S1:E8 Dr. Ray Pastore – Tech that draws students to campus

March 22, 2021 |  Data, News, Students
33 min

Dr. Ray Pastore of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington shares how and why computer labs can be re-envisioned as computer lounges to encourage students to stay longer.

 

Tyler Jacobson  0:00  

Welcome to LabChats, a podcast from the team at LabStats. I’m Tyler Jacobsen, your host for today’s episode. Each week, we’ll sit down with technology leaders in higher education to get the latest buzz and insights while we discuss current events, trends, problems and solutions. Now, let’s get into it. 

With us we have Dr. Ray Pastore, E-program coordinator, associate professor at the University of North Carolina and also an author, game designer, gamer, tech junkie, programmer, streamer, designer and instructional technologist. So it’s safe to say that you know your way around technology and particularly educational technology.

Dr. Ray Pastore  0:39  

Yes. Yeah, that’s correct.

Tyler Jacobson  0:40  

Do you want to give any more introduction to yourself? I kind of pulled that off your LinkedIn profile.

Dr. Ray Pastore  0:45  

Sure, so you know, I’ve been involved in technology since I was four years old with Atari. And I’ve really been, as a kid involved in computer programming and game design and have been interested in it forever. So it’s no surprise that my career follows that path. I’ve been a professor of instructional technology, and now moving into eSports over the last 11 years. So you know, I really love the field, it’s what I do, you know, if you can take a look at my office, I have gadgets and gizmos from the 70s, 80s, 90s to VR headsets all surrounding me.

Tyler Jacobson  1:22

So that’s kind of one of the areas that I wanted to start with. I know that you’ve been in higher ed tech for about 15 years. 

Dr. Ray Pastore  1:29

Sure.

Tyler Jacobson  1:30

And it’s been longer than that since I’ve been in school. And I wanted to get a feel for the transition. When I was in school, if we had a computer and it could run the software we needed, we were happy. And we didn’t even know that there was a world beyond that. So from where you started, what’s the transition that’s taking place, and what are students expecting now that’s very different from what they were expecting in the past?

Dr. Ray Pastore  1:51

First of all, in the past…there was no such thing as a really cheap computer. In 2005, you couldn’t buy a computer for $200 that you can today. There were really only mid-range and high-end computers. Whereas now you can buy a Google Chromebook and expect to use that for your class. It’s a few $100. And it only runs specific software. So there’s been this trend in computers having a wide low and high range that we didn’t necessarily have 10 to 15 years ago that we do have. In general, in higher ed, when I was getting my doctorate in 2006-2007, a lot of the big talk on campus was “Hey, we don’t need computer labs anymore, because all students have their laptop.” And we kind of started to actually do that. And realized really quick that that was not a good thing at all that computer labs and the tech that they could provide actually provides a really valuable, valuable learning experience and something that the students can’t get themselves. So we actually started to digress from that mindset of “Hey, we don’t need computer labs” to “Actually, we do need something.” So you know, we started this trend of actually building up better and better technology for various reasons.

Tyler Jacobson  3:04

When you said they do need something, if they’ve got their own Chromebook, and they’ve got their own inexpensive laptop, what are they needing campus to provide?

Dr. Ray Pastore  3:12

Okay, let’s start with my students. So, you know, I polled my students and gave them a poll pretty much every semester from 2009 on. What I found is that they consistently have their own laptop. Every kid. I don’t think I’ve had a kid in class that did not have a laptop. So when we talk about kids, well, there might not be some students that don’t have access, they can’t afford it. I haven’t run into students at my university that can’t afford it. They all at least have a low-range Chromebook, or they’re using their iPad or whatever. They have something that they’ll consider…their iPad, their laptop, they have something. But what they don’t have, you got to remember those computers are designed for word processing and connecting to the internet. And that’s it. They’re not designed for using any of the software that we teach in our courses. They can’t run Adobe Photoshop, I mean, they can’t run basic stuff, let alone like high-end video editing processors. So every student in a tech field has to have a high end laptop or they need the school to provide that. We need some kind of internet which is usually campus wide Wifi. I know trends like Starlink, Elon Musk’s Starlink, and future trends are to have WiFi everywhere. But until that happens, the students don’t have that. They don’t have unlimited cell data on their phone. They need campus Wi Fi. So that’s another trend. But there’s lots of like tech beyond just computers and high end computers that we actually do need for a lot of majors. Pretty much everyone in STEM, which is the big thing colleges are pushing: science, technology, engineering mathematics, we really need a…game design, computer programming, any of the fields around that area. We need high end technology to do that. 3d printer… =I mean, I could just start naming tech like virtual reality, machines to run virtual [reality], like it goes on and on. And a kid doesn’t have a $3,000 computer. None of my students have a high end computer like that. None of them.

Tyler Jacobson  5:11

Yeah. And that’s what we’re hearing more and more is that, especially during the pandemic, when students were kind of chased away from campus. They had their devices, but they couldn’t run a lot of the software that they needed for their coursework. 

Dr. Ray Pastore  5:27

Absolutely. 

Tyler Jacobson  5:27

A huge challenge with that is, and I used to use the tagline of: “Can you run CAD on a Chromebook?” And the answer that is usually, “No, not really.” And so a lot of schools were forced into providing remote access to the on-campus tech, so the students could get access to the software to the computers that they had the processing power and the ability to run the programs that they needed. I’m guessing that’s going to be something they’re going to demand in the future is the option to log into campus tech remotely, because it kind of got used to it this year. What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Ray Pastore  5:58

So yeah, I think that…I don’t think schools are set up for that very well, a lot of the software that they use for remote login is kind of laggy, and not great. And it’s because it’s not something they had really invested in because they haven’t need[ed it]. There hasn’t been this huge demand like they had this year. So I think going into the future, I think A). they’re going to invest in that software more. And (B), We are going to see those options that they can log in and use like a virtual machine, virtual server, that kind of stuff, to run software that they can’t on their computer. So I think that’s going to be a big need. I think big universities had a big eye opener this year, or, you know, 2020, 2019, when COVID hit just what they really didn’t have and what they needed. You know, we ran into that in my university in 2017. We had a large hurricane, Hurricane Florence hit our university, and our community was basically shut down for about three to four weeks. And our university realized that, wow, our servers actually…our whole university website was shut down. Because our servers were on campus, we didn’t have access to cloud servers or backups. And we realized all these tech problems that we didn’t have solutions for at the time that we’ve now solved. So you know, we’ve done a little better over COVID with the virtual schooling and stuff because we had been preparing for this because we run into it every year with hurricanes. 

Tyler Jacobson  7:21

And there were a lot of schools that were completely blindsided by that.

Dr. Ray Pastore  7:24

Oh yeah.

Tyler Jacobson  7:24

It was on their long term plan, but suddenly long term was today. 

Dr. Ray Pastore  7:28

Yes. 

Tyler Jacobson  7:29

And so they were scrambling. It didn’t matter if you had money to do those types of things or not, you had to do them and you had to do them today. I think that was a big kicker, a lot of schools to progress on something that was on their “10 year” plan. But now suddenly, it was on a “this fall” plan. They were blasted by that, that they were spending money they didn’t anticipate needing to spend just because that was the only way to get things functional. And so I’m hoping that some of that sticks around when students return to campus because I think they’re going to demand that. One of the other things that I know is kind of near and dear to your heart with the esports: is that part of the prestige of the university? Are students looking at that in determining which school that they’re going to go to? Is campus tech, something that’s going to affect recruiting?

Dr. Ray Pastore  8:19

Yes, it 100% will and let me tell you why. So first of all, lead in, I’ll start with eSports. I want to go into gaming in general and talk about the community aspect, which is really the heart of what you’re asking is that this community aspect that colleges need. So most kids, and about 70% of people in the United States stopped playing sports around the age of 13. 70%. So that’s all those kids that…every kid I know. I have three young kids 10 and under, I don’t know any kids that aren’t playing soccer or baseball, they’re playing, they’re all doing something. But 70% of them once they leave middle school and enter high school are going to stop playing whatever it is they play. But guess what? a significant amount of that 70%. And those kids playing sports will continue to do something which is play video games, and that number is growing and growing and growing. So what’s happening is what we’re finding in schools, in high schools and colleges is that having an Esports team, eSports club or a gaming community adds value. It creates this school spirit that a lot of these kids didn’t have. I’ve had kids, actually my students come up to me and say “Dr. Pastore before we had an Esports club at UNCW, I didn’t think this college was really right for me and I actually considered transferring somewhere where I fit in better.” And so it’s not so much even having like an Esports team as [it is] unifying that gaming community. And what that eSports team and club does is it brings all those people together. It gives them a sense of purpose. A sense of community allows them to make friends [and] makes them part of the university in a way that they weren’t. And the tech behind it is absolutely vital because none of those kids have good machines to actually play any of these games. I mean, I can tell you, all of my students, maybe a few of them have like a $1200 computer. Which is really, in my opinion, pretty on the lower end. And it’s really not, I mean, I have a $5,000 computer just for comparison. So you know, we’re comparing, like, what the students have, these are kids who are really into gaming, and they just can’t afford that tech. So they are begging, begging me to have a nice lab that they can go in. And they can practice. Their teams can practice. They need high quality internet that they don’t have in their dorms, or they don’t have in their apartments where they live, they need a certain speed of Internet with a certain kind of monitor with a certain kind of computer. So when they’re playing matches, they’re… Just imagine like trying to play a football game with a field with potholes in it. That’s what trying to play professional or college level eSports in your dorm room is like. You might not have reliable internet [access], you might not have a good computer, you know, you’re playing at a disadvantage. So it’s really, really, really necessary. But these environments, these high tech rooms, they’re not just like great for eSports. It’s that community that it brings together. So students will [go] there and hang out on a Friday night. Are students going [to go] into the library on a Friday night to hang out? They’re going to go to the cool game room where all their friends are, that they can not only play and possibly like a lot of times, what they’re doing is they’re renting out these machines for like $1, $2 an hour, the high end machines at these universities, but they can say: “Hey, you know what I’m thinking about creating a game. And how do I do that?” So what we’re finding is a lot of these kids are kids who potentially have really cool ideas. Every startup founder, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, you start naming any of these big tech CEOs. Every single one of them got started by playing video games. Ask them. You’ll find an interview. “When did you first decide that you wanted to get into tech?” “Well, I used to play video games. And then I wanted to actually make one for myself. And I taught myself how to program and I went to school for programming and learned how to do it.” So these communities have potential for not just being attractive for universities, but creating almost like an incubator, a startup for universities to generate ideas and start new majors and really focus on the future of tech, something that these students don’t have. There’s a reason why people want to go to MIT to see their tech lab. Other schools that don’t have that tech lab, don’t have that appeal. There is something there.

Tyler Jacobson  12:43

Yeah. And to your point, a lot of those CEOs that you referenced left school because they didn’t meet the needs that they had in progressing their ideas. 

Dr. Ray Pastore  12:52

Sure.

Tyler Jacobson  12:53

And so a lot of the schools that I’ve talked to, when they’re looking at this gaming tech and things like that, they almost have it split into two channels. And I don’t know if you guys have structured it this way, that they almost have gaming lounges, where it’s a social space, and then they have the gaming labs where they can go to develop the games and do the serious work. Having those lounges in those labs is the Friday night space where they can go and hang out with their friends. And I know my kids, they play Minecraft and Rocket League and, and I’m getting more familiar with all of that stuff. And they tell me what’s going on. And I kind of scratch my head and go, great, I’m glad you like it. I don’t understand because I don’t play them. But I know that it’s more and more important to them. And if they saw…as they’re considering colleges, they don’t care what the football stadium looks like. They really would be impressed though, if they saw a gaming lounge that had great monitors and great equipment and availability. I can see in my own household that that would impact recruiting and what they expect. 

Dr. Ray Pastore  13:59

Absolutely. 

Tyler Jacobson  14:00

As far as your eSports program, when you create the spaces on your campus, what do they have?

Dr. Ray Pastore  14:06

My dream space versus what we have are two different things. I can talk about that. First of all my dream space when you talk about lounges, and then like labs, my dream space combines those two things together, and creates an environment that is a lab that is also a social place where kids want to go and spend time and hang out, that’s connected to every avenue of the university that’s student life. But that’s also faculty and their engineering department and their computer science department and their Esports team and club and combining all of those fields together and bringing faculty into those spaces allows for that idea generation and that you’re going to have a lot of these cool ideas come from 18 year old kids. Steve Jobs was an 18 year old kid working at Atari building “Breakout”. And that’s where he came up with the idea for Apple Computer. These are kids who have potential to create some really, really neat stuff. Every big tech innovation that’s come out in the last 20 to 30 years has come from college age kids, not someone that was 50, 60, 70 years old. It came from kids that literally didn’t even have life experience yet. [They] just thought of a cool, disruptive technology. So how do we harness that? How do we do it? I’m trying to really harness these kids together to find out like, “Where are those kids? How do I lead them to what they’re really looking for?” As far as what we are doing? We are trying to build a computer lab that has high-tech equipment for the students, has proper not only tech stuff, but proper chairs for ergonomics and has good cameras so that they can stream. And a lot of the equipment we’re buying, I’m trying to focus on high-end computers like Alienware machines. You know, that’s one of the brands. My university has to purchase Dell products, so Alienware is like the perfect product for us, because they’re owned by Dell. We are buying high end machines, usually the machines are about $3000 to $3500. Total is more like $5000, [because] we have to buy warranties, we have to buy microphones, we have to buy a good mouse for it, a good key[board]. What you buy, it’s a package. It’s not just a computer, it’s a package around the computer, the whole workstation.

Tyler Jacobson  16:25

Coming back to one of the other things that you had mentioned, you know, you’re trying to engage these students that have the ideas. And we had just talked about a lot of the major tech giants left their universities because they weren’t meeting that [expectation]. So how are you trying to keep them engaged? Are you having students come to you with ideas, and then you can work with them on it? Is it just providing the resources so they can explore on their own? How are we working to keep those tech students engaged and on campus, rather than moving into mom’s garage and starting their own business and becoming the multi billionaire? Can we help them along that path?

Dr. Ray Pastore  17:04

We absolutely should be helping them. And it’s everything you said it’s mentoring them, it’s providing space for them to be able to do all this stuff, providing help and facilitating that process. A lot of universities aren’t doing that. And it’s one of the reasons why a student will choose a [school like] Stanford and want to go to their AI lab because they actually will [help]. They have this awesome tech facility where you can just go and build robots and just create and you’re encouraged to do it. And there’s a place to bounce ideas off of. It’s why we think of these incubators, if you look at where startups are happening. They’re in big incubators in a building with like 10 other startups so that they can all work together and bounce ideas off of each other. We’ve recognized this in corporate that this is what works. This is what generates ideas. This is what generates innovation. And we need to apply that to the college space much better than we are. A few universities have figured it out and have been doing it for 40 years, and others are still not doing it whatsoever. They’re they’re still not seeing that link. But there’s this huge link and having like, a playground, a tech playground for people. And making that tech playground cool. Because making a tech playground in a building that no one’s gonna go to, is not cool. Making a tech playground that has a social aspect to it that kids want to go to on a Friday night is awesome. [Something] that students coming to campus, they see and say, I want to do that. I want to build that stuff, I want to play with that stuff. I want to play with that 3D printer, I want to use that high tech computer that my parents would never buy me that my university has. And I can play that. And it’s not just a marketing gimmick. It’s not just a line item for a university. It’s something that’s going to lead to ideas from students and innovation and to the university really expanding what it can do.

Tyler Jacobson  18:54

And I agree. As you’ve been talking, I’m also thinking through it that, that tech is going to make a big difference between some of these digitally minded students coming to campus rather than just doing it online. Because that would be an exciting opportunity to come have access to resources that you don’t have access to at home. I know a lot of schools have started creating “maker spaces” where they have the commonly available to all students, the 3D printers and and different scanners and things like that. Have you guys invested in those types of spaces?

Dr. Ray Pastore  19:29

So a lot of schools created makerspaces. But what they didn’t do is make them cool so that the students would want to go there. And that’s where like this just creating a lab and throwing a bunch of money at it doesn’t bring students. You have to make this a Social Lounge, you have to combine the two in one to make it successful. A lot of schools built these maker spaces and that will not be getting used like hardly [at all]. Maybe it’s getting used for our class but like students aren’t just coming here and hanging out. And it’s the same thing as well. Why don’t students go to the library Friday night, why do they want to go to a party or go to someone’s house and play video games? Or why are they hanging out in the dorm room? You have to bring the entertainment to the learning space to make it cool. It’s why as I mentioned, like the Stanford AI lab, there’s a reason that people are hanging out there on Friday nights, because they’ve made it a social place. And it’s why like an Esports lounge can be so successful, because we’re combining those two things together. An eSports lounge usually has food, [it] usually has a cool place to hang out, it has cool lighting, it’s a neat space for the students to want to go hang out in. And it’s one of the reasons that…it’s the difference between a successful computer lab and a not successful one. And it’s why schools are like “Why aren’t they coming to our computer lab?” And it’s like “What? Your computer lab is in like the basement of a building. It’s hardly ever open, it’s boring colors everywhere. And it’s not an exciting pla