the Hub, the information commons at the University of Kentucky.

The Hubbub
This is our big party to welcome students to campus and introduce students to the library/the Hub.
2008 Hubbub, Our Biggest Party Yet

Three separate posts on 2007 Hubbub:
Part One: Planning Activities

Part Two: Publicity
Part Three: Staffing
Video Windows
One of the most visually striking things about our space is our video windows art display. My post on the video windows includes a number of elements: our design process, early exhibits, staffing, publicity, future plans.

Projected Floor Sign
Here's a post about our sign created from an old laptop and projector with wireless card.

Unusual Service Desks
Our service desks have gotten a fair amount of attention. I've answered a number of emails from colleagues around the world about the desks, so I thought it might be a good idea to create a post focused on the desks: why we chose them, how they've worked for us, future plans.

The Hub, The Video
Here's more about our promotional video.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Think Med School!

Think Med School!
Originally uploaded by thehubatwts
Here's an amusing motivational note from one of the Hub's whiteboards after what appeared to be an all-night study session. Spring Break starts tomorrow here--Happy Friday all!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

What Goes Around...

Back in fall 2006, my library's Facebook profile was one of the first to be shut down (profiles are for real people only, etc.). I wrote about this on a blog, including the transcript of some of my protests to Facebook to reconsider.

At that point, with my library profile removed by Facebook, I created a group for my library. Groups were kind of lame, so it was great when Facebook Pages came out in fall 2007. My library was one of the very first with a page.

Now in a post today from Mark Zuckerberg on the Facebook blog, I see that Pages will basically no longer be Pages--they will have the same features as profiles:
Starting today, we are announcing new profiles for public figures and organizations. Once called Pages, these new profiles will now begin looking and functioning just like user profiles. Just as you connect with friends on Facebook, you can now connect and communicate with celebrities, musicians, politicians and organizations. These folks will now be able to share status updates, videos, photos or anything else they want, in the same way your friends can already.
Gee Facebook, why didn't you just let me have the Facebook profile for my library back in 2006?

This is good news though--libraries will be able to be far more interactive with our users than we were with groups or with Pages. I've already updated UK Libraries status to "stop by and say hello!" For the Hub, "check out our basketball exhibit on the video windows." This could be very cool--stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Need a Study Break?

Need a study break?
Originally uploaded by thehubatwts
Yesterday we launched a popular magazine browsing area in our commons. I had been wanting to do this for some time but kept putting it off--needed to ask the appropriate staff, collect donations, etc.

Called "the Pop Stop," our area will hopefully grow to include a wider range of magazines, paperbacks, and maybe even Mad Libs and Sudoku puzzles. It's a green idea, and I'm hoping more staff will get on board and contribute. We can't rely on my embarrassingly large collection of fashion magazines alone!

Already I've observed students stopping to browse. I put a few signs in our Grub @ the Hub vending area so that those enjoying lunch in the Hub might stop by for something light to read.

March Madness @ the Hub

March Madness @ the Hub
Originally uploaded by thehubatwts
I am so excited about this month's video windows exhibit in the Hub. On display are six collections of images or video depicting the history of University of Kentucky Men's Basketball:
  • March Madness 1903-1969: A History in Images
  • March Madness 1970-2008: A History in Images
  • UK vs. Alabama 1966
  • UK vs. Duke 1978 NCAA Championship Game
  • UK vs. Georgia Tech 1992
I set up the exhibit this morning, and already I've talked to five different passers-by about it. I can't wait to see what kind of crowd we get once our publicity goes out later this week.

Special thanks to Deirdre Scaggs and Janice Childers of the University of Kentucky Archives for curating this exhibit. For more information about the archives at UK, visit

Update: More about this exhibit.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Merged IT and Library Organizations

This eight minute podcast from EDUCAUSE is a conversation about the Merged Information Services Organization (MISO) Survey. The MISO Survey focuses on all of the services--library and IT--in a merged environment.

I tend to read or listen to anything related to libraries and IT working together. Even if your organization is not officially merged, it is very likely that you are offering merged services in your commons environment.