Teaching and learning now involves the use of computational tools via software applications in virtually every academic field. Twenty years ago, the primary delivery system of software and hardware was the campus computer lab. Gradually, as student computer ownership became common, many software applications began to migrate to the student’s own computer. Yet the general-use computer labs continued as the norm.
General-use computing labs on campuses command a significant percentage of academic IT budgets, both in materials and in labor expenditures. Given the current economic climate, this cost is driving intensive scrutiny of the role of and need for these labs. Student ownership is limited with respect to costly high-end software applications — those requiring high-end hardware or major technical support. For these applications, specialized campus labs will still be needed. But the general-function labs providing less-demanding applications come into question. The installation and upkeep costs, in combination with the current configuration of the labs (e.g., refreshing relatively powerful desktop computers on a three-to-four-year cycle), take dollars and human energy away from other academic pursuits.
Student ownership of computers does not eliminate all of the difficulties found in maintaining labs. Negotiating the hardware, license, and support issues with respect to the student-owned computers is costly. In addition, the heterogeneity of hardware and also of software environments (e.g., which Java Toolkit version is installed?) frequently leads to obstacles for instructors and students in the effective use of learning tools.
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