We are starting to see a trend of universities shutting down computer labs and workstations to cut costs. Since it is very difficult to attend university without regular computer access, this trend will increase the pressure on students to have their own computers.
(From what I understand, there is a reluctance to make this a formal requirement here at McGill since it would be viewed by the Quebec government as a tuition increase, which is verboten.)
Relying on students having their own computers doesn’t see like a far stretch. Indeed, many students do have computers. But not all. And those that do often leave them back at their apartment/room. For a variety of reasons, we can assume that there are still a significant number of students who make use of on-campus computer facilities.
Take these facilities away, and most of those students will find alternatives. However, I think universities will find that the costs will shift from maintaining computer facilities to supporting student laptops. Computer facilities can be, to a degree, standardized, and locked down. Supporting these is relatively straightforward. Supporting the wide variety of student computers, with all manner of hardware, software, configuration, and states of health is, not to overstate this, an IT nightmare.
This morning I came across an article on the iCloud web OS, with all applications running in a virtual environment. iCloud isn’t the only offering in this space, and it doesn’t appear ready for prime-time. However, I do think that eventually this is the kind of solution that universities are going to be looking to for student computing: students provide the hardware client, and the university provides access to a virtual computing environment over a standard network connection.
It sounds good on paper (or rather, looks good on a PowerPoint slide). The question is whether it will cost more to centrally host a virtual computing environment then it does to provide client computing facilities.
There are still a lot of questions to be answered, and the technology is new. But you can be sure that university IT administrators have this on their radar as a potential solution, even if it is years away from realization.