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.