What *are* campus labs for, anyway?

I know I pick on The Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Wired Campus newsletter an awful lot, but they don’t have to make it so gosh darn easy…

After a long week of overseeing language placement exams, running or assisting with lab orientation sessions, working on getting two servers set up, taking computer after computer in for hardware repairs (computers know when you need them to work, and find great humor in not doing so), organizing student staff schedules, attending to last-minute faculty requests, and wading through dozens of other little projects that fall under the “other duties as assigned” part of my job description, I was hardly in the mood to extol the virtues of working in a public computer lab. I knew what to expect (four years of working in a computer Help Desk will prepare you for just about anything if it doesn’t kill you first), but I’d never dealt with it as a full-timer, and all I wanted was to go home and forget about work for a little while.

My attitude changed in a hurry with the arrival of Friday’s newsletter, which posed the question, “Are computer labs still needed on campus?

Friday was certainly not the first time I’d heard the question posed, and yet I was still incensed. It would be one thing if the question were genuine. Generally, whenever anyone wonders out loud about the necessity of campus labs, it’s because they want to repurpose either the lab’s funding or its footprint. Computer labs are neither inexpensive nor compact, especially when designed well, and it’s easy to underestimate the impact of their presence – or absence. During normal business hours, for example, when administrators and full-time staff are on campus to witness usage patterns, a lab might receive lots of traffic from students who have just enough time to check their mail or print a paper before class. That same lab, however, may become frenzied with paper-writing and research at night, when few non-students are around to notice.

It would be too easy, however, to chalk this up entirely to a generational gap, or to the ulterior motives of administrators/faculty/staff on campuses where space and money are in short supply. I think the issue stems from an institutional misunderstanding of what labs are, of what labs can be. When I say “computer lab,” what comes to mind?

No, really, think about it for a second.

Did you think about rows of identical workstations? Bad fluorescent lighting? Uncomfortable chairs? Near silence, except for the sounds of the computer fans and the muted-yet-clamorous tap-tap-tapping of keyboards? Most of the “public” computer labs I’ve been in are remarkably and unnecessarily isolating. Some are more blatant about it than others, and have separately designated areas for group work. But even in our lab, which was designed with collaboration in mind, we have to convince students during our orientation sessions that they don’t have to whisper when they practice their oral language skills. Barbara even put up a sign at the front desk…

picture coming in the morning!

but some people still don’t believe us. Why not? According to the US government, it takes at least 575 hours to become proficient in a foreign language. All of those hours can’t possibly be spent alone in a carrel reciting canned dialogues.

Some people, unfortunately, have a very specific view about what language learning should entail, and therefore what language labs should provide. For instance, I was working at the front desk this afternoon when a student approached me and inquired about what computer software we had installed on the lab machines for self-guided language learning. I explained about our collection of textbooks and lab activity manuals and magazines and children’s books and videos and CDs and and and…but no, we didn’t have Rosetta Stone-type software, if that’s what he wanted. He looked annoyed and asked, “Then what is the language lab for?”

As I wrote to a colleague this morning:

The real strength of blogging IMHO lies in its potential to create a community that would/could never exist otherwise.

I believe the same is true of computer labs. Going to a lab is about more than using a computer or having access to specialized, expensive, or hard-to-find software (although that’s a big issue) – it’s also about the intangibles that don’t show up in lab usage bar graphs or network activity piecharts. It’s about being able to ask the person at the desk for help. It’s about running into that guy from your History class whose name you don’t know but who seemed similarly interested in East German musicals. It’s about realizing that others in your Chinese 101 class are having a hard time with today’s assignment, and forming an impromptu study group to work it out. Why is that so hard for so many people to understand?

Ryan has been proudly maintaining and contributing to Language Lab Unleashed since 2005, and is the current President of SWALLT. Since the summer of 2013 he's been causing trouble with his all-star colleagues in the UMW DTLT; when not wrangling websites Ryan can be found doing strange things with heavy objects.

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  1. Laura · September 14, 2006 Reply

    And I also think about access issues. Not every student has their own computer. If they take the labs away, the digital divide becomes a real problem. I reconfigured my space just before school started and I’m very happy with it because it does creat the kind of collaborative space I think a lab should be. In fact, most of the people who use the NML do so in groups.

    It occurs to me that it’s the faculty who work in isolated spaces . . . hmm.

  2. Ryan · September 16, 2006 Reply

    Yes indeed – access is a huge issue. Being a student is expensive enough without dropping $1000+ on a computer, which some folks simply can’t afford (and shouldn’t have) to do. Even those students that -do- have their own computer often don’t have their own printer, or scanner, or digital video camera, or photo/audio/video editing software, or or or or or…and how many times has a public lab saved someone a lot of stress because their computer/printer/scanner/whatever broke the day before a huge assignment was due?

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