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IT Strategic Plan 2012-2020

Appendix E:  Lab Committee Report


Committee Charge

The initial charge of this committee was to oversee a pilot for a cloud computing lab which would provide UM campus constituents 24/7 access to software on both lab and personally-owned computers. Discussions with IBM and a proposal from that company for a hardware environment and the front-end scheduling software required to access application software via the web showed promise and led to the concept of a pilot to test this approach to licensing and utilizing software such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite, SPSS, and others. In fact, the interest in the Student Computer Fee Committee was so high that funds had been allocated to help fund this pilot initiative. However, research into the cost of licensing applications on a virtual server for concurrent use by campus constituents, regardless of user computer ownership, showed that most companies are not prepared to offer cost-effective licenses in a virtual environment. Specifically, the issue with some software vendors is that software hosted on a UM server cannot be licensed for use on a student or employee-owned computer without paying extravagant fees. These costs make the concept of a cloud lab pilot untenable until such time that virtual lab software licensing is more affordable.

As a result of the cost issues associated with a cloud lab pilot, the charge of the committee was revised. The new charge from Provost Perry Brown was as follows:

“The revised charge for this committee is to identify, evaluate, and recommend ways in which student access to computer lab services could be enhanced. I would like the committee to determine the issues associated with the current computer lab model at UM and the level of prioritization of these issues relative to other needs on campus. For example, is resolving these issues critical to our retention endeavors? Is resolving them critical to effective learning? Against those requirements, the committee needs to consider identifying innovative but affordable solutions. Cloud computing might well be the best alternative, but I would recommend a study of peer universities to understand the successes and failures of their attempts to address lab computing issues. Finally, the committee is asked to provide me with a recommendation, along with a cost-benefit analysis, on how to proceed. I expect that this recommendation will be completed during the fall semester with the intention to implement the findings in spring, 2012. Thus, if we do a pilot experiment, we do it in spring once your recommendation is to me.” 

Findings

Survey Results

The committee analyzed the survey responses and summarized their findings with respect to student issues with access to computer lab services on campus.  The key findings are as follows:

  • Students use the labs, appreciate having them, but have some issues with access due to short hours or use of the labs by classes. However, it is not clear that additional lab hours are a pressing need.
    • 56% of respondents are satisfied with current lab hours while 44% are not.
    • 40% of respondents are satisfied with access to software required for UM classes.
  • The top five software applications in use on campus are:
    • Microsoft Office (78%)
    • Adobe Creative Suite (19%)
    • Adobe Premier (15%)
    • SPSS (9%)
    • ArcGIS (6%)

All other software applications were used by less than 5% of the respondents.

  • 92% (824) of respondents have access to a computer outside of the UM computer labs.
  • 75% of respondents have access to a DSL/Cable or 3G internet connection on a regular basis and 95% of respondents have the means to access the internet in some way.
  • 67% of respondents approve the use of funds to provide 24/7 access to software and 66% are in favor of cloud services.
  • Availability of software across labs is inconsistent and information on what software is available in the various labs is lacking but
    • 40% (345 of 873) are satisfied with access to software for classes.
    • 84% reported problems with getting a seat in a lab due to fullness, closure or use of the lab by classes.
    • 1% (11 of 873) said the lab didn’t have the software needed.
  • The hardware and bandwidth in some labs does not meet needs and expectations.
  • Some students feel it would be helpful to have additional assistance from lab monitors.
  • Some students would like to see the library to be available 24/7.
  • Some students feel that software is too expensive for purchase and use on a personally-owned computer.
  • There are some issues with printing across campus in that users cannot predict ‘how to print’ from one location to another.
  • Of the 258 comments provided through the survey, the breakdown of comments is summarized in the table below.

  • Category Number of Comments % of Total Comments
     
    Hardware 36 14%
    Internet Speed 6 2%
    Lab Access 23 9%
    Printing 10 4%
    Software 52 20%
    Support 20 8%
    Wireless 8 3%
    Other  44 17%
    No Issues 59 235

Analysis

The revised charge (April 14, 2011) to the Cloud Computing Committee  required the committee is to identify, evaluate, and recommend ways in which student access to computer lab services could be enhanced.  The charge breaks down into the following categories: 

1.  “Determine the issues associated with the current computer lab model at UM and the level of prioritization of these issues relative to other needs on campus. For example, is resolving these issues critical to UM’s retention endeavors? Is resolving them critical to effective learning? 

2.  Against those requirements, the committee needs to identify innovative but affordable solutions. Cloud computing might well be the best alternative, but I would recommend a study of peer universities to understand the successes and failures of their attempts to address lab computing issues.

3.  Finally, the committee is asked to provide me with a recommendation, along with a cost-benefit analysis, on how to proceed. I expect that this recommendation will be completed during the fall semester with the intention to implement the findings in spring, 2012. Thus, if we do a pilot experiment, we do it in spring once your recommendation is to me.”

The Cloud Computing Committee administered an online survey to students in early May, 2011.  The thrust of the survey was not the computer lab model but rather access to software that is licensed for student use by the university. The questions explored preferred modes of access to software such as direct download to student owned hardware and access to university-owned computers that are equipped with software.  Questions were asked about overall satisfaction and ability to gain access to software needed for academic support. The survey attracted 1,015 respondents. See Appendix A for details on questions and responses.

While the survey did not specifically address the satisfaction of the computer lab model, the responses and comments provide information about the current computer lab model. External technology reports from Educause, Chronicle of Higher Education, surveys of other institutions, and recent discussions on the Missoula campus surrounding IT strategic planning provide context and addition information to the survey and inform the issues and recommended solutions in this report. 

 

Conundrum about computer labs

1.  Why the continuing demand for labs given the personal ownership of computers and wireless access?  With the high percentage of students owning computers and the availability of wireless networks, it would be reasonable to predict the lessening of the demand for computer labs but that does not seem to be the case at the University of Montana with similar experiences reported at other university campuses. While the University of Montana survey did not ask about general use of the computer labs, those reporting difficulty in getting into a lab to access software  (84%) would indicate a demand for the labs 

2.  The demand for computer labs (campus-based technology spaces) goes beyond software. 

 Anecdotal evidence points to convenience of campus computers (rather than carrying around a laptop and being responsible for understanding connectivity to campus networks) and the space to work away from home/dorm distractions are likely drivers for use of campus labs. This is supported by the repeated mention of use of labs to escape distractions, need for lab hours around work and the focus on the library as a place to work.  For comparison, the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Office of Instructional Technology has conducted technology surveys every two years to gain better understanding of trending on that campus.  In 2009, the survey of 5,721 students at Minnesota reported 89.1% of its students owning a laptop yet nearly 2/3 of its students used the computer labs.  Temple University recently opened a 700 seat lab which is open 24/7 that has become the ‘hot spot’ of the campus, serving both academic and social needs.

3.  The focus upon the library in the comments for greater hours and more software availability indicates the importance of this resource to students as they complete their work.  The Library has long recognized this broad scope of use and addressed it with the software for general productivity (media editing from Adobe, statistical packages such as SPSS) with the Learning Commons plan as the next big step to advance this model. There is no indication as yet that additional “tech lounges” as is being installed in the UC will replace this demand though they could serve as a placeholder while funding is found for the broader Learning Commons area. 

The survey points to some clear areas for improvement in communication about computer labs and software on campus.  A governance structure that is driven by the academic mission would address the campus need for coordination of policies and criteria for establishing labs followed with identifying  how the shifts in expenditures of existing fee funding sources would be achieved. Establishing polices that support best practice such as centralizing the software licensing through the purchasing office would support the communication and governance. The collaborative role of the purchasing department and Central IT would address the delivery mechanism of software such as cloud based and virtualized.  

How critical are the computer labs to our retention efforts and student success.  

Increasing convenience factors will be an important element of attracting and keeping students of 2020 according to the Chronicle of Higher Education report, “The College of 2020: Students”.     This report focused on the need for the working student to be able to take classes on a personal timetable.   Comments in the May survey related to expanded hours of the library or computer labs around work hours.  An element of convenience is having easily found and understood information about resource availability and use in order to use time wisely. Better communication around the existing lab service is an immediate and low cost need. 

 

Issues

The current model mirrors the centralized and decentralized IT delivery model seen in other areas of technology on campus.  Central IT supports three general computer labs.   The sectors also support computer labs for purposes determined by the unit/college/sector with a range of hours, policies, print services and technical support. The selection of software available in the distributed labs is determined by the unit provider with their purpose in mind.  

 Funding for the general computer labs is primarily the Student Computer Fee.  Funding for the distributed labs likely has a variety of sources including the college/sector allocation of student computer fees,   donor funds, operational funding and instructional technology funds. To qualify for use of student computer fee funds, the lab has to be available to students, which has likely led to opening up instructional labs to students when the lab in not in use.  (See Appendix C for a sample of campus communication concerning labs) 

Student comments did not differentiate the labs by types and in the survey referenced the computers in the library, general labs, and the smaller labs in the departments as labs. 

Issues Summary:

1.   Communication about computer lab services on campus is lacking or confusing.

2.  Expectation of the student user that labs quality be consistent.

3.  Mixed purpose labs cause confusion for users in determining availability.

Supporting information 

1.   Communication about labs

The communication to students about the computer labs is diffuse without a central means of identifying or locating labs. 

A search of the interactive map of the university web site does not identify the location of any computer lab.  

Searching the site with the term “computer lab” brings up the mix of unit/college/sector websites providing information on specific school or departmental computer labs.

The size of the lab, software availability and hours is reported in varying degrees of detail on each site. 

Orientation of new students does not provide a comprehensive picture of computers labs on campus

2.  Communication about Software

Software information is equally lacking.  

A site search for specific software failed to identify the location of that software.  

Survey comments show confusion and some misinformation.  For example, the library has SPSS and the capability of reading .pdf files on its computers but students are unaware of this capability. 

The inability of students to access software from some computers on campus is likely the result of licensing software on a departmental level as opposed to licensing at a campus level.

The identification of software available to students for purchase is not obvious, although the UM Bookstore advertises the significant discounts to student for purchase software.  Information on free, open source software is also not available.  

3.  Student expectation of consistency 

Students experience a range of service hours, variety of hardware, software, and printing policies.   The diversity of labs across campus presents a confusing array to students. 

Hours: No two labs have the same hours of operation, even the three general labs under Central IT have different hours.  The library is open the latest (1:00 a.m.) 

An IT  Student SWOT analysis (October, 2011) with 11 students identified the following weaknesses:

o lack of wireless access in the resident halls

o inconsistent technology 

o departmental IT staff not being able to resolve issues 

o scattered IT departments present multiple steps to “get things done”

Polices and maintenance of labs vary as they are determined at the unit level.  Survey comments on slowness of the internet, inadequacy of computers, and printing compatibility could be the result of hardware age, maintenance, and policies but reflect unit decisions for support of the labs.

There appears to be a lack of governance of computer labs across campus to ensure consistency and adequacy of hardware and software. 

There is likely an uneven distribution of funds for computer lab maintenance leading to inadequate hardware in some labs

4.  Mixed purpose use of labs cause confusion for users

Labs that are primarily for instructional use but are available for general use when not in use by a class means a student does not know when it is “open”  

Mixed purpose use is driven by the need for funds and the student computer fee policy that requires labs to be open for general access if they are to receive SCF funds. 

Departmental labs are likely to have software that meets the needs of specific classes but may not have more general purpose software

There is a need for a baseline of software requirements for campus and to establish a campus standard vs. departmental needs. 

Suggested Initiatives

Despite the issues with virtual licensing, the committee concluded that there are a number of initiatives that would significantly improve the computer lab environment at UM.  The committee summarized the issues into two categories which can be translated into two goals:

1.  Improve the accessibility of software to students.

2.  Improve the consistency of the computer lab environments on campus.

With these two goals in mind, the committee discussed and prioritized various initiatives with the following recommendations.

Year 1

1.  Centralize software licensing for the major applications used across multiple departments and labs. Centralizing software purchases is expected to reduce the cost per license, increasing the number of licenses available to students for the same amount of money. 

A.  Conduct an inventory study to determine what software is being purchased and at what levels.

B.  Work with administration to develop an appropriate centralized funding model with appropriate resources.

C.  Work with purchasing and Information Technology to develop a purchasing and distribution model. 

Cost/benefit: there are enormous savings to be had by eliminating the inefficiency of multiple transactions with a single vendor and by buying at a campus level or buying in bulk utilizing Purchasing’s negotiation skills. The cost would potentially be an additional resource in Central IT for record keeping and distribution and potentially an additional resource in Purchasing. A detailed cost model must be created to verify these assumptions.  

2.  Create a standard software image for use in all labs, providing a baseline suite of applications that could be enhanced by department-specific applications. This would help ensure the consistency of software available across all labs but is dependent on availability of that software through centralized purchases mentioned in #1.

A.  Determine what software is utilized across the majority of labs,

B.  Utilizing the increased number of available licenses (#1), produce a standard software image,

C.  Ensure all lab managers are aware of the standard image.

Cost/benefit: The benefit of a standard image is substantial and the cost next to nothing once centralized licensing is implemented.

3.  Implement an internal cloud computer lab which would provide a concurrent licensing structure for use on UM-owned computers. This is an alternative to the standard software image and would require fewer licenses. However, it would also require the purchase of a server(s), installation of the appropriate applications software, and the implementation of a license-tracking system. Depending on the internet speed available to the computer lab, this model may be more or less successful.

Cost/benefit: The costs involved in creating an internal cloud computer lab include the purchase of servers, license managers, and additional software licenses. Significant resources would also need to be deployed to get this lab up and running and ongoing resources deployed for maintenance and operations. The benefit would depend on the level of site licensing of software – the more software is licensed for use across campus, the less such a lab is required. If few licenses are purchased, an internal cloud computer lab could make that software more accessible across campus and be worth the investment.

4. Improve the level of information available to students regarding the availability and location of software.

A. Institute a web-based application that shows the distribution of software across campus and the availability of seats at any given time,

B. Create a web link in OneStop and the Login page that takes students directly the UMConnect documents and Skydrive capabilities,

C. Create a webpage that provides links to free software that can be downloaded to a student’s personally-owned computer.

Cost/benefit: the benefit of these actions would be great and the investment low as the majority of the work could be done with current resources over the period of six months once work was begun. The primary issue is competition for those resources for other priorities.

5. Reduce hardware costs to the departments through bulk purchasing and potentially through a more collaborative distribution of student computer fee funds. 

A. Fund sources are instructional technology and student computer fee funding.  The two funds should be evaluated for redistribution and purpose 

B. Work with purchasing to institute an annual or bi-annual bulk purchase of computers to reduce overall cost of hardware,

C. Encourage collaborative evaluation of hardware needs across campus and prioritization of funds to labs with inadequate hardware.

Cost/benefit: the benefit of these actions is great and the investment in dollars is low. Bulk purchasing should make new computers more affordable for departments, giving them incentive to recycle them more often. This in turn should improve the hardware capabilities relative to new, more intensive software. Restructuring the fee distribution could be very beneficial. However, there is likely to be political controversy and inertia based on years of operating in a particular way and to the benefit of certain groups.

6. Implement one or two additional ‘tech lounges’ in appropriate locations on campus to alleviate the use of computer labs for email and personal use, and to encourage the use of personally-owned computers on campus.

A. Identify appropriate locations for tech lounges,

B. Work with administration to identify funding,

C. Work with Facilities and IT to implement the tech lounges.

Cost/benefit: The benefit of additional tech lounges depends on the success of the first one which is just opening in the UC. The cost of the UC lab, complete with furniture, lighting, electrical work, wireless, email stations, conference rooms, and high resolution monitors was $145,000. It is expected that similar but smaller lounges could be outfitted for $50,000 - $100,000 each.

7. Institute a governance group comprising lab managers across campus to encourage consistency and cross-departmental planning and knowledge transfer. It might be useful to consider the integration of a lab governance group with fee governance groups, e.g. student computer fee or technology fee committees.

Cost/benefit: the benefit of a collaborative lab management group is invaluable and the cost is the time it would take for such a group to meet on a regular basis. No additional resources are required.

8. Continue to evaluate the status of virtual licenses and peer university initiatives.

Cost/benefit: This action has value and could be accomplished with current resources.

Year 2

1. Re-evaluate student perception of computer lab services on campus to determine if steps taken in year 1 had significant effect.

2. Depending on the status of virtual licensing, reevaluate the feasibility of a cloud computer lab and implement if possible.  For this to be successful it is deemed necessary to provide at least 4 out of 5 of the applications that are most used by campus


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