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Life without campus computer labs; a look at the past, present and future

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Welcome to what feels like one of the most hotly discussed topics among Higher Ed IT leaders… The role of computer labs (also known as PC pools or computing clusters) in the 21st century university or college campus.

For some years now – and way before the paradigm shift caused by a completely unforeseeable global pandemic! – CIOs and other IT decision makers have been questioning whether the traditional campus computer labs are still relevant, given both:

  1. the expectations of students when it comes to technology, and the ‘how’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ they access it…
  2. … and today’s widely available technologies that promote and facilitate the mobility we all now come to expect (and the ‘consumerization of IT’)

Introduction

Throughout my time in the EdTech sector, leading industry bodies such as EDUCAUSE have long since encouraged computer labs as a discussion point. And through conversations I’ve had with hundreds of Software2/AppsAnywhere customers, it’s often one of the key drivers behind their IT strategies and student success requirements.

These “bricks and mortar” student facilities, that are essentially a managed service provided by university IT, haven’t much changed since their introduction several decades ago. They exist as the main way in which students access things like university-licensed software titles, despite more than 90% of today’s students bringing their own laptop devices with them to university…

Yet, as the world changes around campus labs, not least because of COVID-19, their role is once again thrust into the spotlight. For sure, their value is questionable in an online or even hybrid learning environment like we’re seeing in most parts of North America and Europe right now. But even once we return to normal – or whatever the new normal looks like – the validity of campus computer labs, as the sole way in which university IT provides important managed services and resources to students, isn’t crystal clear.

90%+ students have their own laptop when they start university. Yet, Higher Ed still uses, and relies on, computer labs as the preferred way to distribute IT resources...

Needless to say, in a recent poll by EDUCAUSE, labs were voted as the number one facility that required improvement, both today and in the future, with nearly 90% of respondents agreeing that “more effort is needed”:

EDUCAUSE poll reveals campus labs need more effort

But we also need to consider the importance of labs, and key scenarios that would need to be addressed if Higher Ed were to ever move entirely away from that end-user computing model. Afterall, there’s reasons why campus labs exist; equity of access to IT services, provision of university-licensed software, student success and the student experience, to name just a few.

Throughout this article, I’ll be considering each of these things, as well as suggestions and real-world examples of how we’ve seen universities and customers approach this very subject, and how they’ve improved student outcomes as a result.


Why do universities need computer labs?

Computer labs exist for a simple reason; to provide students with access to managed IT resources. In the days when PC devices first became commercially available to universities and colleges, labs were the only way of making technology accessible to most of a student population. At this point in history, computers were expensive and there was no notion of BYOD or mobility.

The role of the traditional campus computer lab

PC labs became the de facto way that students could get access to the software that was becoming increasingly important for their academic studies and coursework. As in industry itself, specialist apps were a crucial part of becoming an expert in a certain subject area. And labs made the delivery and deployment of these software titles to students, and staff, a reality.

As years went by, and computers became an indispensable part of academic life for everyone, computer labs multiplied and sprung up across campuses. They were often split up into:

  • ‘general access’ labs, which provided students a way to consume technology and get their day-to-day work done (e.g. word processing, emails etc)
  • specialist labs, which were typically only open to students in a certain faculty (e.g. engineering), and provided the relevant software and resources to those students

And this is typically the same to this day; students go to labs and libraries to use managed PC devices. There they can access a range of services including licensed software titles, printing, networks, and other internal systems such as VLE or LMS platforms.

Equity of access to academic resources

Fundamentally, labs exist to provide technology to students. And to ensure students have all they need to be successful in their academic life. In a world of BYOD where most students have their own devices – which are becoming increasingly powerful and accessible for less and less cost – labs also serve another purpose; providing equity of access to technology and digital services…

It’s important not to overlook that some students, whether it’s for socioeconomic reasons or otherwise, will inevitably not have their own devices on which to access IT services. Equally, certain resources (especially in STEM subjects for example), require higher-powered laptops or devices, which may not be available to some students.

It’s for those reasons that, arguably*, Higher Ed will always need to provide some form of on-campus lab capacity, to be sure that all students have the same chance of success, and that nobody is disadvantaged because of their access to technology.

*Some IT leaders argue that a laptop ‘loaner scheme’ or providing free laptops to groups of students is a better way of achieving equity of access than ongoing investment in campus labs.

The cost (or, at least, the perception of the cost!)

The final reason that universities ‘need’ computer labs is because of what they perceive to be the alternative, and what that would cost in terms of the technologies required and the time to manage them. Afterall, labs are the normal, de facto and incumbent way that many institutions deliver IT services. So, the costs of maintaining that model are relatively low, because the infrastructure already exists, and everyone is used to how it works.

While it may be impacting the student experience, labs ‘get the job done’. They’re the path of least resistance and the easiest way to get IT resources in the hands of the students.

The alternative to providing student IT services through the managed device model of campus computer labs, is to some extent, enabling or embracing BYOD. And this worries Higher Ed IT for several reasons:

  1. The costs involved
  2. Implementing new technologies to support it
  3. The burden on the IT helpdesk
  4. IT security concerns

I’ll confront some of these preconceptions (and misconceptions) later in this article. But BYOD isn’t the only alternative to going ‘all in’ on campus labs…

More and more universities and colleges are adopting ‘open access’ learning areas or enabling ‘virtual’ labs. These are both concepts whereby IT services follow the student across campus, as opposed to the student needing to find the right place on campus to access those resources.

This basically means that whichever device the student logs into, in any room, any building, anywhere on campus, they can access all the same resources, which historically might have only been available in certain faculty labs.


Advantages and disadvantages of managing campus labs

Some key considerations as to the pros and cons of managing campus computer labs:

Pros Cons
It’s easy (because it’s how most universities already deliver software/resources) Restrictive opening hours leads to a sub-optimal student experience
Equity of digital access (all students get the same experience) Hardware refresh cycles and associated costs
Students don’t need their own devices Time it takes for IT to image the devices
IT doesn’t need a complex or expensive VDI setup if using traditional campus labs Difficult to make mid-Semester changes to campus devices
Tends to slow the progress of BYOD programs, when the focus is on labs

Scroll / Swipe to see more


The impact of COVID on campus labs

It’s impossible not to talk about computer labs without mentioning COVID. The global pandemic has rendered traditional campus computing models obsolete, overnight. And although it’s hopefully temporary – we all want a speedy return to normal! – it’s important to consider if COVID will have a lasting impact not only on labs themselves, but on student expectations and demands for flexibility and mobility, especially when it comes to accessing resources like academic applications.

In our recent survey, we asked Higher Ed across the US and Canada about their priorities for IT in the wake of the global pandemic. Unsurprisingly, over 70% of institutions are actively following a hybrid learning path:

Results of our recent Higher Ed survey

Online learning: In an entirely online learning model, campus labs play no part. Period. Not least because there is no bricks and mortar campus at online-only institutions. Universities following a remote, distance or online learning model must find alternative ways of making IT resources available, on student-owned devices at home or on the go. But while some universities may be pursuing online learning due to COVID right now, to maintain ‘continuity of education’, it’s not expected that many will transition exclusively to this model, in the United States at least.

On-campus and hybrid/blended learning: As of writing this article (in Fall 2020), nobody can say with any confidence when Higher Ed will fully return to the traditional on-campus model of teaching and learning. While there are some people claiming this ‘when’ is more of an ‘if’, I expect that most universities and colleges across North America will return to on-campus learning, the way it was and has always been, at some point.

And in the absence of a 100% return to normality, it’s becoming clear that hybrid, phased or blended learning approaches will take precedent over online-only initiatives. Higher Ed wants to get as many students back on campus as quickly and as safely as possible. And that’s what the students want, too.

Students want to get back onto campus as quickly as possible. But behavior has changed. There'll be an expectation that an element of flexiblity remains when it comes to accessing key services like IT.

Because of all this, we think there’ll be some parts of campus life – IT and technology in particular – that will see key changes as a result of COVID and campus closures. And PC labs – essentially what is the entire provision of student-facing and ‘managed’ IT facilities – will be one of the areas that’s most impacted.

This is for a few reasons:

  1. Students’ expectations and behavior have changed. Although students seem to have an appetite for returning to campus, they will come to expect that they can still access IT resources on-demand, anywhere and anytime.
  2. IT strategies will revolve around ‘continuity of education’ for the foreseeable future. We don’t know how long COVID will last, but CIOs will want to implement solutions that protect their institutions in the future, if campuses were ever forced to shut once again.
  3. COVID has driven a new wave of digital transformation. To some extent, Higher Ed has always had a keen eye on how to remove or reduce on-campus lab capacity in favor of student-focused alternatives, and COVID has accelerated many of those priorities.
  4. Student outcomes, success and experience. During campus closures, Higher Ed IT have realized that campus labs don’t provide an optimal student experience. And most institutions, if not all, will want to fix that. ‘Equity of access’ and ‘digital equity’ will become the new focus area.
  5. Supporting hybrid/blended learning requires an evolution of ‘bricks and mortar’ facilities. To properly support hybrid learning models, the experience needs to be the same for students whether they’re on- or off-campus. That means things like labs need to evolve to become available both in-person and online.
  6. Social distancing will remain a challenge for the foreseeable future. Facilities like campus labs were entirely designed around accommodating the right number of students. Social distancing could cause lab capacity to reduce by more than 50%, and with other challenges like cleaning requirements between use, fewer students can access the IT resources they need, when they need them. Open access learning areas or virtual labs will emerge as a preference to the traditional campus lab setup.

See EDUCAUSE’s top IT issues for 2021, and their 3-point recommendations for what to restore, evolve or transform >




How to reduce or remove campus labs

Going hand-in-hand with the BYOD trend is that of reducing or eliminating physical computer labs. Most customers tell us that classroom space is a premium commoditity and always in demand as schools seek to expand enrollment.

For some, the obvious target for space reclamation is the computer labs. As the BYOD trend continues to gain traction, the need for physical computer labs does decrease, however additional technology is often required to deliver all campus resources to non-managed and BYOD computers.

Phil Spitze, Software2 Systems Architect

In this section, our Systems Architect Phil Spitze explores a few of the options he's seen our customers are using to either reduce or remove their campus labs, and call out some of the benefits and considerations for each. This includes loaner laptops, virtual labs, RDP and virtualization...

Loaner/fleet laptops

Loaner laptop fleet

Providing mobile device hardware is likely the most familiar approach and carries the least amount of administration overhead. Schools can determine hardware capabilities, centrally manage the devices if they choose, and ensure software compatibility with a Windows OS-based computer.

A couple of potential downsides is hardware expense and abuse. Students can be rough on their devices and this poses the risk of elevated repair bills. The other is initial investment costs of a laptop for every student, but some schools have worked around this by implementing a "lease back" program which results in a 'Net 0' cost.

Resource: The ultimate guide to BYOD by Software2 >>

Virtual campus PC labs

Virtual campus PC labs

The next option is to implement a VDI environment to provide a consistent and compatible computing environment to all students. Here, the costs are usually massive and of the solutions, this one carries the largest amount of administration overhead. Another consideration is why invest in a platform to deliver a full desktop to another desktop, owned by the student, just to run software apps?

With AppsAnywhere, our customers can approach 'virtual labs' in a different way. By making the apps available on any device, and not tied to campus labs PCs, universities can in fact achieve the virtual lab goal, without needing to actually virtualize the whole lab! This has other benefits, too; when students launch their virtual apps, they look, act and feel as if they're locally installed, and not running on a server somewhere in a datacenter!

Resource: Virtual campus PC labs >>

RDP (remote desktop) solutions

Remote desktop solutions

Somewhere in the middle, is the category of App Remoting. That is, delivering software apps running on a data center-hosted server to users over a remote connection. Administration overhead with this is also somewhere in the middle - not as complex as VDI, but not as simple as loaner laptops. Cost also falls somewhere in the middle.

Seemingly this is the "silver bullet" solution, but there are still some pitfalls to consider. First is usually around performance, especially for heavyweight or complex software such as CAM/CAD/3D titles. Second is security, where bad actors can piggy-back on the remote connection and get into a school's network. And third has to do with software compatibility and student experience. Not all software titles will run correctly on a server, and not all students can or want to maintain an always-on high-speed connection.

Article: Converting campus labs to remote desktops; a long-term strategy or a short-term hack? >>

Application virtualization

Application virtualization

Alongside (or perhaps underneath) all of the previous solutions has been the desire for successful application virtualization. Here, software is delivered to the campus-owned or user-owned device and run locally in a kind of bubble. For decades vendors have tried to make this work successfully, but few have; think back to things like App-V, or ThinApp, or many of the other technologies that just didn't work for Higher Ed. Changes to Windows subsystems by Microsoft, sandboxing and security challenges, and underpowered hardware can all lead to a poor student experience.

But virtualizing the apps themselves has the power to totally change the way university IT thinks about software deployment. Instead of tying the apps to physical lab devices, or indeed to a data center somewhere either in the cloud or on-campus, let the apps follow the students and run on their own devices, when or where they need them. AppsAnywhere's virtualization solution also has the ability to be taken offline, so students can still use their apps when they have no active internet connection.

Resource: The ultimate guide to application virtualization by Software2 >>

So, what's the best way of reducing campus labs?

After working within the Higher Ed market for over a decade and with customers spanning more than 20 countries, we've seen that no one, single solution is best for the use cases in universities and colleges. Software2 customers bring together several approaches, including the next-gen virtualization solutions that are built into AppsAnywhere, but also many of their existing tools; imaging/SCCM, VDI if they have it, remote app solutions, App-V and JAMF, for example.

We've seen many universities use more than three delivery tools, and a handful even have as many as five distinct ways to help students access the software apps they need, on and off campus, on any device, while reducing or optimizing campus lab space. This approach has its distinct advantages:

  • Provides the best student experience! (using the correct technology for each use case)
  • Keeps costs for IT as low as possible (and reduce VDI cost or hosted app bandwidth charges)
  • Gives IT full control and flexibility (to choose how to deliver software, on a per app basis)

A benefit of AppsAnywhere is that it gives you universal lab space. Any software is available anywhere. It improves students' experiences here on our campus because it provides consistent access to software in any lab.

Angela Neria, CIO at Pitt State University


How AppsAnywhere can help

AppsAnywhere is a single point of access for students to get all their university software. It gives Higher Ed IT a way of making your apps available on any device, anywhere and anytime. So, wherever your students are and whatever device they’re using, they can access the IT resources they need to get their work done, in a consistent way, on-demand.

That includes:

  • Campus PC labs
  • Other campus-managed devices (e.g. libraries)
  • BYO devices anywhere on campus
  • Off campus on BYO devices
  • Off campus on university-provided laptops (or otherwise)

We’ve designed AppsAnywhere especially for Higher Ed, understanding the specific use cases that universities and colleges face. We also know how those use cases are totally different to the sorts of things you’d find in a corporate or enterprise environment, and why other technologies/solutions available aren’t quite the right fit for Higher Education; whether it’s because of their features or their price tags…

So, we’ve built a virtualization solution that meets the needs of both students and university IT. And no, it’s not VDI like Citrix and VMware. It doesn’t require endless backend servers, or expensive infrastructure, or specialist IT admins to manage it. And it’s different to app streaming or hosted app solutions as well, where you need to pay bandwidth costs for all the apps your students use.

Students just want to get their work done. And they just want their apps, anywhere and anytime. Give them what they need to be successful and their student experience will be awesome.

AppsAnywhere is a solution that enables Higher Ed to deliver a better IT service to your students and staff. You can take all your software, including the apps licensed by your university, and make them available anywhere and anytime, and set all the access restrictions in the process (e.g. based on device, location, app type etc.). It’s flexible. It’s scalable. It’s awesome for students and for IT.

And it can help you:

Whether your strategy is to maintain campus labs and improve them, or if you’re planning to reduce or remove labs (and enable some BYOD), or a combination of the two, AppsAnywhere gives IT that flexibility while providing students with consistency; and the same way to get their software apps wherever and whenever.

Take a look at some of our customer stories to learn more or arrange a product tour with one of our Higher Ed experts if you’d like to find out how it works. And if you're interested in reading more on the subject of campus labs, check out the presentation given to the EDUCAUSE community by the CIO of Pittsburgh State University, Angela Neria.


Pitt State University: Promo Video