“Colleges are not going to do any good unless you are raised and live in a library everyday of your life,” Ray Bradbury once wrote. Students at the University of Portsmouth in southern England have seemingly taken the author’s words to heart.
The academic institution is tucked away in the historic coastal city of Portsmouth, remembered in the British consciousness as home to a bustling port and navy. Where once were sailors now tread students - 25,000 of them.
At the heart of this beehive of student engagement is the library, which has become the unofficial town hall and social space for Portsmouth’s students. While university administration has yet to report any incidents of students literally moving into the building, officials are outspoken about the success of a library renovation that has transformed the once stuffy, cramped building into the hub of student interaction on campus.
Andrew Minter, Director of Information Services, said the pre-renovation library “felt like going into a large call center – rather impersonal and flat.” Now? “It's a place full of energy and animation."
Studying is no more a quiet thing here
“The library is really more of a social place than anything,” corroborated second-year Anita Sofia Nieto. Campus officials embrace the comparison as it reflects Portsmouth’s ongoing success in establishing a campus culture of social studying and creative collaboration.
“Studying used to be a very quiet thing, but when you’ve got a real job you’re constantly collaborating with other people,” said Minter. “More than ever before, students are social in their studies; they learn with each other and from each other.”
Step inside the library and it feels as if you’ve stumbled upon an interactive space of the future, rather than a cramped cavern that harkens back to a scene from a Roald Dahl novel. The building is equipped with 1,400 unique study spaces, from conference rooms to couches, well-suited to curling up with one of the university’s 380,000 books -- or perhaps one of its 350 Lenovo ThinkPad E460 machines. Most libraries lend literature; Portsmouth’s library lends laptops.
The laptop lending library
These ThinkPads are essential to the library’s reinvigorated modus operandus because with just the swipe of an ID card, students gain half-day access to a fully charged laptop loaded with software.“Having the university provide us with laptops has really changed everything,” said Sowmya Shah, a third year environmental sciences major.
Engineering such a space naturally required financial investment, but Minter explained that the combined price of the laptops and lockers was “half the cost of providing a fixed PC,” which allowed for the allocation of greater funds towards software and database subscriptions.
Minter also found that the laptops facilitated group interaction, which studies repeatedly show aids in content comprehension and faster assignment completion. And because these are young adults, the ability to choose a workspace instills a much-desired sense of independence in students.
Self-issuing laptop lockers
According to administration, the locker concept stemmed from the university’s commitment to social education over isolated study, exemplified by its construction of open-access study spaces furnished with free technology.
Although laptop rental is now as simple as a swipe, Craig Browning, Senior Service Delivery Specialist explained that the development of the program faced its share of challenges.
“It was just an idea we had,” he said. “The university environment was a first for the locker supplier so we had to keep asking ourselves, how do we do this?”
But this is a university, and living up to its reputation as a harbinger of innovation and creative thinking, the tech team found itself treading upon territory previously untouched by academic institutions. After the initial design and implementation -- and the ironing out of some minor bugs -- the lockers became stable in 2013.
Fostering social learning in the campus
Browning and his team chose to furnish the lockers with Lenovo ThinkPad E460 machines because they’re lighter and more durable than other PC models, meaning they can handle the extensive wear and tear that undoubtedly results from use by thousands of students.
“The ThinkPads are very sturdy,” said Browning. “They have to be.” He has witnessed students handling laptops while also juggling a stack of books in one hand and a coffee in the other. The ThinkPads have been dropped, spilled on and sat upon -- repeatedly.
And because this is England, after all, “The weather is horrible,” said Shah. “The laptop lockers allow us not to stress about getting our personal computers wet and damaged.”
Positive feedback from students has spurred the university to install new lockers and purchase more ThinkPads every year. Lecturers have even begun to request the ThinkPads in their classrooms to enable a more flexible learning environment, easily tailored to individual students’ needs.
Undoubtedly, laptops have become ubiquitous on university campuses, which mean students who lack personal computers experience an even greater void. Freya Footner, a third-year English major, had her laptop stolen at the beginning of term. With research for her final dissertation to finish this year, the rentable ThinkPads have become her lifeline.
“I’ve been doing all my dissertation research on these laptops,” said Footner, who had just finished a half-day session in the library. “I have no idea what I would do without the laptop program.”
Rahil Arora leads Lenovo’s Customer Stories program.