It is a familiar late-night scene in the computer lab on the second floor of Manzanita Hall — sounds of finger tapping and clicking cutting through the dead silence of a room filled with students racing the clock to complete their assignments before the lab closes for the night. Their projects require full access to the Adobe Creative Suite, an expensive software package that takes significant computing power to run.
For many students, the lab’s powerful computers loaded with software are the only tools available to complete homework assignments and projects. However, that luxury is all too often hampered by restricted lab hours and full classrooms. Students with limited access to CSUN computer labs run the risk of decreased learning opportunities and potentially lower grades.
Some professors, such as engineering Dean S.K. Ramesh, address these limited software options by taking advantage of interactive virtual classrooms.
Another exciting alternative available to all students is the Virtual Software Library (VSL).
Brought to CSUN by Chris Olsen, senior director of Infrastructure Services in the IT Division, the VSL allows students to access the project software they need from any computer with an Internet connection. Even the most outdated laptops can run the latest version of Adobe Photoshop through the VSL. This is because the software is not actually running from the student’s machine, but “virtually”, from a central server on campus dedicated to running demanding programs such as the Adobe Suite.
Mary Schaffer, the Multimedia Option Head in the Department of Cinema and Television Arts, reached out to Olsen four years ago, seeking a way to partner with IT and deliver modern software to students. She worried that her design students used software versions many years behind the industry standard. Schaffer became one of the first faculty members to test what would eventually blossom into the campus-wide VSL initiative.
Graduate student Sarah Luery first experienced the VSL in sociology professor Jerry Schutte’s advanced statistics course. The VSL allows Luery—a sociology major who drives 50 miles round trip for school—to use her laptop to access IBM’s SPSS Amos, an advanced structural equation modeling software with a price tag starting in the hundreds.
“It would be unrealistic for some of us who have jobs and other obligations to come out to campus every day,” she says. “It’s handy to have (the VSL) at our fingertips wherever we are able to do work.”
Schutte notices that students in his lab, like Luery, will access the VSL even though they could access the software the traditional way. One benefit of this, he says, is that students can adapt to one format instead of two.
“When they’re using the online version at home, it’s just as comfortable for them to go on and use the online version when they’re in the lab,” Schutte says.
To Schutte, student convenience is not even the best part of the VSL. Empowering students to work remotely allows the sociology professor to raise the educational bar for his students and assign more rigorous coursework because he knows they spend more time on schoolwork.
Schaffer sees how 24/7 VSL access improves her students’ multimedia projects and portfolios.
“At our showcase last year we saw some pieces that just blew us away, technically and artistically,” she says.
After a successful VSL pilot the previous year, Olsen is pleased to see the positive effects the technology offers CSUN, including cost-savings and improved student performance.
“Hearing stories of students who could not afford to buy the software in a class or who could not get to campus because their life was challenging, and then hearing that this software really improved their coursework, that was very gratifying,” he says.