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Move Your Labs Online

As more classes go online, schools need a workable approach for giving students access to high-demand software. Virtual desktops provide the answer.

Even as online courses proliferate on campus, those programs face a challenge: How do you give students access to high-octane software and big data sets they need for their classes when they can't simply walk into a computer lab on campus and log in?

At Indiana University, for example, three online courses required access to ArcGIS, a high-end mapping application. Historically, the university would bundle up 10 or so DVDs with the software loaded alongside student data sets and ship them to students at the start of the course. When the university's technology services organization calculated the amount of time students spent sorting out the installation on their own computing equipment alongside the time spent by staff and faculty packaging the files, making the instructions and handling the inevitable tech support calls and e-mails, it was obviously not the right approach "if we were going to move to scale in the online environment," said Matthew Gunkel, manager of e-learning design and services.

A similar situation surfaced at Capella University, where students — all of whom are online — needed to use industry-grade applications such as Microsoft Project and EnCase Forensic in order to perform the technical requirements of their courses. Dean of Technology Sue Talley has been at her position in the School of Business and Technology for long enough to see the evolution of Capella from storing software on its servers in places where students could download it to dabbling in the virtual space "doing some really simple things with the software" to going whole-hog with virtualization.

In both schools, virtualized desktops now provide an experience for students comparable to walking into that physical computer lab. But the approaches differ. In IU's case, the technologists have integrated components developed internally and externally to create a virtual desktop solution with "zero logistical overhead," as David Goodrum, director of teaching and learning technologies, put it. Capella, on the other hand, has outsourced the work to a service provider that specializes in delivering virtual environments for just about any purpose.

Seeking a "Really Good" Student Experience

For its virtual desktop project, IU's Technology Services organization brought together three divisions — Goodrum and Gunkel's Learning Technologies, as well as Client Services and Support and Enterprise Systems. Their job was to figure out how to move various classes online in a way that would "create a really good experience for our students," said Goodrum. Client Services had already introduced IUanyWare, which allows users to run applications from almost any computing device without first having to install them on the device. However, first, the user has to install Citrix Receiver, a client application for setting up a virtual desktop. That desktop reaches into the IUanyWare server to launch the virtualized applications. While IUanyWare had found pickup among faculty and staff, usage didn't extend much to the classroom.

Client Services also developed Kumo, a program that lets people access their files stored on local or cloud storage from any managed computer on campus, including virtual environments such as IUanyWare. (The university licenses Kumo to other institutions.) Although Kumo can accommodate files stored on a multitude of drives, including local file servers, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox and others, it also works with Box, for which the university issues an account to everybody at the institution.

Through IUanyWare, the user gains virtual access to university-licensed software; and with Kumo, he or she can get into the files needed by that software. But one crucial element was missing: an easy way for instructors to distribute digital course files to their students. That's where Broadcast comes in. Using this plug-in to the institution's learning management system, Instructure Canvas, a faculty member can send a copy of all of the course files to the enterprise storage account of every student in a class. Those files will be set up in the right folders and organized however the instructor needs them to be.

Gunkel described a popular business course that requires students to access literally hundreds of files — the old download and configuration process would suck up a week at the beginning of the semester. With Broadcast, he noted, the instructor clicks a button on day one "and says to all those students, 'You have a folder in your Box account called K201; you have a personal copy of all the files you need to take this course; they're all arranged the way they need to be, named the way they need to be. We're going to get started now.'"

Learning Technologies recognized that by pulling together those three components, they could deliver the experience faculty wanted their online students to have. The software they need for their courses "appears like they were handed an actual machine that has already been configured," said Gunkel.

The next iteration at IU for its Virtual PC environment is to tackle the addition of Adobe products for students doing audio and video editing. That's another area with "very expensive labs," Gunkel pointed out, "and there are a lot of questions about how we would deliver that same sort of experience to our online population." Of course, he noted, the use of graphically heavy applications poses "additional performance issues above and beyond the statistical packages."

Now, added Goodrum, instructors are taking the virtual setup and using it as the lab environment in their face-to-face courses.

Testing the Tools of Real Life

Virtualization is familiar territory at Capella. Talley estimated that about three-quarters of the courses in her university's bachelor degrees use virtualized software as part of their coursework: "The majority of the courses have hands-on and they're using the software that you would probably use on the job."

For example, Capella's Information Assurance & Security Specialization requires specialized software such as EnCase Forensic — which would otherwise be difficult for students to come by.

"Typically, the only place on the ground where you might find that [is in] schools that have received grants from the federal government to be able to use that software. Most of those institutions may have a minimal number of licenses, so they can only have so many people using it at a time," Talley explained. "You can't load it onto your computer. It's way too big — more like an electronic health record system with lots of components to it."

To accommodate that alongside other security tools like BackTrack or Kali Linux, Talley noted, the school created a virtualized secure space "with heavy-duty protections that ensure that what the student does with those tools stays in their own virtualized environments and doesn't go beyond that. They're using some of the same tools that hackers may use and doing some of the same kind of scripting; but there's no danger that that could infect the rest of the Internet."

Capella works with Toolwire, an early entrant in the virtual desktop and scenario-based training arena, to deliver that environment. "All the student sees is a link in their [Blackboard] course. They click on the link. It takes them to this environment and they start to use it," Talley said. "They don't have to understand that they're going out to a separate service or understand anything really about the environment they're going to. It really is just a link." Because it's also single sign-on, the user doesn't even have to enter a second ID or password.

The advantages of going the virtual route are apparent to Talley: "Students don't have to schedule time to be in the lab. They don't have to worry about whether or not the computers are being used at the time they go in there. Once we got into the groove of doing this regularly, we almost always look at whether there's a virtualized tool that we can use as part of a course — especially anything that requires that you learn more technical skills."

Virtual PCs 101

First decision: In-house or outsourced? Capella University followed the external service provider approach. "It was much better if we could figure out a way to outsource it to someone who really specialized in doing that kind of work," explained Dean of Technology Sue Talley. And it gave us more opportunities to do more virtualization than we could have probably accomplished ourselves."

Going in-house? Expect to tweak the infrastructure supporting your virtual desktops to deliver the optimal experience to users. Indiana University has performed a lot of load testing, said Matthew Gunkel, manager of e-learning design and services. "Right now we estimate that we can run basically one virtual machine for every 10 users."

Virtualized desktops can simplify licensing, as Gunkel explained, depending on the individual vendor's policies regarding virtualization technologies. "We can actually track how many users are in there, and we can lock a particular product to a certain seat count," he said. "It gives us a good understanding of our seat model."

Look at expenditure per student. "Mostly the licensing fees you have for these virtualized environments are paid for by a charge per learner," Talley suggested. Other times the charge may be based on the period of the school year. "It comes down to saying, in that course what can we afford to have as a charge-per-learner to get access?"

Consider how quickly hardware and software changes. "In a lab if you own all that equipment, it's very hard to amortize it quickly enough and make the changes and revisions that you need," Talley offered. In a virtualized environment, you can keep going with the existing version until you're ready to launch a course with the new version. "You have a little bit more control over timing, and yet you can still stay quite current."

Technology doesn't always provide the answer. When logistical issues or software licensing problems crop up, the answer is to change "how you set up assignments, what you have students do or how you approach your own teaching," noted David Goodrum, IU's director of teaching and learning technologies.

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