Friday, August 01, 2008

Green computing: everything old is new again?

From Inside Higher Ed: is Rockhurst College's move to "green computing" the wave of the future?
The new computers, which are about the size of VHS tapes, are literally stripped of their guts. They have no need for hard drives or memory, because the servers will store everything instead. That means less material is needed to produce the units, one of many factors that Rockhurst touts as “earth friendly.”
(I wish they'd show a picture of the monitors, too, since the VHS-size computer by itself doesn't give enough detail.)

Hmm. I think that just maybe we've been down this road before (can you say VAX, boys and girls?), and yet I really like the philosophy behind this. A loose and very impressionistic history of computing on campus would go something like this:
  • 1970s: Big mainframes and scheduled times to use them. Computer users easily identifiable by the rubber-banded stacks of punchcards and green-and-white printout pages they carry.
  • 1980s: Computer classrooms that non-CS people get to use. Big mainframe systems and "dumb terminals" with monochrome monitors that glow amber or green. Rudimentary e-mail clients. Later in the decade, rooms of stand-alone computers. Wastebaskets are overflowing with long, ticker-tape-like ribbons of paper torn from the sides of printer paper. Students must save their files to a central server.
  • 1990s: Networked computer classrooms. Students could talk to each other and, after 1995 or so, could connect to this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. Monitors sometimes hidden below the desk with a glass screen inset into the desk to view them. Later in the decade, classrooms with laptops or laptops wheeled in on a cart, thus making the fixed desk-monitor-chair positioning of the traditional computer classroom optional.
  • 2000s: Laptops everywhere, the better to check Facebook and Wikipedia in class. More multimedia authoring and technology, which still makes the computer classroom viable for a lot of places. Individuals can carry their files with them. Later in the decade: students must save their files to a central server?
Here are some questions/observations:
  • Back in the 1980s, students had to print things in a computer lab because printers were too large and expensive. As printers got cheaper, they'd hook up their computer to a printer in their dorm room. Now, however, since computers have become so mobile (very small laptops, using iPhones, etc.), are students going back to printing to central locations because it's easier than messing with an individual printer? I know there are still some of the latter, because at the end of the semester I get handed blue/pink/washed-out black papers as the student sheepishly explains "My printer is just about out of ink." But is the individual printer becoming a thing of the past?
  • For that matter, is the computer classroom/lab getting phased out in favor of something else? Is this happening on your campus?
  • The photo accompanying the article shows a flash drive attached to the thin client. I'm assuming that this means they can access their files on the server from their laptops, if they have them, as well as saving them to the flash drive, but are we going toward saving it all to a central server or online? Are flash drives (in student perceptions, anyway), the 5.25" floppy disk of the future?
  • And a philosophical question: does saving one's classwork to the central server while maintaining other devices (iPod, etc.) for things that are important to one's life serve to create a distinction between work that somehow belongs to "them" (the university), since it's kept in "their" space, and work that belongs to "me," since it's kept in "my" space?

1 comment:

Professor Zero said...

V. interesting post and I could say a lot.

Since I found blogs, I don't save much to the central server any more. Not things I'm working on, anyway, although I might throw the random this or that to the central server (i.e. the finished piece, in .pdf).

I draft things on secret blogs and then switch them to word processors when I am almost finished, need to put in footnotes, and things like that.