This post by John Timmer on “How to run a successful research lab without having a lab” at Ars Technica really got me thinking this morning.
One of the real difficulties with online or distributed higher education in the sciences is the problem of lab spaces. How, other than using an online simulation, do you get lab time for students in the sciences when they may rarely, if ever, come to a central, physical campus. An additional, and related, dilemma is that for many universities, they increasingly lack adequate, modern lab infrastructure due to successive years of budget cutbacks.
One possible way to solve this dilemma might be for universities to divest themselves of labs altogether, instead renting lab time from a network of independent co-working labs. Imagine if a university were to outsource all of its lab costs and maintenance to an outside provider or providers. Students could use a “lab fee” to book time at any number of community labs (like any other co-working space), perhaps subsidized by universities paying a larger membership fee to these private labs to secure booking privileges for their students. Universities could arrive at cooperative agreements with community labs in other cities to provide lab opportunities for their online students, much the way we already do with proctoring centers and agreements.
If we can outsource housing, food services, test proctoring and IT services, why not physical lab space as well?
I’d like to explore the capital requirements and potential business models for this type of service in more detail.