ITC to Phase Out Public Labs, Outsource Help Desk

March 9, 2009 — ITC is making some changes in response to economic reality and the shifting uses of technology.

The University of Virginia's Division of Information Technology and Communication plans to phase out most of its public computer labs by the summer of 2011. They were first established in the early 1980s to give members of the U.Va. community access to those newfangled PCs, but are less necessary today in an era when 99 percent of undergraduate students arrive with laptops.

ITC also plans to outsource its help desk operation, and in the process increase its coverage hours from 40 per week to around-the-clock, every day.

"These are just a whole lot of things we have been talking about for a long time," said Michael R. McPherson, associate vice president and deputy chief information officer. Tight budgets brought the issues to the fore, he added.

"Frankly in today's budget climate, like everybody else, we have to make choices," he said.

The public computer labs were essential in the years before laptops became ubiquitous. But, McPherson said, "If the great majority of our students have laptops, do we need computers sitting in rooms in prime academic space?"

He acknowledged that the labs still serve some purposes. For one, their convenience allows students to leave their laptops at home, and provide backup should a student's computer need repair. But perhaps more critically, they provide access to specialized software – software that may be expensive to purchase or difficult to install and maintain.

ITC is looking into other ways to make such software available, McPherson said. One possibility is a "virtual desktop," which would work much like those services that allow people to access their desktops from a remote location. Instead of traveling to a lab, authorized users would be able to remotely access a virtual desktop containing the needed software. That would allow 24-hour access from anywhere, "which feels like a huge win," McPherson said.

Another possibility would be to negotiate something like a site license that would allow students to download the software directly onto their machines for little or no cost, said McPherson, who also held out the possibility that ITC might still maintain a small number of public computers.

"I think in the end, there's going to be a mix of things," he said.

For students in temporary need of a computer, he pointed out that Cavalier Computers offers loaners when it is repairing computers it originally sold, and the University Library also offers a small number of loaners.

The labs will be phased out gradually. The current plan is to close the labs in Small and Ruffner halls, plus the residence halls, this year. In 2010, the lab in the chemistry Building will close. Finally, labs in Thornton and Bryan halls and Clemons Library are scheduled to close in 2011. The Brown Library lab will remain open for access to specialized software until another viable delivery option is identified.

McPherson said most of the space that would be vacated by the departing labs is controlled by the various schools. He said he intends to strongly recommend that the schools convert the former labs into technology-rich collaborative spaces with large monitors, scanners, printers and wireless access, as currently exists on the fourth floor of Clemons Library.

As for the outsourcing of the help desk, McPherson said, "We're in the 'due diligence' phase" of negotiations with an outside help-desk provider that specializes in serving higher education.

Currently, about 90 student workers staff ITC help desks on weekdays during normal business hours, McPherson said. But that's not the only time that help is needed – by students pulling all-nighters to finish term papers, employees working early or late, or faculty traveling to different time zones.

The as-yet-unnamed help service would provide coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by phone, e-mail or voice and text chat, McPherson said.

"I'm not saying that the staff and students in our help desk operation don't do a good job, because they do a great job," he said. The outside service would provide a new level of formality and documentation.

McPherson anticipates retaining about 30 of the 90 student workers as attendants in the remaining public computer labs or to perform "tier two" help desk service, addressing issues that the service cannot resolve. He said he hopes to find work for a few more students with departments who may be ramping up their technology use as a result of the recommendations by the Committee on the Future of the University.

He expects that the round-the-clock outside service will cost about as much as is currently budgeted for the weekday-only help desk, but will save money in the long run as it takes on the responsibility for servicing the new Student Information System and the University's Integrated System.

"I think this is going to be a big win," McPherson said, though "it's unfortunate that we're going to be employing fewer students than we did before."

In a third, less visible, change, ITC is looking to get out of the software specification business, he said.

For years, ITC has operated the Desktop Computing Initiative, conceived of as a way to standardize the software used by students and University faculty and staff. Through the program, it specified what software was loaded onto machines purchased through Cavalier Computers.

The computers were preloaded with Microsoft Office and pre-configured to work on U.Va. networks. Some unnecessary software that was loaded by the manufacturer was removed, and U.Va.-specific and antivirus software was added, he said.

With the changes, ITC will no longer dictate what will be added to student computers, instead yielding that function to Cavalier Computers, an arm of the U.Va. Bookstore. "I believe because the bookstore is in the business of retail, they'll be more efficient at it than ITC is," McPherson said.

ITC will still continue to develop the Cavalier Computer-specified "load sets" as a contractor, he added.

— By Dan Heuchert