Can I book a PC please?

old books

When I managed libraries in FE you often had to field calls from suppliers of PC booking systems. They were always surprised, when I not only said we weren’t interested in their product, but I didn’t see the point and how they improved teaching, learning and assessment.

I know for many libraries I realise that a booking system for the PCs is seen as a vital piece of software, alongside the Library Management System.

However have you ever asked yourself why you have one, and what would happen if you turned it off?

iMacs in the library

We removed the PC booking systems, as no one could come up with a good business case for them.

Reasons given included to restrict the amount of time a student could use a PC for… never quite understood that one. Yes students should take breaks when using a PC, but is this down to software or better done through education and understanding?

Another issue with time restraints, is that it implies, if you have a one hour limit, that learning takes place in one hour chunks and only one hour chunks! That doesn’t happen!

Other reasons, is that there isn’t enough PCs in the library to meet the demand, so yes a booking system will help constrain demand, but isn’t the issue then to get more PCs, rather than a PC booking system?

PC utilisation data across the whole college, will probably show that there are unused PCs in classrooms, one question to ask is how can they be used more effectively?

I do understand, coming from an economics background that with limited resources and unlimited wants, you can have shortages. The question is do you go down the planned economy route or go for a more laissez faire approach.

The planned approach does cost money in terms of software, hardware, support as well as operational staffing costs. The laissez faire approach means allowing the learners to make decisions about when and how they use the PCs.

One feature of one of these systems said

Whether you use predefined or open text messages, there is no need to physically approach users.

…and this is a good idea, because you wouldn’t want to talk to the learners would you, enabling you to build a working relationship with them, so that they know who is who and whom to go to when needing help.

The sales pitch goes onto say…

“Possible confrontations are avoided, cultivating a more studious environment.

Well we wouldn’t want staff to talk to the learners would we, why would we want that?

From my experience, the opposite is what happens. The staff become more distant from the learners, the library staff see their role is about managing resources and not about supporting learners… resulting a more confrontational environment when it comes to anti-social behaviour, as the learners don’t have a working relationship with the staff and don’t respect the staff or the environment.

We need staff to talk to the learners, we need to build relationships through effective communication, it enables learners to understand that the library staff are a key part of the library and can be a wealth of guidance, knowledge and information that will support the learners in their learning and supporting them in their assessments

We had one complaint from a student who liked to book a PC, so it was booked and reserved, so they could then go and have breakfast… leaving the PC booked, but not being used.

Usage patterns after removing the booking system, demonstrated increased use and higher utilisation.

What we also found with booking systems was that students would book a PC at say 10am. The previous booking would leave at say 9:50am, another learner would find the PC, but knowing it would only be available for 10 minutes doesn’t use it, the learner who booked the PC, then fails to turn up at 10am, we wait 10 minutes before freeing up the PC. This means PCs were “unavailable” as they had been booked, but weren’t been used.

We also found that learners wanted to book PCs so they could sit with their friends and be social, not having a booking system did mean that they could all use a PC, but not necessarily together. This resulted in less behavioural issues in the library.

If someone was desperate and wanted to book a PC for a specific time, then no problem, we did this manually. In other words booking was the exception rather than the rule. The learners could even manage such a system themselves.

As Ofsted noted when they inspected the college:

Outside lessons, many learners make constructive use of the college’s libraries and resources.

No mention of booking systems, or issues with PC access. I should also note that at least one of the inspectors sat in the library alongside learners when working rather than sit in the base room we had provided.

So here’s an idea, why not turn off your booking system for a week, just as a trial and see what happens. Confusion, possibly, chaos, probably not. Another option is, if that idea is too radical, why not have some bookable PCs, but allow others to be fully open access and record utilisation patterns.

I understand that for some library staff they see the PC booking system as a critical component of how they manage resources, from my experience, and especially in times of reduced funding, they are probably one thing that can be removed and the funding used for staff or learning resources, with minimal negative impact and potentially a more positive environment in the library itself.

7 thoughts on “Can I book a PC please?”

  1. Interesting reflections.

    We are often asked by students to implement an extension to the limited booking scheme we have now so this is useful counterpoint based on experience.

    The limited booking system we have is specifically to address the most constrained resources and to ensure priority access to those who specifically need them. Eg we have certain expensive specialist software which would be impossible (currently) to make available on any PC. The labs this software is usually used in are in buildings which are not open 24/7/365 and they would be prohibitively expensive to make open all the time. The software needs much higher spec PCs as well as the license costs.

    I see this as akin to the rarest books that libraries need to provide for which may only be made available to people who book and even then, maybe only if they have a good reason (to protect the resource).

    We do provide a PC availability tool through the mobile app for students (along side a tool for students to see which driers are busy in halls) – this sort of works to give students visibility of where else computers are available across campus, and we very rarely hit 100% utilisation, but the feedback we get is that students value having PCs in the same study space as other resources (books) and in a better learning environment (library…the classroom environments we have currently are teaching spaces, not learning spaces) – so again, a booking system is seen by them as a way of ensuring access where they want it – but I suspect they are not factoring in that every othe student will be able to book too…

    The other use case we think a booking system might address is for students who have to travel significant distances to campus to study. When they do come in, they want to be able to be sure they’ll be able to use the time on campus most productively, and after travelling a long way, not finding a PC available is much more frustrating.

    However – the primary way we are looking to address all of this strategically would be by making everything available on students own devices. Our aim is for anytime, anywhere services, acknowledging the investment the vast majority of students have made in their own IT tools. The switch in investment from providing banks of university owned devices (which look great on open days etc), to invisible infrastructure and licenses etc is one we are currently looking to navigate.

  2. Meant to add….

    Years ago, we implements a PC booking system for almost free – simply providing a sheet of paper with a grid of dates next to each PC and telling students to police it themselves actually worked remarkably well. However, that was only for a relatively small faculty (<1k students) on a remote campus where everyone knew everyone else and the sense of community was very strong.

  3. James –

    I totally agree – college librarians have been saying this to me for a few years now this or replace booking with a timer – just have a simple timer app that gives each machine 30mins.

    Booking PCs and much of what college’s do is from a bygone era.

  4. LOL
    “book a PC”

    Oh dear … I only just got this

    Clever title – reveals the thinking of how PCs in libraries have been considered over the last era … just like books.

  5. Where booking systems are invaluable (as far as I can see) is where you operate a ‘mixed economy’ of classes and open access. For example, one of our centres often has classes using it for BKSB assessments, or UCAS prep, or survey filling etc. Without a booking system I’m not sure how we’d manage this. Any thoughts?

    1. If a group of PCs in the library are to be used in the similar manner to a group of PCs in a classroom, one solution would be to use the timetabling system and have the sessions timetabled. This would solve that problem, without needing to buy an additional system for these kinds of sessions. These sessions are unlikely to be booked by learners and would be booked by the member of staff leading the session.

      If that wasn’t an option, and depending on frequency, you could book out the PCs manually or using a spreadsheet.

  6. At Harlow College we have created s digital innovation team that work in the library. We are currently at the early stages of planning to transform the space. The idea being that the space is to host active collaborative learning spaces as well as quiet study spaces but also quiet recording audio and video booths for both staffs and students. The space has to change to enable the support of technology and mobile devices. The digital innovation team that I manage work in the space to support staff and students with technical support along with other students with an interest in developing the use of technology in our college. My team help delivery staff with curriculum planning support, we run coffee morning, working lunch drop in training workshops for staff and students on apps or how to transform curriculum to embed digital literacy related to their subject area. We are in year 1 of the development plan still got a way to go. Thought I would share.

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