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Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


The cluster room lives on – but look out for the ‘un cluster’

By Fiona Strawbridge, on 7 November 2012

I spent the morning of the first day of the Educause conference in a workshop on the future of the cluster room (or computer lab) led by Keith Boswell from North Carolina State University and Beth Schaefer from the Uni of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.   It was well attended – I reckon 60 folk in the room – and we spent over an hour going around the room sharing tales of cluster-related challenges – increasing pressure on space, patchy usage, challenges of keeping up with students’ needs and expectations in terms of software and hardware, problems with the balance between open access (wanted by students) and teaching clusters (wanted by staff), with some institutions wondering whether to wait for the next generation of tablet-pc hybrids or to replace old pcs like for like. It’s clear that the challenges that we face at UCL are shared across the pond.  However I’d say that for most of those in the workshop the cluster room remains an important part of their university’s IT provision – the death of the cluster room has been exaggerated.

I did find out about a couple of nice approaches to power management used at North Carolina State – one was setting PCs to hibernate after a few minutes of inactivity can save a lot of money and energy. Another was the use of ‘lab stats’ data which logs which PCs are used most, and for how long – we saw some hot spot maps of cluster rooms showing that students tend to favour certain locations in a room for quick turnaround activities (email/printing/Facebook check) but will sit in different seats for extended work – this allows different power management regimes to be applied for different PCs. Thinking about it, perhaps we might even use this to zone open access spaces with different spec workstations, furniture etc for different patterns of use…

I also heard about the ‘Un Lab’ – again at North Carolina – where the university had looked carefully at what was needed in terms of connectivity, power, space, file storage, software deployment, lockers etc in order to allow students to use their own computers and so reduce the need for institutional workstations. They had focused on Engineering students and called the resulting computing environment EoS.   All useful stuff, though I still predict that the more that students use smaller devices liken iPads the less likely they are to want to bring in laptops and – as I can testify writing this on a iPad (as I don’t have a laptop) – they are not ideal for writing extended prose! So we might want some decent Un Clusters at UCL but we do also need to keep providing hardware…

Printing is a big issue with lots of institutions planning ‘follow-me’ printing and printing from student owned devices although few seemed to have implemented these as yet. The other source of shared pain is weaning students – but more critically staff – off printing and encouraging more reading on screen. A particular gripe is requirement to print coursework for submission even when it is also submitted online.

A couple of leads to follow up :

  • Griffith University in Australia have done some work on innovative technology-enhanced teaching spaces, and have set up a pinterest site with a bunch of images – pinterest.com/learningspaces
  • The University of New Mexico have a number of space-related initiatives including large ‘active learning classrooms’, interactive lecture theatres (set up to allow students to swivel round and work with those behind/in front), wireless projection (which made their network group unhappy…) and mirroring technology (allowing devices like iPads to be mirrored on PCs).
  • And more than one institution cited the University of Minnesota as a source of inspiration (see their active learning classroom site)…

Finally I was surprised to hear that many US institutions levy an ‘educational technology fee’ on their students. Bet that goes down well.

My next post will be about active learning classrooms…

One Response to “The cluster room lives on – but look out for the ‘un cluster’”

  • 1
    Matt Jenner wrote on 7 November 2012:

    Did anyone mention the future of how we’ll be working with computers? Maybe it’s for the longer-term, but considering a huge amount of people’s time is spent within a web browser, and web browser software is becoming ever more capable of emulating a PC, I wonder weather the notion of a ‘workstation’ also needs consideration. For example, if I work in online spaces for documents, communication, collaboration and organisation then I’m unlikely to care about what spec or software is of a computer that’s not mine, I just want a web browser that I can log in to (and then adapts to my needs).

    This has some ramifications, all new mobile devices now come with a web browser, and a good one too (Firefox, Safari, Chrome etc). Only a few years ago these browsers were weird, propiatory, and loading pages in junky formats like WML. Now our mobile devices can load pages as good as, or sometimes better, than a laptop or desktop. What they lack, as you noted in your own post, is the perhipherals, the keyboard, mouse, monitor, printer etc. and also the chair, heating, desk, facilitaites, proxomity, connectivity etc. Also, most of the latter group are optional, we don’t always need chairs, desks or proximity – and the option of chosing to not hving these is really important to promote mixed atmosphears.

    What i’m getting at is the ideas of building for the future should also include the interface between the person and the task. We’re in the digitial world, but people still like logging into a their tools when they’re in proximity of furniture and roasted coffee beans.

    there’s a few things that could play out, as mobile browser-enabled devices become a part of mainstream computing:

    1. They’ll develop quick-interfacing with local perhipherals. True plug and play (not that Windows 95 crap)
    2. The pocket will carry the computer, the university just needs to be able to adapt to it and let people ‘jack-in’.
    3. We don’t necessarily assume that all students will have these devices, so we also have to build around those who don’t.
    4. Those that do (or don’t) should be able to work next to one another

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