Tuesday, 14 August 2007

No more student computer labs ?

Student computer labs fascinate me. Actually they don't, but a large part of my professional life has been tied up in their provision and the facilities provided.

However I'm now beginning to wonder if the way we think about student labs is outdated.

When student labs first came about it was in the days of timesharing systems and all one needed to provide was several rooms full of Wyse WY-85's, VT220's or whatever as all the software was on the timesharing system.

Then came the rise of the pc and the network. Originally universities provided labs full of pc's as they were expensive and crucially the software was expensive. Not to mention the fact that computer lab provision was one of the metrics used (in the UK at least) to assess teaching quality.

Over the years people have tried thin client in various forms, but it's never really taken off, in part because Citrix licensing makes the cost of a large scale deployment prohibitive, and desktop pc's were cheap.

The world has now changed, due to the rise of the laptop and the wireless network, not to mention cheap broadband. Suddenly the idea of a thin client/web 2.0 environment seems attractive, especially as students universally have access to a computing device of their own and some sort of network connectivity, but due to the need to work increasing numbers of hours to fund their studies, can't drop in to use a general purpose student lab.

What they need is access to some basic tools, and a compute/execution environment for the specialist and expensive software they need to use. As students almost universally have access to a computing device and network connect we don't even need to provide the hardware to run the thin client on - a software client such as citrix's ica will do fine.

And with the rise of virtualisation and technologies such as the vmware player we can potentially give students pre-rolled environments to work with.

Possibly high end cheap printing is also a requirement, but we already know how to do that.

So suddenly we're talking about providing services not facilities. Of course there will also need to be small labs of high end specialist hardware, but really for the bread and butter stuff we're talking about providing access, and actually suddenly our lives become much easier - need a new app?, roll it on a vm. Apps don't play nice together? no worries separate them out to separate thin client sessions.

And of course suddenly we don't need to worry about having kit stolen from open access labs, hardware refresh and maitenance and the like ...

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