From Computer Labs to Coffee Shops - About Time!

I recently walked through a number of buildings on various campuses and looked into quite a few computer "labs" that were mostly empty. One thing I didn't do then, and could kick myself now for failing to do, was walk in and ask some of the students who were in the labs why they were there. That would be a pretty good idea, actually, asking them instead of their IT staff. Is anyone doing that? Or are IT staff asking each other whether or not student computer labs need to continue their existence?

That begs the question of why we even call them "labs" anymore, of course, and my primary observation was that there weren't very many students in there anyway, whatever their reasons were for being there.

Various recent surveys have brought to light statistics on how many students do or don't own their own computers. More and more of those surveys try to account for how many are laptops and how many are desktops. It's pretty clear that a middle-class student whose parents live together and who is primarily of European descent is going to have a computer.

Maybe a desktop, but in the last year, it has become more likely that they own a laptop. It's pretty clear that a student from a recently immigrated family in an impoverished area may not have a computer, or one raised by a single parent in a poor, urban area may not have a computer. (Although less likely than before.) From those studies and from practical experience, IT managers have their own opinions about whether or not generalized computer labs are for many campuses a thing of the past.

It's especially tough for me to imagine students without computers, partly because I am at the University of Michigan. Here, it's not a question of whether a student has a computer or not, it's a question of how many, how new, how powerful, or whether they also have a PDA?or some more expensive converged device. (Like my Treo 600)

And, of course, schools which serve financially challenged students and who know they have a low-rate of computer ownership are also in a different situation. I don't want to second-guess the folks who are there in the trenches, serving the students and running those labs. But even in those cases, there may be some thinking to go through about whether to provide labs or to undertake programs to enable the students to own their own machines rather than create and operate "labs."

Why is that? Well, there is so much to learn about using a computer and getting familiar with its capabilities that students who have only the option of occasional and limited time in a computer lab probably don't even develop decent typing skills, much less rid themselves of fear of the machine. And basic computer skills?knowing how to turn it on and off, load and uninstall software, dial-up, make a wireless or wired connection, navigate the Web, and so forth?may not be *required* in the specific technical field a particular student is pursuing studies in, but you can be assured that the student will have to have those skills at some point in their working life. And if they're missing them after they graduate from your school, your school has not done its job.

Right at this point in time it might be difficult to see why someone studying mortuary science or dental hygiene needs to work with a laptop computer or a PDA. But if you take a serious look 5 years down the road it's hard to imagine a future where they *won't* need those skills. Having "labs" perpetuates the notion that having a computer is somehow extraordinary, which it should not be.

Specialized labs are a different situation, especially where for curricular purposes students need to be working with specialized, expensive, or hard to install software. Just like expensive textbooks, students aren't going to shell out huge bucks for a piece of software they're likely to use for only one class. You will find even the more affluent students who own PDAs and laptops both in those computer labs. These types of labs should be funded by pertinent student fees.

Included in specialized labs would be the kinds of resources like high-speed or top-notch color printers, scanning devices, and the like. These "technology centers" are general in the sense of academic relationships but specific in providing resources that students might want but for which they don't want to invest for the hardware and supplies. Those types of "computer labs" should be profit centers.

An entirely different situation is the need for socializing space. Big media centers and student unions, the kind of *huge* computer areas that seat 200-300 students, serve some of that student need to see and be seen. And now, maybe the generalized computer lab on at least some affluent classes is morphing into coffee cafes? That's why what appears to be a growing trend for coffee shops in libraries piqued my interest. A quick search finds dozens of news releases and articles about coffee "pubs" and coffee "bars" in such places as North Carolina State University, the University of Colorado Law School, and the Leddy Library at the University of Windsor in Ontario. After all, in many of our libraries, all we're missing is the coffee.

This may strike some as more coddling of students, or more pandering to their "wants" instead of the "needs," but I think that the knowledge age worker of the future is going to work in an environment that is far more reminiscent of a coffee shop than it is of a 70s-era computer lab.

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