Do university computer workstations still work?

Nearly ten years ago, when I was the fairly new President of Dublin City University, we opened the new O’Reilly Library in the university – a state of the art building designed to offer the right environment and facilities for today’s students. One key feature of the library was the availability of large numbers of computer workstations, on which users could consult online and digital materials. These were a popular feature of the library with students.

A few weeks ago I visited another university and was shown its library. It was also a very modern library, opened a year or two ago, and it also had a good deal of space set aside for computer workstations. But what struck me on this visit was that, despite the fact that it was close to exam time, the workstations were almost entirely unused. Other parts of the library were quite full, but here I noticed that many students were sitting at desks with their own laptops, netbooks or iPads. I asked one of the library staff, and she explained that over the past year or so they had experienced a dramatic decline in demand for the workstations. ‘If we were fitting out the building now’, she suggested, ‘we probably wouldn’t include many workstations, perhaps even none at all.’

As computers become smaller, and at least somewhat more affordable, it seems that student habits have been changing fast. Rather than looking for a university infrastructure to give them access to online materials and the internet, students are increasingly using their own hardware.

In fact, the provision of IT services in universities, even in the best ones, is often behind the times. I remember when Microsoft introduced Windows 95, which changed the nature of personal computing significantly (or rather, it brought it into line with Apple’s much earlier progress), many universities did not adopt it until perhaps three or four years later. I constantly see university workstations now operating on Windows xp, which really is so last decade. The reason for this is that universities usually prefer not to be early adopters, because often this would mean dealing with significant bugs and fixes that cost money and take up time. The risk is however that this will influence universities to make hardware and infrastructure decisions based on older technology which will involve early obsolescence.

Probably universities need to move away from a focus on hardware and instead see themselves as offering support and content for hardware owned by staff and students, as some are starting to do. This could possibly go hand in hand with the gradual phasing out of all printing services; but that’s perhaps another topic.

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12 Comments on “Do university computer workstations still work?”

  1. brian t Says:

    If my recent experiences at UCD are any guide, universities are a long way from paperlessness. We have lecturers who do not use text books, who deliberately leave gaps in their notes so that students are forced to attend lectures and scribble down the missing details in the gaps. This can include formulas, diagrams, and so on – not just words, so the standard keyboard and mouse are not enough.

    You need to use a pen of some sort. I have one lecturer who uses a Tablet PC in lectures, scribbling over his own notes, yet sometimes that doesn’t work e.g. last week we lost half a lecture when it stopped recognising the pen. If that happens to a student, do you think the lecturer will wait? Hardly.

    Nope – paper is currently the only reliable system for quickly annotating documents that is available to all students. The standard laptops students buy don’t have the flexibility and reliability they need in typical lecture situations. When the lecture starts, and you need to write over many pages of PDF notes, while still paying attention, there is no time to futz around with technology – you either get the info down on paper immediately, or it’s gone forever.

    • john Bisset Says:

      There are several issues here I think, Brian. The comment you make that some lecturers don’t use text books is interesting. Is this that they ignore the books they recommend, or deliberately contradict what is said within them? That could be to get debate going, to get students to challenge what is said, or it may demonstrate confusion or disagreement between teaching staff!

      ‘Forced to attend lectures’ – things are desperate if that is what lecturers need to do to encourage attendance. Lectures should add to information provided or available to you in other ways, and throw light on the subject from a different angle, hopefully. You should want to attend lectures – that is why you are at University, to learn from others.

      Personally I dislike over use of computers – especially for Death by Powerpoint. Avoiding excess Powerpoint and computer use during lectures and encouraging some writing of brief notes on paper can help reinforce learning. ‘Hear it, see it, write it’, an old trainer’s adage.

      Paperlessness as a concept I don’t like – reduced waste of paper and resources I do. You are also entirely correct, in my view – ‘Paper IS the only reliable way of quickly annotating documents’ – not only for students. We are close to being able to do this otherwise, but the technology is still shaky and vulnerable to hacking.

      I do agree that Universities need to drastically rethink their povision of IT services generally. The vested interest dinosaurs have taken over , and of course none of us users can be trusted to do things properly.

      John Bisset

      • brian t Says:

        Well, my experience is with the Engineering curriculum, and not all lecturers had the same policies. We were never required to buy prescribed textbooks, though I did buy a few for my own sake. That is something for which I am very grateful, just for the cost savings.

        I am a mature student who treats it like a job, so I attended lectures even where the provided notes were complete. It did make it annoying when some lecturers played games with deliberately incomplete notes – or none at all. At times I felt like saying “look: we can listen, or we can write – pick one”.

  2. Steve Button Says:

    I sat in a 2 hour meeting yesterday with another 15 or so colleagues discussing the annual course appraisals’ amongst a plethora of other issues. Paperwork was extensive but I was the only person who used a touchpad tablet. This allowed me to have at my fingertips’ 37 documents without having to print anything at all.

    However due to the Universities IT firewall I was unable to log into it’s ‘supposedly’ open wireless network. I had to use my Samsung Galaxy 2S phone (much better than an I phone by the way) and its 3G capability to access the internet, turn on its wireless hotspot facility and pick up the material that way.

    Imagine sitting in a building which has wireless but you are prevented from accessing its due to firewall issues. I can sit happily a wee café in a little remote village in Ireland enjoying a cup of tea and merrily accessing my University email and my Moodle material but I can’t when I am sitting in the my University building in Aberdeen. Ridiculous or what?

    I know that many students have the same problems. Why are we still building huge library facilities with countless computers when few use them and they are using obsolete operating systems? Is this yet another example of the University sector making future plans based on outmoded technology and thinking?

    Come on its time to wake up and realise that it’s the 21st century we are now in and not the early 1990’s

    • Always such a relief to discover that these are common frustrations. I can easily work wirelessly using my iPad from McDonalds, but not from my own campus — not even in my own office about half the time.

      But I think the issue is the effort to balance risk management in IT security with a disciplinary notion of service cost control that is bundled into the idea of the leased and managed desktop environment. It’s hard to appreciate the justification for any of this, because in general university IT services don’t publicise the details of speculative or deliberate system attacks, so we’re left with a generalised account of the risk that without a shark net around institutional IT use, we’ll end up with substantial future liability for something or other.

      And then the risk this ushers in is that we end up with work environments that are frugal, safe and becoming less and less usable, which in turns makes institutional PR about open, flexible, mobile, innovative etc etc harder to bear. This isn’t “academia” preferring a horse and bucket, though. Far from it.

  3. The recent announcement by Dublin City University (DCU) that it was adopting the Chromebook as a standard for students seems right on the money to me. This should probably be done for staff as well. It simplifies everything if all access to services can be done through a standard browser. You can then assume that everyone is accessing over the Internet and it does not matter whether they are inside or outside the Institute. You don’t have to waste manpower making sure that everyone’s settings and software are the same. You can allow staff to use their own machines (which are usually better than those supplied). You can use desktop virtualisation to facilitate access to more unusual applications. You don’t have to spend money on computer labs. Sounds like a bit of a no-brainer, doesn’t it? So why aren’t more doing it?

    • Steve Button Says:

      Brain, sounds like an ideal solution but by the time the University sector as a whole wakes up the real benefits that technology can bring us we will all be whizzing around using Star Trek teleporting devices. Of course Academia will still be firmly earth bound and chugging around in horse and carts.

      I’m afraid this IT issue like so many others affecting Academia is endemic and there are just too many vested interests with their own little empires to deal with them effectively.

      A friend who happens to be a Lecturer in Ireland has faced a second week of IT Moodle disasters and her Institutions library has been without any wireless connectivity as well.
      What about the poor students? This drive to adopt ever more virtual environments for teaching material seems to be prone to abysmal IT reliability.

  4. Vincent Says:

    Would the purchasing office not have taken into account the shortness of lifespan with these machines when they were projecting cost over their lives.
    The reason the machines were in place in the first instance was to make affordable access to newer tech that many couldn’t afford in a month of Sundays. And for what it’s worth one of the reason I dislike Apple is that they had good stuff but priced it so that many couldn’t afford it.

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    The problems with university IT in this country (Ireland) are legion.

    At my place (UCD), computer purchases come out of School budgets. If that budget is constrained, as they tend to be nowadays, computer purchases will not occur at all. Some academic staff I know have given up in frustration, purchasing their own computers. Since a computer, particularly a laptop, is an absolute necessity for most lecturers today, by purchasing their own these lecturers are effectively subsidising their employer. Which may be part of the plan all along.

    When computers are purchased, they are invariably bargain-basement machines, at least in Arts. We are offered the cheapest Dell going and not a laptop either. If someone is very adept on macs (as I am), they have to go through endless hassle to get one. There doesn’t seem to be any sense that sometimes spending a little more is more cost effective than spending the absolute minimum.

    Then there are the procurement procedures. We can only buy from “approved suppliers.” This is in the name of “accountability” and saving the taxpayer money. Never mind that I can pick up a laptop on one of my frequent trips to North America at a significant discount: that is ruled out in the name of “saving money” by using the “official suppliers.”

    Forward-looking universities recognise a few things:

    1) a computer, once purchased for a staff member is effectively their personal property and not likely in its lifetime to be used by anyone else;
    2) computers at the end of their useful lives (5 years maximum) are worth almost nothing and are therefore recyclable;
    3) given that the need for them is universal for academic staff and that laptops are more useful than desktops usually and given that computers today are almost entirely interoperable (macs can function in Windows environments) but that preferences differ, the best way to purchase computers is to have a central computing budget and each staff member is given a personal computer budget every 3-4 years with which to purchase whatever they want. If they want something more expensive than what the budget allows for, they can pay the difference (since it doesn’t really matter who “owns” it given (1) and (2)).

    UCD and probably other universities in Ireland like to play a different game: anarchy, with all the fighting over resources that that implies. Rich Schools that are flush with JYA money for reasons of happenstance (e.g. School of History, School of English) have loads of resources. Less flush Schools may replace equipment every 6 years if that. I have colleagues using 10-year-old desktop computers who have never owned or been given a laptop. And you wonder why IT use lags…

    • john Bisset Says:

      You are not alone Ernie. Our lot buy in penny packets at School level too. Also with the ‘approved suppliers’ absurdity. They appear to have no idea of basic business practices whatever. Simple stuff like finding out what their customers needs are, establishing some standard hardware setups and buying those in bulk, both for computers and printers, server elements, so that breakdowns can be rapidly covered from operational reserve.

      Then they complain that costs are high, and try to remove resource and flexibility, by establishing ‘strategies’ which they devise without any consultation or thought outside their own narrow boundaries. The sort of forward looking strategy you describe is perhaps too dangerously decentralised and free thinking for many of the control freaks who still exist at high level.

      Do your senior management or service provider managers spend any time talking with the operational level trainers about how things are going? (Normal behaviour in industry) Many of ours give the impression they wouldn’t know where to find school teaching staff. No doubt terribly busy people, away in a world of their own, all paid for by the rest of us.
      Schools which are struggling certainly have in the past been treated, again, wuite differently from the way we typically deal with struggling business units in industry. ‘Sink or swim’ on your own appears to have been the norm here.
      I’d like to think this is changing, but that would require senior academics to be prepared to learn, Some few, the best, will chnage while many won’t bother, because they see no reason to.

  6. Chris M Says:

    All of this sounds really true, but that’s only part of the picture I am afraid. In terms of software the situation is even worse.
    Why does third level institute pays to use MS Office is beyond me (except to teach it to those who actual need it) when there are perfectly working free, open source solutions.
    Worse, many third level institutions use Microsoft server for their email system: they actually have email servers on the premises with all that entails in terms of initial cost, maintenance and general lack of flexibility (e.g. poor space quotas). Why they are not told to drop that (or funded only to support the cheaper alternatives) and move to a cloud based solution?

  7. intrepidtraveller Says:

    Im a student in UCD (did my undergrad in DCU though!) and still feel there is a great need for computer work stations in the library. I dont like carrying my laptop into college so take all my noted traditionally with pen and paper then use the computers in the library to work on assignments etc.
    Considering the size of the student body and the vastness of the library there is a evident LACK of computer workstations. I always have to wait at least 10 minutes, often longer, for a computer to be free. I can remember coming up to Exam time this was often the same in DCU but given UCD’s much larger student body, there are half as many computers.
    Just my 2 cents. 🙂

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