• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Computer Labs

Keyboards don't like to be sprayed.

June 3, 2020

After a few “big idea” pieces, this is a bit of a palate cleanser. I’m struggling with figuring out how to run open computer labs for students under conditions of social distancing.

For background: at many community colleges, including my own, students ordinarily use open computer labs to write papers, do research, take online classes, work on projects and the like. Sometimes it’s because they lack good tech at home or lack reliable access to it if they live with other people. Sometimes it’s a function of scheduling. Sometimes it’s to escape a bad home situation or the lack of a home situation. And yes, sometimes it’s just about convenience.

When we moved to remote operations in mid-March, we had to shut down access to the computer labs, the library and other campus facilities that help give low-income students a slightly more level playing field. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to reopen those facilities this fall.

The catch, though, is that even if we can reopen them, we’ll probably be dealing with social distancing guidelines and a general fear of contagion. Those make open facilities tricky.

The actual distancing is the easy part. Computers can be set so many feet apart, facing in directions likely to minimize contagion. But as a day goes on, the keyboard is used by multiple students in succession. Keyboards don’t like to be sprayed. (They also don’t like to have Dr Pepper spilled on them. Trust me on this one.) I guess we could issue every entering student a sheet of plastic wrap -- basically a keyboard condom -- but I don’t see that working terribly well. To be effective, the wrap would have to stick to the keyboard, but any wrap sticky enough to stick would be a nightmare for typing. Disinfectant wipes might work tolerably well, but we’d go through an alarming number of them quickly, and they’re in short supply. Between shortages and hoarding, there would inevitably be coverage gaps.

Similar issues apply to tables in the library, or even desks in classrooms. They can be set so many feet apart, but if they have multiple users in succession in a single day, it would be easy for them to serve as sources of contagion. If a student in the class before mine was sick -- possibly even unknowingly -- and spent over an hour sitting there breathing, then the student who gets that desk in my class is at risk.

For reasons I still don’t understand, the Respondus Lockdown Browser -- popular as a method of proctoring online exams -- isn’t compatible with Chromebooks. That rules out the option of low-cost Chromebook rentals. (Some four-year colleges won’t accept math classes in transfer unless the exams were proctored, so we don’t really have the option of an honor system.) Windows laptops tend to cost more, and Macs even more than that. Ideally, if every student had a laptop, then campus Wi-Fi and some open-access printers could theoretically suffice for most needs. But many students can’t afford them, and we can’t afford to give away thousands of them. Yes, some students manage to write papers on their phones, but I think most of us would agree that solutions go, that’s not great. The formatting alone!

So throwing up our hands and declaring the end of open computer labs probably isn’t the answer, at least for now.

To be clear, I don’t know at this point whether we’ll be allowed to open up these facilities in the fall. But assuming that we are, and that COVID hasn’t magically gone away by then, has anyone seen a reasonably practical way to open up computer labs and libraries while keeping everyone safe?


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