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The Myth about the Need for Public Computer Labs


© 2007 Brian L. Hawkins and Diana G. Oblinger. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 42, no. 5 (September/October 2007): 10–11

Brian L. Hawkins is President of EDUCAUSE. Diana G. Oblinger is Vice President of EDUCAUSE, where she is responsible for the association's teaching and learning activities and for the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI). Comments on this article can be sent to the authors at bhawkins@educause.edu and doblinger@educause.edu.

Today's students appear to be technologically proficient—IMing constantly, e-mailing photos from their cell phones, and socializing on the Internet. Although this isn't a negative generalization, it masks the reality for a significant percentage of the student body: those who don't own their own personal computers. According to the 2005 EDUCAUSE Core Data survey, 72 percent of all college and university students own their own computers. At public institutions, which enroll the majority of students in higher education, 36 percent of students do not own their own computers. Students at research universities are far more likely to own computers than are students at community colleges, where ownership averages 38.5 percent.1

Many students simply cannot afford the technology or the software applications. Only in rare cases does this expense fall into the calculations for financial aid. Thus, there is still an obligation for campuses to provide adequate public computers for those students who cannot afford to own the technology. Even if students do have their own computers, those living off-campus may not have broadband access for sharing large data sets and images or for getting rapid Web response—all of which can limit educational success. Although eliminating public computer labs may be seen as a way for an institution to reduce costs, the more significant impact may be on equity of technology access—and ultimately educational opportunity.

Owning a computer isn't enough. The computer must be sufficient for the task, in terms of both speed and software. In a course that requires advanced applications, such as 3D rendering or animation, a personal computer may not have enough power or network throughput or may not have the right applications to do the work. When faced with insufficient computer resources, students have nowhere to turn other than a computer lab. In addition, faculty are reluctant to depend on student-owned computers for classroom exercises because of the variability among computers. Finally, many students do not like to carry their computers from class to class, due to problems with the weight, battery life, and network availability.

The role of computer labs continues to evolve from a "room with technology" to a multifaceted space utilized for collaboration, socialization, and computational research. As faculty increase the number of software applications used and team projects required, students view labs as a logical place for group work. Public clusters provide more than just access to the technology. These are "social places" where students can collaborate and share expertise, both technical and disciplinary. Labs may even be used off-hours for entertainment (e.g., LAN parties or gaming tournaments).

Instructional labs may also bring value beyond instruction. Student computer labs represent an untapped computing resource, for students and researchers. Just as PCs in research labs can be clustered, the same can be done in an instructional environment. By harnessing the unused lab cycles, campuses can provide opportunities for computationally rich student projects, such as modeling, animation, and simulations. As student demand ebbs and flows throughout the semester, faculty can take advantage of the unused cycles for research.

In thinking about the need for public computer labs, the CIO and other members of the executive team should ask themselves the following strategic questions:

  1. Do we know how many students have PCs on campus with them? With no figures for computer ownership, determining the number, size, and location of public computer labs becomes guesswork. The same is true for the level of support needed. Although national figures may provide a benchmark, they aren't precise enough for campus planning.
  2. What specialized applications are required? For how many students? Institutions should periodically conduct an inventory of specialized applications and usage. This will allow an understanding of what applications are needed, the departments that have those needs, and the number of students needing these applications. As technology becomes increasingly critical in all disciplines, institutions may also want to plan for how the demands on computer labs will change.
  3. Do we know when, why, and how often existing facilities are used? What would be the impact of closing them? It is useful to know—rather than guess—how computers in public clusters are actually being used. Formal surveys and informal interviews can inform decisions about the appropriate number and size of clusters. Although a reduction in the number of computer labs may be required due to space or funding issues, campuses should understand why students are going to the labs and should consider alternative services. For example, a campus may want to provide software access through terminal services or new licensing arrangements.
  4. What is the appropriate ratio of public-access computers per student for the campus? The appropriate ratio of computers is determined by the culture, service commitment, academic goals, and range of course offerings at a particular institution. There is not a "right" answer based on benchmarking or norms—only a qualitative answer based on an understanding of the institution.

Eliminating all public computer labs is not in the best interests of any campus. The key to conserving resources while providing service lies in knowing the appropriate number of computers, the software needed, the location of the computers, and the hours of use. There is no single answer for all institutions. Understanding the student profile, the students' needs, and the service culture of the campus will lead to the best solution.


1. Brian L. Hawkins and Julia A. Rudy, EDUCAUSE Core Data Service: Fiscal Year 2005 Summary Report (Boulder, Colo.: EDUCAUSE, 2006), 32–33.

Brian L. Hawkins

Brian L. Hawkins was president of EDUCAUSE from 1998-2007. Prior to joining EDUCAUSE, Hawkins was senior vice president for Academic Planning and Administrative Affairs at Brown University. In this capacity, he oversaw academic planning, instructional budget management, campus computing, enrollment management, institutional research, summer programs, admission, financial aid, and student registration. Hawkins went to Brown in 1986 as vice president for Computing and Information Services. In 1989, he filled in as senior vice president for Finance and Administration, and then was appointed special assistant to the president for Academic Planning while he spearheaded Brown’s strategic planning processes. In 1997, he served as part of a three-person team standing in for the president of Brown University.

Before going to Brown, Hawkins was associate vice president for Academic Affairs at Drexel University. At Drexel, he was responsible for general academic planning and the first academic program in the nation to require access to a microcomputer, as well as integrating the use of technology throughout the curriculum.

Hawkins is a management professor by training and the author of one book and many articles on organizational behavior. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State University and his doctorate from Purdue University. He taught at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and served there as department chairman and assistant dean of the College of Business. His organizational work focused on organizational structure, conflict management, communication, and performance appraisal. He earned tenure as faculty member at both UTSA and Drexel.

Hawkins has combined his academic and business experience to serve as a consultant to more than 350 organizations. In 1983, the governor of Pennsylvania asked him to initiate a corporate, industrial, public, and educational partnership in Southeastern Pennsylvania to create start-up companies and develop new jobs. Nearly two decades later, this program is still thriving.

Throughout his career, Hawkins has served on a variety of boards and committees. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the Forum for the Future of Higher Education and the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Hawkins served as a member of the board of trustees of the University of Richmond and the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) General Assembly and as chair and member of the boards of Educom and CAUSE. He also served on the boards of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) and the International Consortium for Educational Computing. Additionally, Hawkins has been a member of higher education advisory boards for Apple, IBM, NeXT, Sun, and Microsoft and has served on more than 60 advisory panels for various colleges and universities.

He has written extensively, including four books, numerous articles, book chapters, and monographs on information resources, academic planning, and the use of technology in higher education. Hawkins has received two honorary doctorates of science. In 1991, he received the CAUSE ELITE Award, a lifetime achievement award for Exemplary Leadership and Information Technology Excellence. He has served actively on accreditation teams as a chair and member, as well as the standards committee for North East Association of Schools and Colleges. Hawkins has been an invited speaker at professional meetings including the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE), Educom, CAUSE, the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), the American Association of Publishers (AAP), the Association for College Research Libraries (ACRL), the National Association of College Stores (NACS), the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC).


Diana Oblinger

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger President and CEO of EDUCAUSE

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology. The current membership comprises over 2,300 colleges, universities and education organizations, including 250 corporations. Previously, Oblinger held positions in academia and business: Vice President for Information Resources and the Chief Information Officer for the University of North Carolina system, Executive Director of Higher Education for Microsoft, and IBM Director of the Institute for Academic Technology. She was on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at Michigan State University and served as the associate dean of academic programs at the University of Missouri.

Since becoming president of EDUCAUSE, Oblinger has become known for innovative product and services growth as well as international outreach. For example, Oblinger created the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), known for its leadership in teaching, learning and technology innovation as well as several signature products, such as the 7 Things You Should Know About series. She also initiated EDUCAUSE's first fully online events and its e-book series, including Educating the Net Generation and Learning Spaces.

In collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation she led the creation of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a $30M program focused on improving college readiness and completion through information technologies. Partners include the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Hewlett Foundation.

Oblinger has served on a variety of boards such as the board of directors of ACT, the editorial board of Open Learning, the National Science Foundation's Advisory Committee on Cyberinfrastructure, and the National Visiting Committee for NSF's National Science Digital Library project. She currently serves on the American Council on Education (ACE) board and works with other higher education associations as chair of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Dr. Oblinger has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Employment, Safety and Training and the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Technology.

Oblinger is a frequent keynote speaker as well as the co-author of the award-winning book What Business Wants from Higher Education. She is the editor or co-editor of seven books: The Learning Revolution, The Future Compatible Campus, Renewing Administration, E is for Everything, Best Practices in Student Services, Educating the Net Generation, and Learning Spaces. She also is the author or co-author of numerous monographs and articles on higher education and technology.

Dr. Oblinger has received outstanding teaching and research awards, was named Young Alumnus of the Year by Iowa State University and holds two honorary degrees. She is a graduate of Iowa State University (Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D.) and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.




Another Value for Public Computer Labs

Public computer labs are often about more than just access to computers and software. Typically, they are the site at which information technology services touch the students - a place where students can request and get help from IT professionals, student workers, and fellow students. In some institutions, teaching assistants will often provide tutorial or help hours within public computer labs. One should not forget the value of these "high touch" activities when balancing the public labs question.

Posted by: gkidney on October 9, 2007

Not just a have/have not issue

While the authors largely couch the need for public computer labs as an equity issue there is evidence that the need extends well beyond students personal ownership of computers. I have worked with the Merged Information Services Organizations (MISO) survey for three years. The 30 participating institutions are mostly top liberal arts colleges. In our survey, well over 90% of all students own their own computers. Yet despite this nearly universal computer ownership students overwhelming named public computing labs as the most important service our organizations provide. This may be related to printing, or access to specialized programs, or as some focus groups have suggested simply because students prefer to do their academic work in public labs. Whatever the reasons may be, it seems clear that public computer labs are important to students whether they own a computer or not.

Posted by: dconsiglio on September 1, 2007


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