This page is a collaborative effort between
Tim Leamy of IT Lab Management
the English Department's Coordinator for the
Computers in Composition Program.
In the wake of recent changes in software versions and increases in network
demand, issues have arisen concerning the performance and configuration of
the computer classrooms. As outlined in an email
message dated 1/30/1997, and in other communications, John and IT-Lab
Management staff have been working together to improve classroom
conditions, initiate adequate pre-testing, and ensure that facilities can
meet the changing needs of different constituent groups.
The current informational page, which reflects an ongoing effort at
interdepartmental cooperation between users and technology providers,
addresses several important sub-topics:
In the wake of recent changes in software versions and increases in network demand, issues have arisen concerning the performance and configuration of the computer classrooms. As outlined in an email message dated 1/30/1997, and in other communications, John and IT-Lab Management staff have been working together to improve classroom conditions, initiate adequate pre-testing, and ensure that facilities can meet the changing needs of different constituent groups.
The current informational page, which reflects an ongoing effort at interdepartmental cooperation between users and technology providers, addresses several important sub-topics:
With the installation of Network 21, all computer classroom networks should be upgraded to switched ethernet, which should also help solve the network problems. However, there remain concerns with the methods for determining what software is loaded. We will continue to assess software needs of classroom instructors and lab users, as well as the consequences of upgrades on classroom performance, to reach workable compromises for all groups.
The results show that the steps taken over Winter break had dramatically improved the performance of the computer classroom. Common operations that had taken as much as ten to fifteen minutes to execute, and that sometimes would crash machines, now ran much more quickly without crashing.
The tests reflect a few of the most common classroom activities, and will form the core of a set of performance benchmarks to be used in evaluating future alterations of the classroom environment.
The following tests were conducted:
Results from the 1/8/1997 performance tests
|241 Olson (PowerMac 7200)||247 Olson (PowerBook 520)|
|First machine||All machines||First machine||All machines|
a. The figure for "first machine" indicates the time needed before one machine was ready to go. The figure for "all machines" indicates when all classroom machines had completed the operation being tested.
b. Tests #3-5 times for all machines were constrained by the number of people performing the test since those tests required more user input than the first two tests. A more accurate number would require one tester per computer. In a classroom situation the times might actually be lower.
For comparison, the following table shows the times for the equivalent of Test 2, simultaneous launching Microsoft Word, over the last three quarters.
|First machine||All machines|
|March 96, 241 Olson (SE/30)||7:30||14:30|
|March 96, 247 Olson (520)||3:30||7:30|
|Sept 96, 241 Olson (PowerMac)||12:55||16:45 (11 machines crashed)|
|Sept 96, 247 Olson||11:30||16:45|
|Jan 97, 241 Olson (PowerMac)||1:20||2:35|
|Jan 97, 247 Olson||1:30||2:36|
It should be kept in mind that the March '96 tests were performed with Word 5 launched from a server, the September '96 tests were for Word 6 launched from a server, and the January '97 tests were for Word 6 loaded on individual hard drives.
As discussed elsewhere, there are several main considerations involved in configuring computer rooms for class use. They include network configuration, software choices, machine type, and room layout.
The upgrade to Word 6, as well as the surging demand for network services like Netscape, together show how network quality can limit performance: the cabling that worked satisfactorily under 1992 conditions cannot always handle the new loads brought by pedagogical innovation and market-driven upgrades.
To alleviate these problems, Lab Management has identified several considerations will lead to higher-quality, more reliable user service:
However, such a commitment may need rethinking, informed by detailed cost-benefit analysis; John Stenzel has written a report on the recent Word 6 upgrade that offers such an analysis, as well as suggestions for a more balanced approach: The MS-Word 6 Upgrade and Its Impacts: Reflections on Cost, Cause and Effect, and IT Culture".
With the caveat that backwards compatibility between versions remains an issue, the old upgrade policy worked fairly well, except in situations where different user groups had radically conflicting needs. For example, Word 5 was a better choice for English composition, which needs speed and predictability with few advanced functions, but the campus had moved to Word 6.
Two possible solutions are being pursued:
In an age of ever growing and specialized applications it is becoming increasingly obvious that "one size fits all" is not a wise philosophy in determining lab / classroom allocation, hardware choices, and software use. In the case of composition classes, for example, where word processing and Daedalus conferencing are the most popular and appropriate applications, IT could cost-effectively employ lower-end Macintoshes that are too slow to run graphics-intensive programs
However, moving to notebooks introduced some new problems. The keyboards are smaller and more cramped than normal keyboards, and trackballs and trackpads can at first prove difficult to manipulate, an especially important consideration since the high-level revision taught in our composition classes requires extensive cutting and pasting of text blocks.
An unanticipated problem surfaced when it was discovered that the PowerBooks go to into Sleep mode when their lids are closed, simultaneously discontinuing network services (including the classroom server). Lab Management staff are looking into the possibility of disconnecting the sleep-trigger circuitry in the PowerBook, but this appears to be a very time consuming, labor intensive, and possibly risky process.
Therefore, the notebook vs. desktop question is still unresolved, and the choice may depend on the characteristics of the notebooks in question. Over the past year Lab Management has consulted with composition instructors, soliciting feedback at Apple's equipment roll-outs, to determine if the various new notebook models are acceptable for classroom use. Apple's latest lines of notebooks have had severe problems that would argue against widespread adoption in high-use situations.
Another possibility is using "all-in-one" machines like the Apple PowerMac 5400 series. However, they usually bring their own sets of compromises, and may have profiles as high as those of modular units.
The feedback from the composition faculty was that the layout of the oldest teaching lab, 247 Olson--which they had helped to design--was more effective for teaching and the workshop activities associated with critical thinking. Thus, during the planning and construction of the new rooms in the basement of Olson, Lab Management consulted extensively and productively with this user constituency on the layouts.
Some key concepts of the 247 Olson design were incorporated into the new designs, with the following goals featuring prominently:
Feedback on the new layout has been positive. From the Report on Computer Classroom Design section on 21 Olson:
Because the basement rooms are deeper (closer to square) than those on the second floor, the sense of space is welcome, as is the modified-widget table arrangement (like 247 Olson, but with two rows rather than one table with students facing each other). The instructor has a wide aisle in the front of the class, with easy access to the ranks of students; the sight lines are good, and the potential for group work would seem promising.Overall, instructors have been very positive about the new layout. A recent survey of composition instructors in English and Spanish confirms the concerns about launch times and reliability, but includes praise for the improved layouts. 21 Olson is a heavily requested classroom because of its network speed and its spacious arrangement, an encouraging sign that IT-Lab Management is moving in the right direction on these issues.
Problem: Crowding and access in 307 SurgeIV
The situation in 307 Surge is slightly different: the room is cramped, ... narrow and windowless, and has been nicknamed "the Boxcar"; six rows of four computers each run perpendicular to the side aisle where the teacher works, with the whiteboard along this side of the room and the projection screen at the far end, opposite the door.Solution:
Not surprisingly, the projection facilities are less than ideal on two counts: pulling down the screen blocks the air conditioner vent, and students on the side closest to the door are a long way from a small projected image, and those sitting with their backs to the screen must move or crane their necks.
Problem: 241 Olson and the lecture-hall lab
By contrast, the 241 Olson classroom is an abominable place to teach composition: five rows of six computers each stretch down a long narrow room, with the teacher isolated behind a set of tables and a tall desk, sitting on a high stool. . . . With so many students facing computers, there is a strong temptation to read-e-mail, surf the Web, or do other work, and even instructors who are quite successful in other classrooms have expressed their frustration with this aspect of the room. Making matters worse, the ranks of tables are narrow and cramped: an instructor who wants to reach a student near the windows must walk down the aisle and then sidle in past book-bags and chairs--and even then the quarters are very close.Solution:
Here is a summary of some recent examples of this collaboration, as well as future plans which were a result of the increased cooperation between the English Department and Lab Management.
For constituent groups and for administrators who allocate resources of space and funds, a clearer understanding of specific loads and usage patterns is absolutely essential, since a "solution" based on one set of assumptions may have disastrous consequences for a significant number of users. Cost-effective solutions require informed compromise, not top-down policymaking.
The problem is not limited to composition instruction, clearly, although recent developments have brought these concerns to a head sooner than they have arisen in other contexts. Bandwidth and access limitations will continue to be difficult and politically charged issues, especially as more professors integrate Web components into their classes, and students find their studies thwarted by busy signals and network crashes. Today's technological challenges demand flexibility and creativity, as well as cooperation and communication.
Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org and
Last reviewed: Thu, 18-Jul-2002
Last updated: February 19, 1997