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COVID-19 disruption: What do students need for home study and online learning?

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The world of Higher Education has been thrust into a situation for which, like the rest of the world, it was largely unprepared. This unpreparedness was, of course, unavoidable; nobody could have predicted a global pandemic of this scale and speed.

The Higher Education sector has been left with a range of unique challenges for which it must find the best solutions, and quickly, to maintain ‘continuity of education’ for both existing and new students, as well as staff and academics. These challenges mostly revolve around giving students access to IT resources that they would usually get from on-campus locations.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at what students and academics need access to in order to continue learning and teaching in a way that minimizes disruption as much as possible, in present circumstances.

How to make sure students have access to critical IT resources off-campus and remotely

The following are key IT resources that students can usually only access while they’re on campus:

  • Campus lab devices
  • Software applications and managed desktops
  • Networks and connectivity

Campus lab devices

University computer lab

For students

Many universities and colleges have already considered how they might deliver their courses virtually through lecture-capture technologies or video conferencing tools. However, a key area that is either overlooked or seen as a challenge for Higher Ed IT departments is how students will complete their coursework, and the technology and software they need to do this.  

Software access issues

Access to the right software becomes one of the main problems for students due to the following reasons:

  1. Software often exclusive to campus PC labs — Universities make specialist software available to students through faculty-based campus PC labs. These labs are groups of machines/devices that already have key apps installed and are invariably the only way for students to access the faculty-based software titles they need, free of charge.
  2. Students would need to pay for licenses…again — Without making this software available off-campus, students would need to buy their own licenses, which is an expensive way for them to access the resources they need to get their coursework done, especially when the university has already paid for those licenses!

For staff

The situation is largely the same for staff as it is for students. It might be even easier, if the academics already have university-managed laptops with all their software and resources preconfigured.

Desktop access and virtual software

If academics have desktop machines in their offices that they use to teach, it’s important that IT provides ways of making those desktops accessible remotely too, so that they can continue to work from home.

There are various ‘remoting’ and ‘virtualization’ solutions, which we’ll cover later in this piece, that can help give staff and academics the campus-based IT resources they need, such as software.

Where does BYOD come in?

BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) means making your campus lab software available on student-owned devices so it can be accessed anytime, anywhere.

Many CIOs see BYOD as a strategy through which to improve student outcomes and availability of key IT resources, on and off campus. It’s a trend that prevents students from being tied down to dedicated campus lab devices, and instead gives them the choice and flexibility of where, when and with who they work.

BYOD is often a concept that has not yet been employed due to perceptions of:

  • cost
  • security
  • effort for university IT depts.

However, many Higher Ed institutions that already have a coherent BYOD policy in place experience less disruption relating to students accessing campus resources. This is because the students are already used to bringing their own devices and hardware to access the software they need to get their university work done.

Enabling BYOD is not as time (or cost) intensive or as difficult as you think. Here are some other key benefits:

  • Provides ‘continuity of education’
  • Provides improved student outcomes
  • Gives students access to technology wherever they are

Second nature for students to bring their own devices

We ran a survey amongst our customers back in 2015 and, despite being nearly five years ago, showed that 85% of our university and college customers’ student population brought their own laptop or desktop device with them when they started their studies. The world was quite different back in 2015, so we can only imagine how many students now bring with them high-powered devices!

You also need to consider that your students and staff will use a variety of different devices when accessing campus IT resources remotely. This is usually just Windows and Mac but, in some parts of the world and some educational institutions, it could be Chromebooks too.

Supporting all these devices in a consistent way is important when it comes to BYOD and the student experience.

Software applications and managed desktops

Universities provide a wide range of software applications, more so than any corporate or business environment. That’s purely because of the wide range of subjects that universities offer students; everything from arts to engineering.

Certain courses need access to specialist apps; for example, engineering students need access to industry apps which they will use when they graduate and get their first jobs. These apps could include AutoCAD or other similar software titles.

This list includes apps such as:

  • AutoCAD
  • SPSS
  • ArcGIS
  • MATLAB
  • SolidWorks
  • Adobe suite
  • Office suite
  • NVivo

Universities typically license all of these ‘heavyweight’ apps so that students can access them free of charge, get their specialist course work completed, and be prepared for the world of work.

Unfortunately, for many Higher Ed institutions, these apps are only available on ‘managed desktops’, which are usually only available on campus!

What are the benefits of providing apps off-campus?

To enable online learning and provide students with the same experience and access to resources at home, those same applications need to be made available anywhere and anytime.

While there are solutions to support this from a short-term perspective (the delivery of existing lab machines and applications to students at home - using RDP), it’s also important to understand the long-term value and benefits of making those apps available on any device all-year-round.

The main benefits of providing apps off-campus are as follows:

  • Not limited to the number of university computers, as with RDP
  • More economical use of lab space
  • Less pressure on IT departments to equip campus devices each year
  • Less time dealing with specific software requests from faculty
  • A long-term solution focussed on student success

Forward-thinking CIOs and IT directors understand that technology is a vehicle to offer a better service to students and staff. And that includes open access to software and managed IT resources anywhere on campus, and of course for any device off-campus, too.

Solutions such as Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), or making existing lab devices remotely accessible, are short-term fixes. They can provide a great way of making specialist campus lab desktops and applications available to groups of students off-campus by harnessing unused campus machines where the software is already installed. Student-owned devices then become a ‘window’ through which they can access those campus PCs.

However, once the lab PCs are all taken up by a remote connection, other students are unable to access those apps or desktops, and must wait until one becomes available, which doesn’t lend itself to a great student experience.

In most cases, it’s a rare situation that you have hundreds of unused computers on campus, and so when this does happen, RDP can provide a great short-term approach. See the download below to learn more about how RDP solutions can help universities and colleges during campus closures.

Read more about RDP as a solution to deploying apps off campus >

What happens when you need to ‘reimage’ or update or install new software on those lab devices?

Modern workspace with computers

University and college IT departments typically spend the time between semesters (specifically summer!) to image campus devices. In some cases, IT departments have had to focus their entire summer work schedules on rapidly getting campus devices equipped for the new student intake, as well as taking into account all requests from faculty and academic for specific versions of software on specific devices across campus.

It’s a process that sounds exhausting before you even consider the number of devices, apps, and locations required across campus.

If your IT staff aren’t going to be able to do take on that entire process this summer, due to the current crisis, how are you going to prepare all your managed desktops for the new intake of students in September?

What happens when your students come back on campus?

That same RDP solution is entirely redundant when students return to campus and it’s a poor use of your physical lab spaces or real estate, to have devices lying around campus that are accessed remotely and not by your students on campus.

So, now your students are back on campus:

  • How do you make those apps available on any device?
  • How do you prevent this situation from happening again, if another crisis were to arise?
  • How do you meet new student expectations of accessing software wherever and whenever?
  • How do you continue to improve your IT service to transform student outcomes?

Focus on your students and how you can help them in the long run

It’s important to think about long-term solutions. How can you put policies, procedures or new technologies in place that facilitate home access to campus resources, or access from anywhere on campus? Using new technologies in such a way can provide a much better way for all your students to flexibly access managed IT resources, on-demand, regardless of their device or the circumstances.

How can virtualization give students access at home?

Man studying with headphones on

Virtualization is no new concept. In fact, it’s been around in various forms since the 1990s. The most common approaches to virtualization include:

  • desktop virtualization (more commonly known as VDI)
  • application virtualization

Virtualization provides many benefits for IT departments at large organizations and provides a seamless way to enable access for students and staff at home, by making resources accessible ‘virtually’.

At Software2, we think virtualization is the best way for Higher Ed IT departments to deliver key IT resources to students and staff on any device, anywhere and anytime. Specifically, application virtualization, offers the most benefit for the least cost, while meeting student expectations in regards to access to software resources and enabling strategic IT objectives, such as BYOD.

The world of application virtualization has changed significantly since the days of Microsoft’s App-V (formerly Softricity SoftGrid). Many Higher Ed IT teams tried these early technologies and soon realized they weren’t a great fit for any university/college computing environment. However, today there are ‘next-generation’ technologies that can virtualize up to 100% of Windows apps for example.

Rapidly deploy software with application virtualization

Short-term crises such as COVID-19 and the resulting campus closures mean that Higher Ed IT needs to rapidly enable solutions to solve the key challenges.

By virtualizing individual applications, rather than VDI where it’s essential to virtualize a full desktop and have all the backend infrastructure to go with it, you can:

  • get your key apps to students when and where they need them quickly
  • update or add new apps
  • distribute apps to students within a few clicks, rather than needing to reimage entire machines or labs
  • avoid reconfiguring ‘golden images’ in your VDI

Many vendors and providers, Software2 included, are meeting the demands of the Higher Ed market by deploying solutions quickly; with remote installation and training provided to get universities up and running overnight, using technology to help those institutions deliver their resources off-campus and at home.


Helping Higher Ed: to help you get your licensed software titles to students off campus, we’ve developed a hybrid cloud solution and remote training/installation procedures to get you ready in as little as 48 hours. Find out more at the link or on the download below

How can Software2 help to rapidly deliver your software off-campus during COVID-19? >


The benefits of adopting virtualization for students and staff

There’s a wide range of benefits to universities and colleges who deploy software and resources using virtualization, and new approaches to application delivery than just the traditional way of imaging labs and devices.

Ultimately, this approach focuses on your end-users first and foremost, and facilitates the best way of giving them the resources they need to study, teach or learn, whenever and wherever.

Some of the main benefits we cover below. These include:

  • alleviating the preparation of labs for students coming back on campus
  • allowing students to carry the apps with them
  • improving student/staff productivity

Preparing labs for students coming back on campus

Over the years, we’ve written several blogs on the so-called ‘summers from hell’; referring to the arduous task of packaging applications or imaging devices ready for the next semester.

Whether it’s:

  • tales of academics not responding to that email at the start of summer asking for which applications they use
  • the stories of term starting and academics complaining that the wrong version is installed
  • a class of 50 students turning up for a lesson in a lab that only seats 30
  • timetabling and space restrictions, because there’s no flexibility around where applications are available.

We all know the difficulty of building and maintaining large image sizes, and the time needed, and the pain caused for your IT department…

Adopting new ways of working, such as virtualization, gives you that very flexibility that Higher Ed needs to be successful. A single clean image, perhaps with just the latest version of Windows, Microsoft Office and maybe some regularly used applications like a PDF reader.

Let your apps follow students, not the other way around!

Virtualization allows you to deliver all other applications ‘on-demand’, where and when the students and staff need them, rather than the traditional model of deploying apps ‘just in case’. That means lectures can happen in any lab, students can get their coursework done on any device, and IT spends less time maintaining those huge images. Many of our customers, for example, are now able to add and update software mid-semester, meaning that old-school bottleneck that happens every summer is no more!

We’ve seen unprecedented levels of demand this month from universities trying to break away from this model. But this summer universities face even bigger challenges;

  • What if we can’t get back on campus until just before semester starts?
  • How do we prepare those lab devices for the new semester?
  • Do we just leave the labs exactly as they were this year, without being able to offer new versions of software or update or add new applications in different locations?

For those who’ve decided to use the RDP solution we mentioned earlier, just making existing lab machines available for access off-campus, means all those students and staff are unable to request changes or get access to new or updated software.

The virtualization solution we provide through AppsAnywhere gives Higher Ed IT a way of avoiding all this, by making apps available on-demand on any device. Imaging, updates, and deployment all become much easier for everyone involved, regardless of whether students are back onsite or still off-campus.

‘Time to apps’ and student/staff productivity

Another benefit of virtualization is the time to get software to students. Traditional approaches to software delivery involve:

  • Requests
  • Packaging
  • Imaging
  • Testing

And that’s before we consider actual deployment or access by students.

Virtualization gives university IT departments a way of packing up any application and making it available to any student or group of students, on-demand, anywhere and anytime. With full licensing control and provisioning (based on Active Directory or equivalent), virtualizing applications means that you can update and roll out new versions of software in a few clicks and make them available wherever and whenever students and staff need them.

By delivering all those virtualized software titles through a centralized platform such as AppsAnywhere, students can get access to their software quickly. After all, students just want their apps and they want their apps to ‘just work’. Give them what they need so they can continue to study and complete their coursework without any IT challenges or interruptions.


How universities benefit from a business perspective

University teaching space with computers

Higher Ed is facing challenges never seen before. Those who can continue to offer courses and adopt an online or remote learning approach can maintain a ‘continuity of education’. They can help their students be successful by minimizing disruption as much as possible.

In many parts of the world, universities rely on the revenue stream that students provide. To offer best-in-class education and an excellent level of service, students invariably must pay to study at those institutions. The current crisis has made this situation difficult, and for universities to survive in this climate, many need to facilitate online learning to continue bringing in revenue from students, both now and in the future.

However, it’s important to focus not only on how to help during this hopefully-short-term crisis, but also how you can benefit students in the long-term too. Focusing on technology solutions and new approaches that can transform the student experience will help universities continue to offer unrivaled levels of service, education, and outcomes for both the students and academics.

1. Student retention and outcomes

Students just want to get their work done, in the easiest way possible. By giving them access to their academic resources at home, or on-demand, or anywhere on campus, when the time is right, they can work at a time that suits them.

By giving students that increased level of flexibility and offering them the choice of where and when to study, rather than restricting them to campus labs or libraries that are usually only open within restricted hours, the student experience is hugely improved. Many of our customers have improved their student survey scores and have been able to attract and retain more students as a result.

2. Time (and cost) savings

We’ve already discussed the traditional model of delivering software in depth in this article. Nearly every Higher Ed IT department on the planet knows the struggles or imaging labs or devices, and making software available anywhere, anytime and on any device. And often the first alternative to this approach that many universities consider is VDI. Until they realize the price tag and staffing overheads that are associated with maintaining a virtual desktop infrastructure.

Using AppsAnywhere to reduce VDI expenditure >

Alternative forms of virtualization and software delivery, such as AppsAnywhere, give IT a way of making software available to students on-demand, at a fraction of the time it would take to image devices and the cost it would incur to deliver through a virtualized desktop.


Delivering software on-demand at University of Michigan

Follow the link below to access our webinar with the University of Michigan on how they've enabled on-demand software delivery, and how you can too.

Access the webinar