COVID-19 and computer labs

11 June 2020

There are many gaps in our knowledge of how COVID-19 spreads, but spending lots of time in close proximity to other people who are talking, singing, or even just breathing is generally understood to significantly increase the odds of transmission. Since most of the computer labs on campus are in closed spaces, with the computers fairly close together, and since the people using them frequently talk, sometimes sing, and definitely breathe, ITS is rethinking how those labs might look next year.

Carleton has long championed computer labs as a way to provide access to hardware and software and create spaces to work and play together. Currently, there are roughly 500 public and departmental lab computers on campus. Though expert recommendations are evolving on specifics, it’s likely most computer labs will need a reduction in seats. We are working with the college’s COVID response groups to work out the details.

Most software vendors were generous with licensing during Spring Term, and students were able to install a wide range of software on their personal computers. This may not continue to be the case going forward. 

ITS is exploring alternative ways for students to access the software they need for their coursework. In some cases, there might be ways to rework licenses to allow personal installation of software. If that’s not an option, some software could be used through a “remote lab,” in which students use their personal computer to control a Carleton-owned computer which has the needed software. (The biggest shortcoming of this approach is that audio doesn’t work with our remote lab implementation, making any audio or video work impossible.) 

Ultimately, there may be cases where the best solution will be a computer that a student can walk up to and use. In addition to considering social distancing, ITS is also exploring how to manage the public health risks of using shared equipment, such as keyboards, mice, and printers.

In light of these complexities, we are planning for multiple contingencies, in order to support the college’s emerging plans for Fall Term. We will post updates to our website and in the Welcome Back edition of the ITS Update. As always, we welcome your feedback.