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The Invisible Computer Lab

  • January 20, 2011

In the future, campus computer labs will be invisible, personal computers will be shapeshifters, and colleges will have to spend much less to make sure students have access to the software they need for certain courses.

This according to technology officials at several colleges that have recently deployed “virtual computing labs” — Web-based hubs where students can go to use sophisticated programs from their personal computers without having to buy and install expensive software, or slog to a campus lab and pray for a vacant workstation.

Essentially, the virtual “lab” is a protocol that takes programs running on college hardware and beams the images via the Web to any computer desktop, where students can create and save work as though the programs were running on their own hard drives. Since the performance of the software does not depend on the processing power of the computer — only on the strength of the Internet connection — even students with relatively clunky machines can use advanced software without difficulty, campus technologists say.

And with many courses requiring that students do work in number-crunching programs such as Mathematica, or editing software from Adobe, or even basic tools such as the Microsoft Office suite, virtual computing labs could be a windfall for students who prefer to work from their own desks and cannot afford to purchase the software, which can cost hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.

“Imagine you’re a student and you say, ‘I want my computer to look like this and [do] this particular piece of work,’ and it does,” says Art Vandenberg, a technologist at Georgia State University, which is moving its own virtual lab out of the beta phase this spring. “It’s that magical.”

Described this way, virtual computing labs might seem a bit sci-fi — Vandenberg invoked Star Trek when discussing the technology with Inside Higher Ed, and the protean powers of the Wonder Twins and Inspector Gadget also leap to mind. But the process of “beaming” an image from a campus machine to a computer screen across a quad — or an ocean — is in fact just another iteration of a technology that has long been part of campus information management: cloud computing.

Well before the term entered the popular lexicon via a recent Microsoft advertising campaign, “the cloud” was transforming how college students interact with their coursework. Thanks to hosted services from Google and Microsoft, e-mail archives became bottomless. Students could collaborate on documents without constantly having to constantly pass around updated drafts. For those who use it, Google Docs has all but cured the anxiety of losing unfinished papers to malfunctioning hardware.

Google and Microsoft’s education suites, which together serve about half of all nonprofit colleges, do not need to be installed in individual machines; they run on Google and Microsoft servers at data farms in Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, and elsewhere, while students operate them on their own screens. Ditto Facebook. Virtual computing labs work in basically the same way, except the programs are oriented to coursework and run on college-owned servers.

In a virtual computing lab, students log in via a secured website and choose from a library of “images” — virtual desktops outfitted with different versions of various programs. The selected image then appears as a window on the student’s own computer desktop, at which point students can open a program and begin working. They can save or print their work just as though the program were running on their own hard drives.

By enabling students to run high-level programs and work with memory-leeching data sets without burdening their own wallets or hard drives, virtual computing labs could prove to be another boon for students. “Being able to get to a physical computer lab on campus is sometimes physically very hard for students to do,” especially at a time when distance education is booming, says Sharon Pitt, executive director of instructional technology at George Mason University.

Invisible Labs and the Invisible Hand

George Mason and Georgia State — along with North Carolina State University, Marist College, and two campuses in the California State University System — are part of a cohort of institutions that are, to varying degrees, experimenting with virtual computing labs. That cohort stands to grow: asked by the Campus Computing Project to assess the importance of various technologies to I.T. planning over the next few years, technology administrators at 523 campuses last fall rated “desktop virtualization” a 5.1 out of 7, landing it in the middle of the pack among networking priorities. But at a time when most universities are weathering a financial famine, innovations that save them money often have a better chance at gaining ground than ones that merely make life easier for students. And advocates testify to another, perhaps more compelling fact driving virtual computing labs as an alternative to brick-and-mortar ones: virtual is cheaper.

That was the main reason California State University decided to pilot a virtual computing lab last spring at its Cal State East Bay and Northridge campuses. The system, which was facing fiscal woes even before California Gov. Jerry Brown proposed to slash its budget by $500 million last week, has determined that by bypassing certain expenditures tied to traditional labs — new hardware, new space, staffing, and the labor hours associated with constantly updating and maintaining each computer — the Cal State East Bay campus could save significantly on each new “seat” by adding to the capacity of its virtual lab rather than its physical ones, says Lee Thompson, the deputy chief information officer there.

Thompson did not provide specific savings estimates, but Georgia State’s Vandenberg said his university had saved between $300 and $400 on each new seat by going virtual. William Thirsk, the chief information officer at Marist, estimated about the same. The Campus Computing Project estimates that large, public universities have nearly 250 computer labs, clusters, and classrooms. Private colleges average around 50. Those estimates encompass both large banks and small clusters, but all represent "seats" that institutions could, theoretically, provide for less money through virtual computing.

California’s public universities are expected to try to recoup their shrinking state subsidies by increasing enrollments — most likely online — meaning East Bay and other California State campuses could rely on the virtual computing lab to accommodate a growing and increasingly far-flung student population. Thompson says he expects virtual labs to increasingly supplant traditional labs at California State, especially as the system begins offering computing-intensive majors online. “We’re looking to build for the future, not for the past,” he says.

Before it set up its own virtual computing lab in spring 2009, George Mason's master plan called for a new 2,400-square-foot, 100-seat computer lab as part of an expansion of its campus that would include the construction of three new buildings. According to Pitt, the director of instructional technology, the new physical lab would have cost $180,000, at the very least, to build (though top-end estimates ranged much higher), and then around $61,000 yearly to maintain. Instead, the university opted for a 112-“seat” virtual lab for $120,000 to build, plus an extra $1,000 for climate control in the server closet. There will be additional costs for server upkeep, Pitt says, but George Mason does not yet know what those costs will be. In any case, she expects that building a virtual lab from scratch will prove substantially more cost-effective than the alternative.

One factor that could either strengthen or weaken the cost argument is how software companies decide to license their products if and when virtual computing labs proliferate on college campuses, Pitt says. As it stands, companies generally charge campuses for software licenses based on how many students might use the product, which is potentially all of them. In virtual labs, network administrators can more precisely track how many students are using different programs. Just as librarians can more accurately track the popularity of academic journals in the digital age, campus technologists might try to leverage usage data to get a better rate. “We potentially can go back to vendors and say, ‘You’re charging based on 10,000 students and faculty accessing it, and we show that 3,000 people use it, so we want a better rate,’ ” Pitt says.

The catch is that there is no telling how software vendors might change their pricing models due to changes in the landscape. “When you’re talking about the provision of software as a service, it’s sometimes difficult for vendors to understand how they continue to make a profit in this very new arena of providing these services,” says Pitt. To wit, some libraries have seen their subscription costs go up in the era of usage-based pricing. The same could happen in the case of virtual computing labs. “It really depends on the vendor,” Pitt says.

Only 10 percent of colleges have begun phasing out their physical computer labs, even though the vast majority of students now own laptops, according to the Campus Computing Project. A full two-thirds of respondents to last fall’s survey said they had decided not to phase out their labs. Yet all of the technologists contacted by Inside Higher Ed agreed that virtual computing labs are bound to emerge to supplement physical computer labs across higher education, and some even suggested that the rooms where students currently tap away on campus-owned computers will eventually yield to the virtual kind.

“Do you own a wristwatch?” Thompson, the East Bay information officer, asked me during our interview. I told him no; if I need to tell the time, I look at my computer or my phone. “That’s the kind of change we see coming,” he said.

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