Ubiquity: Laptop Culture and the Demise of the Campus Computer Lab

Last week, Ars Technica asked: When every student has a laptop, why run computer labs? The article reported on the University of Virginia’s recent decision to “dismantle the community computer labs” at the school, after discovering that in 2007, 3,113 out of 3,117 freshmen arrived on campus with computers in tow (the vast majority of which were laptops.) School administrators took a look around, and realized that the computer lab’s moment may have passed. An artifact of a time when colleges were working to integrate computers, word processing, and eventually the Internet into the curriculum, computer labs operated as a kind of talisman against protest: teachers could demand papers be word-processed, because even if you don’t own a computer, the lab meant you had no excuse. The project succeeded: computers, today, are an integral part not only of students’ education, but of their entertainment and social life as well.

As a cost-cutting measure, closing community computer labs on college campuses seems to make sense: unlike grassy quads, computer labs seldom encouraged student happiness or wellbeing; unlike campus health centers, they can now hardly be kept around out of dire necessity. In my experience as a computer user assistant at Harvard, it’s overwhelmingly true that most students arrive at school Harvard with a laptop. [In the comments, Kevin correctly points out that to extend this to all schools would be a massive overgeneralization, considering different degrees of personal computer ubiquity/scarcity at different institutions in the U.S. and indeed across the world. (In my eagerness to confirm the University of Virginia’s observations with my own, I slipped and effectively extended the observation to cover all institutions everywhere—certainly not my intention!) See Kevin’s comment below for a thoughtful discussion & links. I’m especially interested in his entreaty to somehow move beyond running in analytical “Participation Gap”/”Digital Divide” circles, to a deeper understanding of the variety of situations at hand.] And yet, in the many hours I’ve spent at the helpdesk in one of Harvard’s main computer labs over the past few years, I’ve observed that the lab is busy and bustling almost 24 hours a day. Students definitely make use of community computer labs when they’re there; if they don’t have to, and the labs are kind of dismal places to begin with, then what’s the deal?

Over the Digital Natives list this week, we discussed a few possibilities. Computer lab computers, for one thing, tend to have large screens and real keyboards; for certain kinds of graphics work, or prolonged typing, a desktop computer in place of a laptop can make a difficult project slightly less miserable. They also provide a source of overflow computing without the requirement of maintaining a separate distribution network—imagine a college’s IT department trying to loan out, and keep track of, a fleet of laptops for students whose computers have died during finals? Also, though modern Macs are capable of dual-booting Windows and OS X, few students actually do so. Computer labs make it possible for schools to offer students access to operating systems (and the attendant OS-specific programs) that they would otherwise be unable to run.

Computer labs offer a combination of connectivity and escape at the same time: they provide a location, a destination, where all of the necessary technological tools are assembled and maintained. They also establish in student’s minds the existence of a “computer place” on campus—the natural place to gravitate toward when your laptop has gotten a virus, or its hard drive has died, or you’re wondering how to set up your email client. Here, the IT helpdesk is right in the computer lab, reinforcing that relationship.

With laptops all but ubiquitous, community computer labs may seem frivolous. But that very ubiquity, and its inescapability, means that colleges have a responsibility to respect and support the relationship between students and computers. A computer lab sends a strong signal, offers an obvious location to honor and troubleshoot that relationship, and gives students an alternative to squinting at tiny screens. They may not be necessary, but campus computer labs are nevertheless good to have around.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on computer ubiquity, how campus computer culture has changed over time, and anything else that’s on your mind—comment away!