Home Virtualizing the University Computer Lab

Virtualizing the University Computer Lab

We are beginning to hear announcements fairlyfrequently about the states, school districts, and universities that are moving to the cloud for their email and productivity tools. As schools and universities adopt cloud technologies, what will become of the school computer lab?

Computer labs have been important locations on campus for students to work, study, and access computing resources. But almost all students now come to college owning their own personal computers. A recent CNN story said that 95% of college students interviewed this spring owned at least one computer (83% owned a laptop, 24% a desktop, 15% both). That’s up from 23% of students who owned laptops in 2003.

Budget Pressures

So as universities battle budget issues (as well as space issues), the rooms full of rows of PCs may seem a good target for elimination. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last fall said that 11% of universities were phasing out or planning to phase out the computer lab.

The cost savings of eliminating the computer lab can be substantial. When North Carolina State University announced its move to a virtualized computer lab, Eric Sills, the assistant vice provost touted the $500,000 saved by closing down half its labs and by not purchasing a round of new computers. Sills did admit however that the university was likely to buy more servers which would negate some of that savings with its move to virtualized computer labs.

Students and Mobile Technologies

So while cost savings might partly motivate the move to virtualize the university computer lab, doing so also fits well with the students’ learning and computing needs. Virtualized computer labs grant a 24-7 access to technology. They can be run on Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems, and in some cases, programs can be accessed via mobile devices as well. And for a bonus: no one fusses if you bring food and drink to the virtualized computer lab. You can more easily collaborate when you aren’t sitting in a room with rows and rows of PCs. And it doesn’t get overcrowded during Finals Week.

Other Considerations

Virtualizing the computer lab raises questions for schools about software licensing however. Engineering students at Colorado State, for example, can access most of the software they need for their coursework, but are minded that when they are in the Virtual Lab that they have access to the open source OpenOffice in lieu of another proprietary software. But universities are moving to offer even specialized computing resources for engineering and statistics, for example in the cloud.

Even with the push to virtualize some aspects of universities’ computing resources, many schools are opting to keep some computer labs open. Community colleges and some urban universities report much lower percentages of students who own computers, and many students still need help from IT staff.

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