Information and Learning Commons Development

A cooperative effort of the Michigan Tech Library and Information Technology
Initiative to Enhance Computing and Information Access Support for Michigan Tech Students


Changes in Campus Computing Environment

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Walt Milligan, Chief Information Officer and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering
Dan deBeaubien, Chief Technology Officer
Ellen Marks, University Librarian and Director, Van Pelt and Opie Library
Max Seel, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

We would like to share the plans and rationale for the changes in the Michigan Tech campus computing environment. The scope of these efforts could have been communicated with more detail and clarity; we seek to address this at this time.

Executive Summary

Significant changes and enhancements to Michigan Tech’s computing environment are occurring to:

  • Improve the academic environment, particularly for students.
  • Respond to, and plan for the way students use technologies today by building an IT environment that anticipates needs for mobile, cloud and ‘bring your own device’ computing.
  • Make the wisest use of funding for technology, the library’s services and the support infrastructure.

First Phases

The first two phases of these plans are affecting what are known as the ‘open labs’ and subsequent repurposing of these spaces based on positive responses to the distributed wireless lounges established recently. Spaces within Van Pelt and Opie Library will be used for high performance workstations, ergonomically supportive furniture and, as part of the library’s plans for its transformation, 24-hour services, collaborative furniture and improved wireless, electrical and network supply. Throughout the campus, computer-based classrooms are being upgraded to enhance teaching and learning. We concentrate here on these phases but commit to improved communication from IT with regards to its developing strategies and from the library with regards to its services and spaces.

Evolving Computing and Use Trends in Academia

Delivering the software, tools and information resources that students need requires a mix of powerful desktop, laptop and mobile devices as they evolve. Our ideal is a ‘bring your own device’ paradigm for computing, information access and learning – an anywhere, anytime model. Our first phases represent the beginning of this transformation: At Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, students are required to purchase their own laptops and specialized software is delivered to students free-of-charge. IT has already taken steps to develop a network environment that can support this type of ‘plug and play’ model. And, just as Canvas, our new Learning Management System resides in the cloud, on Amazon’s Web Services, an increasing number of software and other programs will be delivered through the cloud, turning all types of devices – from tablets to smartphones - into terminals.

Technological and economic considerations and licensing restrictions are actively being balanced to produce an ideal environment for Michigan Tech.

Repurposing of Labs

The changes that affect the distributed, open labs have not been taken lightly. Our considerations have included economic and support matters and are based on careful review of usage data.

Van Pelt and Opie Library

The library continues to evolve as the intellectual heart of the campus with its spaces largely devoted to student study and collaboration needs as library resources, particularly those supporting STEM fields, are published only in digital formats albeit at higher cost. Collaborating with IT for an improved technology environment enables the library to focus its funds on collections and its variety of services. With the new and expanded Jackson Center for Teaching and Learning, an emerging Experimental Teaching Incubator and the importance of our librarians focus on information literacy education, the library’s vision of transforming its physical spaces to an Information and Learning Commons will offer the expertise, technologies and support infrastructure capable of dynamically staying current with student and faculty needs today and tomorrow. A commons represents the collective expertise and services from library staff, IT staff and those of the Center for Teaching and Learning.

First Phases Detailed:

Van Pelt and Opie Library

The first phases of the changing computing environment dovetailed with the library’s development towards an Information and Learning Commons. Three years ago, the Library and IT Service Center was established to serve as a common gateway to all library and IT services respectively and as a one-stop service point, optimized for student needs. Building on this success, student requests for additional hours of operation, access to the common campus software from the library; better wireless; more electrical outlets, new computers and a greater number of collaborative spaces made the library a good place for providing the ‘open lab’ services in a central, air conditioned and safe location. Once the first phase of computer and furniture installation is completed, the library will be open 24/7 (except holidays and breaks) and will be staffed with two library staff members that will provide basic service and support and a student Safety Team.

During the summer, a professional design firm, BSI Systems, was retained based on its experience and reputation in academic environments. IT committed $750,000 from its budget for student computing labs to accomplish the first phase of the project. (The funding came from budget allocations spanning two fiscal years. And, as discussed below, upgrading the current ‘open labs’ to an acceptable condition would require almost $2 million).

New computers (250) with new furniture are being placed on all four floors of the library. Most will be 23” Dell all-in-one units with i7 processors and 8 GB of memory and will provide access to both the common campus software and anonymous login to library resources, browsers and specialized software for both Michigan Tech users and university guests and visitors. Most of the tables will have four linear feet of workspace and the monitors/computers will be on swing arms – offering plenty of space to work. There will also be 20+ precision workstations with additional processing and graphics power and 20 Macs.

In continued support of the variety of student study and collaboration preferences, the main floor – with increased space for meeting and collaboration around the café and express laptops for quick work – and the second floor with furnishings configured for group work will feature flat screen displays for laptop hook-up for study, practicing presentations or simply to gain higher resolution display. The library’s third floor remains silent study and the garden level is devoted to quiet study. Laptop-friendly furniture will be featured in a number of locations. Additional improvements include an increased number of charging stations for laptops and phones and an increase in the wireless bandwidth.

Determination of whether there are sufficient computers or too many will be continuously reviewed and, as the campus computing evolves, the library will continue to support and anticipate student needs and, in turn, optimize its space to continue its alignment with the university’s research and education missions.

Current Computing Labs Detailed:

There are currently two different types of labs on campus:

  • “Open labs” – about 12 - where students login at any time. There are currently about 230 seats in these labs across the campus, in addition to computers available in the library and the Humanities Digital Media Zone (HDMZ).
  • The second type consists of computer classrooms that are used for teaching. Students use these spaces when classes are not scheduled. Most of the “labs” on campus fall into this category and, in fact, there are currently no “open” labs in either Dow or Dillman Halls.

Most of the “open labs” are being transformed into hybrid workspaces called “wireless lounges” with these features:

  • They will retain a limited number of wired workstations, typically four, to provide access to specialized software or work with instructors or TAs on homework problems for example.
  • The remaining space will become friendlier for student group collaboration, laptops, socializing, etc. In most lounges, IT has installed large, flat-panel displays so students can work together, practice presentations or watch movies and play games. There will be print stations in, or close to, most lounges.
  • Over time, the wireless lounges will be substantially upgraded with new carpeting, more comfortable furniture, and additional collaboration spaces. Funding for these improvements is not immediately available, so the improvements will occur over the next year or two.

The lounges, although initially met with resistance, have proved to be popular with students.

The open labs in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Sciences will remain intact because of the long distance from campus. Likewise, the HDMZ will remain an open facility supporting the unique needs of the departments in Walker Hall.

It is important to note that the number of available wired workstations is not being diminished; 210 computers will be retired or repurposed from the open labs with 250 added to the Van Pelt and Opie Library in addition to the use of the library’s instruction room (n=30) when classes are not being held.

Further details will be forthcoming as IT works to further develop and enhance the campus’ computer-based classrooms while working closely with the Registrar to optimize the number, character and features of the these computer enabled learning spaces.

Why is this Happening?

There are three main reasons why the Executive Team, the Academic Deans and Department Chairs, the CIO, University Librarian and the staff of IT and the library decided to embark on this direction:

  • Financial
  • Improvement of the academic environment for students
  • Evolving computing use and trends


  1. Number and location of lab seats
    It is no secret that the university has had financial issues over the last few years. The State cut Michigan Tech’s allocation by $7 million two years ago and has acted legislatively to cap tuition increases. At the same time, Michigan Tech has increased financial aid by over $6 million in the last three years. This reality has taken a toll on budgets, both in academic departments, the library and IT, and is one reason why the labs are in such poor shape.

    IT has been asked to cut expenses as much as possible, which is reasonable.

    When we examined where costs could be reduced or savings realized in other ways, open lab and computer-based classroom usage data were studied. The busiest minute of the busiest day of the year last year indicated that over 450 computers were sitting idle. This means that the university was wasting nearly $250,000/year on machines that were unused during the busiest minute. That $250,000 could have been used to improve wireless coverage or license copies of software for students’ personal computers. We have calculated that the average cost of a lab seat is around $550/year including networking costs and amortization of the machine, furniture, carpet but excluding software and power costs.

    This is a difficult optimization problem if the labs are distributed throughout the campus. If IT were to remove 4 seats here or 5 seats there, it wouldn’t be long before students were unable to find a seat in their preferred building – despite having 400 open seats across campus. This challenge is obviated by placing the majority of seats in one outstanding and comfortable, central location.

    As discussed above, IT is also working with the Registrar to optimize the computer classrooms in order to support fewer, better classrooms and to minimize expenses.
  2. Condition of the current labs
    The dozen or so “open labs” and many computer classrooms are, frankly, in poor shape. Most need new carpet, furniture, computers, wall and window treatments, and ceiling tiles. Most of them are not air-conditioned and few were designed as computer labs. Our estimated cost to improve these spaces is around $2 million.

    The library already has A/C, good carpeting, excellent networking, power and wireless. Additional computers, improved furniture and our commitment to maintaining the library as a leading edge environment will be one-third of the cost of upgrading and maintaining the ‘open labs.’

    Current trends suggest that students will prefer to migrate their work to their own personal computing environment – personal workstations, laptops, tablets, smartphones and yet unrealized devices. The need for wired workstations is likely at its peak as we further develop our network environment, optimize our software licenses, and assess cloud computing options. Money saved will be reinvested or repurposed for academic uses.
  3. Software
    While it is clearly understood that specialized software and programs are needed to support the curricula and student work, IT data show that the vast majority of activity in the computer labs is conducted with Web browsers, Word, PowerPoint and Excel. Over 95% of our students currently own or can borrow a library laptop and many students own smartphones and tablets. Considered in this light, providing precision workstations for e-mail and other browser- based applications is a waste of student tuition money.

Improvement of the Academic Environment

As discussed above, it would take $2M to upgrade the current ‘open labs’ to an acceptable level. We believe that improvements in the Van Pelt and Opie Library  can be accomplished for 1/3 of the cost and that these improvements can be sustained in a manner continuously responsive to students’ needs and preferences for computing, information access, study, collaboration and support personnel.

The wireless lounges that IT has built over the past three years have proven to be popular with students and faculty. They are flexible, outstanding collaboration spaces. They serve as social centers for departments, enable students to interact with each other and with faculty, and offer places for presentation practices. The lounges will have large flat panel displays and furniture optimized for laptops and group work. A limited number of wired workstations will remain with the common software suite so that instructors can assist students with homework.

The library offers a comfortable and safe environment with staffing to provide basic assistance and security for all students with other library resources and services are close at hand.

Evolving Computer Use Trends

A dominant trend in academia and industry is the “BYOD” paradigm. For instance, IBM no longer supplies its employees with computers at many locations; instead, employees are provided with a hardware allowance for their own computers. Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, among others, currently require their students to purchase laptops and provide free copies of specialized software that students run on their own computers. We are committed to developing the most cost effective and progressive model for Michigan Tech going forward.

On any given day, hundreds of our students in the library, the MUB, wireless lounges and hallways are using their laptops or smartphones. But, laptops are not always the best solution. The current lab computers (common campus software) have over 300 applications on them and most software is licensed to run on lab computers but not on individual, personal computers. We will continue to explore licensing options and costs in an effort to seek the best possible balance for Michigan Tech students.

Larger displays are helpful, laptops can be heavy to carry around and with state of the art workstations in the library, and students can be assured a robust workstation will always be available – for convenience in a shared, safe environment.

Cloud computing is another important trend. Canvas runs in the cloud on Amazon Web Services – their computers do all the work and stores our data. Because of this, the devices that students and faculty use to talk to the cloud become simply graphics terminals. Applications are increasingly migrating in this direction and when they do, they run equally as well on a laptop or iPad as they do on an $1,800, wired precision workstation.


We are confident that the coming changes will have a positive effect on the lives of students, faculty and staff. The transformation of the library towards an Information and Learning Commons will be world-class, flexible and responsive. The distributed wireless lounges will supplement students’ collaborative and social experience. The improvements and optimization of the computer-based classrooms will provide a better teaching and learning environment at a lower cost.

Important Addendum

There is a misunderstanding by some students who believe that they are paying a computer fee. There is a fee called “Engineering and Computer Science Fee” on student bills which is simply a way to set differential tuition. It is more expensive to educate engineers and computer scientists than other majors, for many reasons. That fee goes directly to the general fund to support faculty, staff and facilities and does not go to IT.

For more information on these projects:

For IT efforts, please see:
For IT efforts related to the labs, please see
IT blog:
For updates on the Library Transformation, please see: