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How can you prepare students to study remotely?

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A image of an empty university teaching space

Current circumstances have illustrated the potential disruption of not being able to access regular workspaces, resources, and facilities. If university buildings are not accessible, students must be able to study from home and faculty must be able to teach from home, but how can IT deliver software to users wherever they are?

A necessary principle to become familiar with and eventually achieve in order to enable remote study is BYOD, or ‘Bring Your Own Device.’ BYOD allows students and faculty to access all their university software from their own devices exactly how they would on a managed machine in a lab.

Case study: Calvin College leverage BYOD >

This guide will look at how universities can enable remote study and the impact this has on students, the organization, faculty, and staff.

What are some general strategies for remote studying?

Smiling girl studying remotely from her desktop machine

Generally, if you can make as many services that were previously only available on campus, available from home, remote study becomes viable. To facilitate distance learning for your students and staff to the best degree possible and immediately, consider the following steps:

Ensure access to hardware: Consider the hardware your students and staff have access to in the present situation. It is likely that they have access to a device of some sort that will be capable of supporting access to the digital resources you provide.

Provide access to intranets, VLEs and/or LMSs: Any systems that contain course materials or otherwise must be consistently accessible. Ensure this is the case and perhaps consider halting any plans for routine maintenance on essential services if it may disrupt access to that service. This extends to being able to submit course work.

Provide access to files and cloud storage: This is the same as above but relates to files/cloud storage solutions. Ensure faculty and students can access their files without having to go on-campus.

Maintain clear communication with faculty and students: Keep communication open, concise and easily accessible for everyone, with clear signposting to the resources they require. Even with every resource available from home, if your users don’t know they’re available from home, they will not be able to access them. Try not to rely on your users finding the information; for example, if you create a web page with relevant information, try to put that page in front of your users by sending it out via email, or by adding an alert/banner to portals and your home page.


Enabling long-term online distance learning

What is distance learning and what is distance teaching?

The phrases ‘distance learning’ and ‘distance teaching’ simply refer to the practises of learning and teaching without being present at a physical location.

So, what is the difference between online learning and distance learning?

  • Online learning refers to situations where students and faculty may be either physically together in the same location or separated.
  • Distance learning applies when those involved are always separated.
  • Online learning tools may sometimes be referred to as cloud-based learning solutions.

Why choose distance learning?

Generally, the advantages of distance learning are based around versatility and the ability to overcome disruption. An agile approach to learning and teaching allows universities to adapt during difficult circumstances.

So, what are the advantages of distance learning?

Advantages of distance learning

Minimizes impact of disruptions to routine — disruptions to teaching, studying and coursework-submission are dramatically reduced, allowing the activities to continue despite pupils and staff working off-campus. If online learning measures have been taken before interruptions to service hit, universities are able to respond in the timeliest manner possible, minimizing disruptions.

Ability to learn and study effectively off-campus — being able to study as well as when on-campus provides flexibility and allows students to learn in the way they find most productive, maximizing their chance of achieving the highest grades they are capable of.

Improves access to resources and teachers/experts — enabling distance learning can improve this communication. With systems in place and students more used to leveraging digital resources to learn, there is often a better line of communication between students and those they learn from.

Saves money on facilities, hardware, travel infrastructure — with fewer students and staff on campus, hardware and specialist labs may be condensed and consolidated. Reducing square footage and necessary equipment can save money in the long run for universities. It can also save money for students when it comes to travel expenses, and save money for universities in providing travel infrastructure.

Reduces commuting and equipment set-up time — with reduced equipment and travel needs, time can also be shaved off commuting and equipment set-up, leaving more time to learn, study and otherwise achieve. This also applies to university operations and can provide more time to approach strategic projects.

Increases potential for partnership programmes — enabling distance learning can increase the potential for partnership, collaboration, and exchange programmes, thereby increasing the commercial potential for universities.

The disadvantages of distance learning revolve around the limitations and negative effects of not being in the same physical place. The goal of enabling distance learning and remote study involves reducing or negating as many of these disadvantages as possible.

Disadvantages of distance learning

Longer response times — collaboration, feedback and resource sharing may be more difficult or time-consuming to access and arrange. The lead-time on getting a response to a question over email is greater than a question asked in person.

Problems due to unreliable internet access — for those with power or internet issues, distance learning may be compromised or not possible. Whether this is down to the means available to the student/faculty or whether it’s down to what’s available in specific areas, it is worth considering.

Limitations for course elements covered — there may be elements of a course that are not possible to cover through distance learning. For example, an examination that requires an invigilator will not be viable through distance learning. Another example lies in courses that require access to particularly specialist equipment such as science laboratories, or large medical equipment; for example, MRI machines.

Entails isolation and requires self-motivation — without being in the environment students heavily associate with learning, it may be difficult for some to get into the correct mindset to learn and study. Isolation itself can also have a negative effect on motivation and some students may learn more effectively with others around to discuss challenges with.

The costs and savings of distance learning

Initially, for universities exploring distance learning, the associated costs may look daunting. VDI can quickly become expensive, hardware requirements are very different to those of on-site learning and big changes to systems and processes require work.

However, as illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the task of responding to disruption will almost definitely be more expensive, more time-consuming and less successful than accounting for it ahead of time. Being prepared to handle service disruptions pays off over the long-term.

Continuity of service in times of disruption, when it comes to software delivery, is possible through:

  • application virtualization
  • VDI

Read more about application virtualization > and VDI/desktop virtualization >

Implementing both solutions quickly and in emergencies may be difficult, as you may end up having to go through a vendor who doesn't offer the relevant application packaging services and/or training, such as the Software2 Packaging Subscription Service. In addition to this VDI is supremely expensive if it isn't implemented using certain principles and methodologies.

Without proper planning of software provisioning, universities will need a 1:1 ratio of VDI/application virtualization licenses to users. Fast-tracking installations will incur extra costs with most suppliers, as will sourcing the hardware required in due time. It is for this reason we recommend application virtualization over VDI where possible.

If a pandemic is to blame, a number of difficulties may arise:

On-site installations. It may not be possible for professionals to come on-site to carry out installations and necessary training.

Managing processes on a reduced timescale. The above point doesn’t even address the difficult task of managing these processes in the proper order on a reduced timescale.

High demand. Moreover, in times of emergency, it is likely that demand will be high from multiple sources, pushing lead times ever higher or even making implementing a solution entirely impossible.

The consequences of failing to provide education in disruptive times are not light. Given students are customers and the main source of revenue for universities, losing that revenue would be fatal to any university. Equally, failing to provide the service students are paying for may open organizations up to litigation, which could also be fatal on a large scale.


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Learn more about VDI

Read 'The ultimate guide to VDI by Software2' to learn more about the principles, technologies, benefits, and challenges behind VDI.

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How to enable long-term distance learning

Considerations for the solutions you require

To understand what’s required to get started in enabling long-term remote working, we’ll discuss the facets of the particular context that users will be in. This will allow us to understand which technologies will be essential, which ones are not appropriate and what the immediate obstacles to overcome are. Once that is known, it’s easier to gain a clear understanding of what, specifically, is required to achieve remote lectures and home study.

Students and faculty will most likely be using a non-managed machine, for example, their own:

  • PC
  • Apple Mac
  • Chromebook
  • Linux device
  • With some technologies, it is also possible to deliver to any device with an HTML5 browser

This tells us that traditional imaging will likely be impractical in terms of gaining physical access to non-managed machines, and we haven’t yet considered the sheer number of machines there are likely to be. You may, however, need to use imaging to image virtual desktops with key software, rather than physical machines.

Device type is, understandably, key to how a software title should be delivered. The following are examples of some of the challenges related to device type:

Windows machines are the simplest to deliver to as they are technically compatible with any key delivery method.

Mac devices are more complex and will usually require a VDI/RDS solution such as Parallels RAS, or a specialized Mac deliver service such as Jamf Pro.

Chromebooks are incapable of installing 3rd party software and are thin in computing power, which essentially renders all delivery methods inviable except for VDI, and, for lighter software titles, application virtualization solution, Cloudpaging.

Obviously, users will be off-site. Many software licenses dictate that university software may only be run on-site, and to enforce this it is often necessary for a title to connect to an on-campus license server. VDI is a perfect solution to this as the virtual machine and, by extension, the software title itself will actually run and be executed on a server on-site and then pixel-streamed to the endpoint.

Alternatively, universities can provide student and staff VPN, to get access to software titles that require connection to on-campus license servers. 

The software title itself will factor into how it is to be delivered. For any free and open-source software (FOSS) apps, it is logical and efficient to provide a download link at the vendors' website/download portal in order to avoid having to use up any desktop or application virtualization licenses.


Why is BYOD necessary for remote working

BYOD is the principle of allowing students and faculty to use their own devices to access university software, where possible using the same tools and with a consistent user experience. Short of providing a portable managed device or installing non-portable managed devices in the homes of your users, BYOD is essential to fully providing the ability to work and study remotely.

What are the benefits of BYOD for students?

Flexibility: BYOD allows students to work from wherever they work best. The ability to work in an environment they find productive is invaluable to students and allows them to approach work in the way in which they are most likely to achieve.

Familiarity: BYOD permits students to use their own machines; machines with which they are more familiar and can achieve more efficient workflows. This also reduces the chance of losing files.

Constant access to software: If all their university software is accessible from their own machine, students have constant access to their software and don’t need to worry about lab opening times and teaching schedules when looking for a place to work.

What are the benefits of BYOD for the university, faculty and staff?

All of the above:  The benefits of BYOD for students all apply to faculty and staff.

Increased enrolment: With the value added to the student experience with BYOD, universities can attract and retain more students through providing a better offering. Furthermore, students achieving higher grades due to better facilities will improve the reputation of a university and attract even more students!

Reduced demand on support: With students being more familiar with their machines and the process of installing university software on them, the need for support in this area will be reduced, saving costs and freeing up time to address strategic goals.

Reduced specialist labs: The more students use their own hardware, the lower the hardware investment required by the university is! This extends to maintenance costs and replacement at the end of the hardware’s life cycle. An added benefit is that, with fewer specialist labs, campus square footage can be reduced and consequentially, overhead costs.

Read more about improving the student experience >

If BYOD is already enabled, how quickly can it be deployed?

If service is disrupted to the degree that students and staff are unable to access university campuses, if BYOD is already enabled through the appropriate technologies, deploying and allowing constant access is essentially a simple matter of managing provisioning logic!

The result is enabling home study and remote lectures in a matter of days, which is in stark contrast to the weeks or months it may take to source and install the required technologies from scratch!

Read more articles about BYOD, its benefits, solution technologies and how to get started >

How does application virtualization help students study remotely?

Application virtualization doesn’t require a constant internet connection once apps are fully virtualized as it is executed on end-point hardware.

Application virtualization doesn’t require a constant internet connection once apps are fully virtualized: Because software is technically running using the endpoint’s hardware (despite being isolated inside a ‘virtual bubble’), a network connection doesn’t need to be maintained to continue running. This means that connection interruptions don’t prevent the app from being used and performance isn’t affected by drops in data speeds. Students are able to work on the move, in areas with spotty connections and they’ll never lose work from a disconnection.

The full application doesn’t need to virtualize to become accessible: This allows students to begin using apps without waiting for a lengthy download to complete. This means students have:

  • quicker access to software
  • a better user experience
  • more time to spend on completing university work

Software behaves as if locally installed: This means that context menus and local resources/storage can be utilized exactly the same way as if the software were physically installed on the machine.

On-demand access: As soon as an app is required, it can be virtualized and used. There is no lead time on accessing an app other than the initial, essential portion of the download and no support from IT or university staff is required.

No complex installation process: There is no manual installation process with application virtualization. This is less prone to human error resulting in 100% success rate of accessing applications while also saving time.

How does VDI help enable distance learning?

VDI can be run on low-spec machines as it doesn't rely on or utilize the hardware of the end device.

Can be run on low-spec machines: Desktop virtualization doesn’t rely on the hardware of the end device. The result is that any device with a reliable internet connection can run any app, regardless of how demanding it is or of what hardware specs it may need.

Cross-platform delivery: Because applications delivered using VDI are executed on a university-owned or third-party server, the pixel streamed to the endpoint, it doesn’t matter what the operating system of the endpoint is. You can even deliver heavyweight applications to Chromebooks. This lowers the required investment from students to be able to access all of their university software, making remote learning accessible to all students.

Access ANY app: Once again, due to software being executed on a server on-site, any applications that require a connection to an on-campus license server can still be delivered. Students do not need to visit specific, physical locations to access specialist apps and are provided with the flexibility to truly engage in distance learning.


How to keep long-term distance learning and remote teaching sustainable

In summary, making distance learning effective and viable for those who need it relies heavily on preparation and having components in place ahead of time. Nobody could have foreseen the events of the coronavirus pandemic; however, now we have seen the effects of a global pandemic on modern society, it is evident that long-term disruption to service is something that should be considered and planned for.

"Engineering and building a VDI environment is complex. If you don’t currently have VDI, you’ll need to get the right experts in to help design and build it"

Brian Madden, VMware blog

What’s Better in a Pandemic: VDI or VPN? Read more >

Young woman studying from home with her laptop and course books

Businesses and individuals have done a fantastic job of adapting to the situation with everyone banding together to keep moving forward and minimize the limitations of quarantines and lockdowns. Notably, Zoom have made their video conferencing tools free for the foreseeable future, and this is just one example. However, this is not a sustainable model for businesses and there will come a point at which free services will have to cease.

To understand how imperative accounting for disruption is to your university, it is worth asking some questions:

  • How might disruption to the service you offer your students affect business and revenue streams?
  • How effective are your existing tools for dealing with disruption?

In addition to this, consider the positive effects of enabling distance learning for your students and remote teaching for your faculty.

Remote-working global experiment

For many, the disruption of COVID-19 may become something of a proof-of-concept that remote working is viable, with the proper systems in place. Make note of any benefits you see in enabling remote lectures and study from home, how attitudes to learning are affected and how student outcomes may improve when students can study on their own terms, where appropriate.


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