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Computers removed from labs

Kaitlynn Riely | Friday, March 30, 2007

With the goal of creating more flexible work space, the Office of Information Technologies (OIT) has removed half the computers from the cluster in the basement of the Mendoza College of Business and plans to substantially reduce the number of computers in the Hesburgh Library computing lab over the summer.

James Cope, OIT organizational communications analyst, said OIT is trying to find “the right configuration for students today.”

Cope said research conducted by the OIT indicated that students want “the flexibility of more space.” And creating that space, he said, sometimes means removing some computers.

Before spring break, the lab in rooms L004 of Mendoza contained 30 computers for student use. Fifteen of these computers were removed, so half remain.

In the Library’s computing cluster, there are currently 63 computers. The Library and OIT plan to move the cluster to the first floor near the reference desk in the early summer. In this planned cluster, there will be 13 personal computers, eight Macintosh computers and 10 laptops available for checkout.

One of the reasons for the reductions in Mendoza was because of relatively low usage levels, Student Computing Services supervisor Karen Renkiewicz said. Renkiewicz said that unlike the DeBartolo computing cluster, the Mendoza one is seldom full.

Classroom and cluster services manager Brian Burchett said OIT’s data shows that 63 percent of the time, the usage of the Mendoza computing lab was at less than 25 percent. The lab is at 75 to 99 percent capacity less than one percent of the time.

“So there might be periods of time when all those computers were in use, but there certainly were long periods of time when most of those computers were going unused,” Burchett said.

But Delphine Risto, a junior who is a cluster consultant for the Mendoza and DeBartolo clusters, said during the eight hours a week she works the Mendoza lab is always busy.

“Ever since they took out the computers, it’s been crazy,” Risto said. “Computers are always full and people are coming in and complaining because there aren’t enough computers. They show no support of the change.”

Burchett said he is not surprised that a cluster worker observes the cluster is busy when she is working.

“We try to staff the clusters when they are busy. … So it wouldn’t surprise me that a student on duty would see these numbers,” Burchett said.

Risto estimated that the lab is at about 75 percent capacity or higher during the times that she works. Students have complained about the lower number of computers available, she said.

Burchett said OIT is trying out the new configurations to see if they better serve student needs. But, he said, if students are unhappy with the new setups or the lower number of computers, they can “absolutely” complain.

“The configurations for the labs and the number of computers are always going to be adjusted for student need,” Burchett said.

He said OIT’s primary goal is not to reduce the number of computers available, but to find the right ratio for students who use the computer clusters for multiple reasons.

“If we find that students want to have more [computers], we can order more and have them installed in a couple of weeks,” he said.

New trends in laptop ownership and cluster use

The trend OIT has observed, Burchett said, is that students more and more have their own laptops. A recent survey showed that 93 percent of freshmen said they owned their own laptop.

Risto said not everyone has a laptop and not all students want to carry them around to do work away from their rooms.

“It was not thought out properly,” she said.

Burchett said OIT realized that many students don’t want to carry their own laptops around campus. He said some students do and asserted the changes will accommodate both types of students.

The redesigning initiatives stemmed from feedback OIT collected from students who used the labs.

In early 2004, OIT Chief Information Officer Gordon Wishon created an OIT project team to conduct an assessment to find the information technology needs of the Notre Dame community. Students as well as faculty and staff members were surveyed on their technology preferences. In the Academic Information Technology Assessment report, surveys and research concluded there was a desire to redesign campus computer clusters.

“When the clusters were originally conceived … student ownership of personal computers was substantially lower than today, driving the need for long rows of single-computer stations – to get as many computers as possible into the allocated spaces,” the report said.

That configuration worked at the time of the initial report of 1987, but now, Burchett said, students indicate they want more collaborative space to work.

“Keeping things exactly the same way as they were 15 years ago probably isn’t going to be helpful for the students,” Burchett said.

Surveys conducted of 2,711 students showed that 15.36 percent of the time in the cluster they spent working in groups on course assignments. Students in the business school spent 22.73 percent of their time in the clusters working in groups on assignments, compared to 18.91 percent of time spent working alone on course assignments.

Risto said she agreed that Mendoza is frequently used for group project use but said many individuals work in the lab as well. And when all the computers are taken, these individuals are frustrated.

“I’ve had about two or three kids come up and ask me about the change and a number of students have come in and mumbled about how stupid it is and stormed out,” she said.

New cluster configurations

Risto suggested that the reason OIT is removing computers and reconfiguring was to save money on the upkeep of the computers and the cost of new software and hardware.

Burchett said the decision was not motivated by cost considerations.

“That might be a side effect, but it’s not really the primary motivation,” he said.

Burchett said the University adequately funds OIT to replace computers.

“I don’t think this is about reducing the amount of money we spend on the computing labs,” he said. “I think it’s about spending it in different ways because the configuration is changing.”

And with the cost of the new configuration of the Hesburgh Library computer cluster, there may be few overall savings, he said. Burchett estimated the project of moving the cluster to the first floor and the cost of the new furniture could total $200,000.

The decision to change the location and look of the Library cluster was a “meeting of minds” between OIT and the Library, who thought the cluster was in a “tucked-away position,” said Associate Director for User Services at the Hesburgh Library Nigel Butterwick.

With the new location on the first floor, the cluster becomes “a more obvious environment,” Butterwick said.

“It also allows us to offer assistance in both the computing environment and the information resources environment, basically from the same spot,” Butterwick said.

The Library has not yet determined what it will use the current cluster space for.

Burchett called the new library cluster configuration a “pilot” program to see how students respond.

The new furniture for the cluster, according to current blueprints, will accommodate 76 people. The current cluster can seat 67.

The new space will also contain a self-contained presentation area to allow students to practice with group members, Butterwick said.

If the 10 laptops available for students to borrow from the Library prove to be inadequate, Butterwick said, OIT can order more to fit the demonstrated student need.

OIT intends to survey students to see how they like the new Library cluster, Burchett said.

But Cope said OIT has not removed computers from any other OIT-supported computer clusters beside Mendoza and soon Hesburgh, and it will not make any changes to them until it gets student feedback from the two changed labs.