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An open-source tool developed by Montclair State University could help universities manage their computer labs more efficiently.
The New Jersey university released its Computer Lab Availability tool as open source on Thursday, Sept. 13, so that other universities could benefit from it. On the public-facing site, the tool shows students how many computers in five labs are available, occupied or undergoing maintenance. On the back end, staff can set a computer into maintenance mode and pull usage reports.
"It's not a rocket science project," said Dhaval Patel, Web applications developer. "It's a simple project, but the way it helps the whole university and this business — it's tremendous."
Before the tool was developed, lab use on campus was not evenly distributed among the five desktop and laptop labs. And because 40 percent of classes were held in one building, the approximately 80 computers in that building's lab were frequently taken.
"What was happening was we had a line of students waiting to get a computer where the other labs that we had on campus were empty," said Summer Jones, director of technical support services.
Instead of buying tools to deal with this problem, the university developed a tool in-house so staff could customize it. Student interns worked on the project along with Patel and Marnin Goldberg, Mac specialist for technical support services. This way, the students learned the PHP scripting language, which enables them to build dynamic websites.
With the Computer Lab Availability tool, students can see at a glance which labs have openings before they get there. Because the project team optimized the website for mobile-based computing, students can check lab availability on their phones.The availability information is available on various Office of Information Technology Web pages because a widget displays the percentage of computers available in each lab, with a link to the full chart.
On the laptop side, students can see which laptop-loaning desks have devices available.
"We have cases where laptops were broken by accident or deliberately for some reasons," said Viktor Turchyn, coordinator for computing lab services. "Very rare occasions, but the maintenance mode helped us tell students that certain machines were unavailable at a particular time."
Because the tool allows staff to collect stats on which computers are being used in the different labs, support staff can see where they need to move labs or add computers.
During the past year, wait times have decreased dramatically. And Web analytics show that students are checking the website and going to different labs.
Montclair State doesn't think its situation is unique. That's why it released this tool as open-source: to help other universities who face the same issues in their computer labs.
"We hope other universities will use our lab availability tool and build upon it and share the code back to the github repository, and we can build a great tool that everyone can use," Goldberg said. "That's ultimately the goal here."
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