Composition Program's Concerns
Regarding Computer Classrooms

February 1997

This page is a collaborative effort between Tim Leamy of IT Lab Management and John Stenzel, 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:

Additional information can be found in the Report on Computer Classroom Design and The Computers in Composition Program webpage.

I. Computer Classroom Performance Problems

Network Problems

During the Fall quarter the upgrade to Word 6.0 and new computers in 241 Olson caused problems in the computer classrooms due to network bandwidth limitations. The configuration that had worked with earlier versions of Word and older computers proved untenable, causing very long load times for Word, and sometimes crashes during simultaneous loading.


Over Winter break Lab Management took two major steps to address these problems: As verified in newly-instituted performance tests, these steps have alleviated the network problems with Word in the computer classrooms. To improve performance Word has also been moved to the local hard drives in the other rooms which English uses as well.

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.

Performance Tests

On January 8, 1997 Lab Management staff performed five performance tests in 241 and 247 Olson, as suggested by John Stenzel in various e-mail messages. These tests are designed to mimic the network loads generated during a typical class session: classroom operations, where as many as two dozen students perform the same task at the same time, impose very different demands on a computer room, as contrasted to open lab conditions, where students trickle in and out. For a more extended discussion of this matter, see the "Servers and network connections: hidden 'layout' issues" section of the Report on Computer Classroom Design.

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:

  1. Test 1 measured elapsed time from the login splash-screen to Microsoft Word fully launched and ready to edit a new document, with the program launched from the Apple Menu. This test emulates what happens when a composition instructor tells an entire class to create a new document.

  2. Test 2 measured time between login splash screen and Microsoft Word fully launched and ready to edit an existing document. This test emulates what happens when an instructor tells an entire class to edit an existing document from a student's diskette. Microsoft Word was launched from the Apple Menu, "open" selected from under the File menu, and the file selected from the diskette; it should be noted that this test would take longer when non-Macintosh files are read.

  3. Test 3 measured the time needed to save a file to diskette in Word 5.1 format, then to copy it into an instructor's drop-off folder on the file server. The Save-as step is included because English faculty generally need file in Word 5.x format.

  4. Test 4 measured the time needed to join a Daedalus InterChange on-line conference, with each room running a separate conference.

  5. Test 5 measured the time required to send several paragraphs from each computer to the Daedalus conference and have the text appear on every screen. Daedalus InterChange is a module of the Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment, and is a valuable tool for running on-line written discussions on local networks.

Results from the 1/8/1997 performance tests

241 Olson (PowerMac 7200) 247 Olson (PowerBook 520)
First machineAll machines First machineAll machines
Test 1 0:301:450:451:21
Test 2 1:202:351:302:36
Test 3 0:503:451:444:47
Test 4 0:503:001:042:54
Test 5 5:051:45

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 machineAll machines
March 96, 241 Olson (SE/30)7:3014:30
March 96, 247 Olson (520)3:307:30
Sept 96, 241 Olson (PowerMac)12:5516:45 (11 machines crashed)
Sept 96, 247 Olson11:3016:45
Jan 97, 241 Olson (PowerMac)1:202:35
Jan 97, 247 Olson1:302:36

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.

II. Configuring Computer Classrooms for Class Use

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.

Network Configuration

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:

  1. The network should be set up in such a way that it is not dependent on equipment outside of the room. In this way, we help ensure that when there are UCDNet difficulties, the network internal to the room is not affected, and that class activities are still maintained. With the current status of Network 21 in question it is difficult to say when this conversion will be completed, and exactly how much it would cost. Detailed analysis of various hardware upgrades--including how much improvement would result from a given expenditure--is pending, and will be included in an appendix.
  2. Commonly used software, easily launched from the Apple Menu or Start Menu, should be installed on the local hard drives to improve performance (reduced launch time and minimal server calls).
  3. A systematic set of benchmark tests will continue to be developed to ensure that the network and server meet the needs of classes in the computer classroom. The above network tests, adjusted for whatever is the most commonly used application by the class, are a good start.

Software Choices and Upgrade Decisions

Determining which software to install in the computer classrooms has been based on many factors, including campuswide use patterns, faculty requests and user feedback. The software installation policy can be found at The University's IT strategic planning document of 1992 ( included a commitment to upgrading to latest versions.

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:

  1. Develop creative means of supporting conflicting needs. This may be possible in some situations, though the area needs further study. Lab Management believe it is possible to run both Word 5.0 and Word 6.0 on the same machine but more tests and programming will be required to prevent conflicts.
  2. Optimize a computer room to meet the needs of a certain type of instruction. Lab Management will need the Registrar and the Instructional Space Advisory Group to agree to dedicate the 241 and 247 Olson classrooms for composition instruction and many other classes that are essentially text-oriented and workshop-intensive.

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

Machine Type

Responding to instructors' concerns, voiced in the early 1990's, that computers created physical barriers to discussion between students and teacher, IT-Lab Management pioneered the use of notebook computers to try to address some of the problems a full sized computer brings to a classroom. We believed that their smaller size, reduced footprint, and reduced noise would bring a partial solution to the problem of eye contact and distraction. An instructor can simply have students partially or fully close the screens over the keyboard, and thus reduce the obvious physical / attentional barrier to full participation.

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.

Room Layout: New Classrooms

As in other considerations of the computer-lab vs. computer-classroom debate, IT Lab Management personnel have sometimes had to make difficult compromises to accommodate disparate user needs. In the past, decisions on lab design were guided by assumptions of lecture-based pedagogy, with arrangement of tables modeled after typical lecture hall classrooms. This led to layouts such as 241 Olson and 1102 Hart. For a variety of reasons these rooms proved not to be very effective for composition instruction.

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.

Room Layout: Reconfiguring Older Classrooms

The current page gives a few relevant excerpts from the Classroom Report, and indicates the ways in which Lab Management has recently moved to improve conditions in already-existing classrooms.

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.
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.
Over the summer of 1996, Lab Management alleviated many of these problems with a subtle but significant reconfiguration of tables: by flipping around two tables to create a face-to-face arrangement, the resulting floor plan is much more effective for teaching. Instead of the narrow aisles and isolated students, the teacher has six-foot-wide aisles and a much cleaner path to most stations. It should be noted that this improvement was performed at minimal expense, and was the result of creative collaboration between Lab Management and instructors.

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.
In Summer 1997 the configuration will change to that of 21 Olson, improving access and the potential for collaborative workshop activities. From a pedagogical standpoint, crowding and teacher-at-the-front room configurations limit the frequency and kind of collaboration between students: students are limited to the classmates on either side of them, with the lines of machines forming an effective screen between tables. At a more mundane level, having aisles with connection cables exposed to passers-by creates disastrous potential for inadvertent disconnections; back-to-back placement helps eliminate this ergonomic issue.

III. Past Improvements and Future Plans

Lab Management personnel and English Department computer users are working together to improve response and efficiency, and Lab Management is committed to meeting the composition instructors' needs in the computer classroom. We will be working closely together, to make sure that the computer classrooms become and remain effective teaching environments.

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.

Summer 1996

Winter Break 1997

Winter Quarter 1997

Spring Break 1997

Summer 1997

Conclusion and Caution

As this report should make clear, Lab Management faces a challenging task in satisfying all constituencies that use the computer classrooms. For teachers of composition and language and critical thinking, an effective environment depends on many factors, including software, hardware, network configuration, projection system, and layout. For users whose main object is electronic communication, or typing papers, or even Web surfing, a room full of networked computers may be more than adequate regardless of ergonomics.

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.

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Last reviewed: Thu, 18-Jul-2002
Last updated: February 19, 1997