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Converting campus labs to remote desktops; a long-term strategy or a short-term hack?

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One option to extend university-managed IT services to students and staff off campus is using RDP solutions. Here’s some things that Higher Ed should consider when it comes to using this approach to making existing campus lab devices accessible remotely…

Background

Naturally, the key thing on everyone’s mind in Higher Ed right now is to provide ‘continuity of education’ for students. And given the present circumstances, with nobody allowed on campus, it invariably falls to IT to provide technological solutions to facilitate this remote or online learning.

I recently wrote a piece about what students need to work from home during the current public health crisis; what university tools, software and hardware they need access to so they can still get their coursework done and actively participate in their studies.

In that article I mentioned how we’ve seen universities and colleges across North America and Europe adopt certain technical approaches to making existing lab devices accessible off campus – namely RDP (remote desktop protocol) solutions.

It got me thinking about using an approach like that, and what that means for students, IT and university management alike. As an EdTech solutions provider, we’ve been working in the world of Higher Ed IT for a little over a decade now, and with customers across the globe we’ve got a unique insight into how universities and colleges are responding to the challenges they’re being faced with right now.

In recent weeks we’ve seen some institutions employ RDP tactics to rapidly meet those needs. I wanted to take a look at things we’ve heard and seen from customers and the Higher Ed market about those specific approaches in that short time.

The challenge: campus-centric computing, off-campus

Okay, anyone with any level of IT or technical knowledge can appreciate the vast challenge that COVID-19 and the related ‘social distancing’ measures have placed on Higher Ed. Almost overnight, students and academics (not to mention administrative staff) have been told to work from home, just like the corporate world too.

I could elaborate here about the list of challenges that presents for IT; disparate user base, student-owned devices, IT control and security, software licensing and onsite restrictions, connectivity, communication... the list goes on. But ultimately the challenge stems from one thing; campus-centric approaches to end-user computing.

Much of the Higher Ed world is well-equipped, from an IT perspective at least, for campus computing. IT departments are very used to making key managed IT resources available on managed devices across campus (in PC labs or computer clusters), or via campus-based networks or intranet sites.

Afterall, this approach is the traditional way in which universities and colleges have provisioned students with access to the IT they need to get their work done. It’s also the status quo that students come to campus to learn from teachers, or access books in the library for example, or use key hardware that’s only available in specialist faculty locations.

And this is exactly where the challenge now lies; making these campus computing resources available off-campus. While the number of universities and colleges facilitating online or remote learning has been on the increase for some years now, many still haven’t approached strategic IT objectives like BYOD (bring your own devices) for the same reason; because their students have access to all the resources they need on campus.

But unfortunately, COVID-19 has thrust Higher Ed into this position for which many weren’t prepared. Right now, that campus-centric approach to end user computing isn’t of any use to the tens of millions of students and academics forced to learn and teach remotely. IT departments are now looking for ways to achieve off-campus and remote access to managed IT resources, and quickly!




Connecting to campus computers from home

Connecting to campus computers from home

It seems like the panacea for IT right now, to be able to make existing campus lab computers and devices instantly accessible to both students and academics at home, overnight. And that’s exactly what remote desktop (also known as RDP) solutions can do; make existing desktops accessible remotely.

Universities and colleges are absolutely right to want to do this, and quickly. Afterall, it puts the students’ priorities first and facilitates a way for them to keep learning. We’ve always been huge proponents of putting the students first, with everything a university should do, but certainly with how you design and implement technology or IT systems.

So, doing anything that prioritizes the student experience and student outcomes is a win! But it’s important to take time to analyze the whole solution, and check it’s right for you:

Benefits of using RDP to make resources available off-campus

Providing ‘continuity of education’ with RDP - Almost overnight, IT can make existing on-campus computers, with all the installed software and file storage systems, available to students at home. That means that very quickly, academics get access to the software and hardware they need to continue teaching, and students have access to the IT they need to continue learning; whether it’s accessing specialist software titles for coursework, or getting access to a campus lab with related data and files.

This is exactly what universities want and need right now, and for that RDP seemingly offers a way to provide continuity of education with minimal disruption to students. It can potentially help you maintain your levels of student experience and student outcomes.

RDP technology is inexpensive - Deploying RDP is a cheap way of fixing the remote learning challenges that Higher Ed faces. For example, Microsoft/Windows provides RDP tools and solutions out-of-the-box, available almost free of charge to many universities and colleges.

Failing that, it’s likely that Higher Ed will also have other IT solutions already in place which can be used to provide this functionality. And if they don’t, it’s certainly a solution that can be purchased for just a few thousand dollars. RDP carries a low-price tag because it’s a basic technology that’s been around for a long time, with limited functionality. (I’ll cover that in more detail later.)

Quick time to implement RDP - RDP can be implemented very quickly. That’s because it’s essentially just a window through which an end user accesses a physical computer. It’s quick to get going with RDP because the actual devices already exist and are already setup or ‘imaged’ with the relevant settings – your existing campus lab devices that you probably spent all summer preparing for students coming back on campus last year, or between semesters!

The other short-term, time-related benefit of RDP is that you don’t need to package or ‘image’ your machines, you can take existing managed devices and make them available off-campus very quickly.

Disadvantages of using RDP solutions

The student experience and outcomes - Despite being a solution that can cater for continuity of education, RDP has its drawbacks when it comes to the student experience. That’s mainly due to the limited functionality I listed earlier as a ‘cost benefit’, and with it being a rather basic technology.

For example, during conventional computing circumstances, where students are using the campus lab devices in-person, RDP doesn’t have a place in the ‘computing stack’. That’s because once a computer is being used via RDP, the physical device isn’t accessible during that time. So, you could have a lab full of machines, all being used remotely. Not great for students on campus who need to access those computers, or the software installed on them! And not great for students who don’t have their own devices to access lab machines remotely.

Keep an eye on IT security - It’s a challenging time for everyone right now. But it’s important not to neglect your IT security policies in favor of getting students the access they need to lab devices remotely. It can be tempting to jump right in an implement the easiest or cheapest way of doing just that, but it’s important at this time that you keep a clear view of your IT security policies.

And that’s especially true for Higher Ed institutions who might be enabling off-campus/off-site access for the first time ever, and perhaps don’t have the rigorous security protocols in place like universities who have been giving students access at home for some time already.

There are some concerns when it comes to the cyber security of implementing RDP. There’s a reason that VDI solutions such as VMware and Citrix are all favored by corporate organizations; they’re highly ‘locked-down’ with years of product development having gone into building enterprise-grade IT security as standard.

RDP on the other hand uses older protocols and is vulnerable to some known attacks. In unfortunate news, I heard from a UK-based university in recent weeks that they had employed RDP to give students access to academic software at home and had become the victim of ransomware. The university had to rebuild many of its systems from scratch.

The graph below, compiled by Kaspersky, shows the growth in the number of RDP brute-force attacks since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the U.S. for example, the number of brute-force attacks against Internet-facing RDP servers has increased from 200,000 per day in early-March to over 1,200,000 during mid-April.

Read more: RDP brute-force attacks skyrocket due to homework >

Growth in IT security attacks through RDP

IT control and future preparedness - As I’ve alluded to in a few earlier points here, RDP gives IT very few additional controls when it comes to desktop and application provisioning and deployment. At the end of the day, it’s a simple solution that makes existing physical desktops available to access remotely, on any other device.

And that’s where this pitfall of RDP comes about from. Because it can’t do anything above and beyond making those desktops available to access from non-campus locations, it doesn’t give IT a way of being ready for what might happen in the coming weeks, months, semesters or years. (See next section for more on preparing for the future.)


Into the unknown; getting ready for the future

As of the date I published this article, nobody has a clear idea about when students might be able to return to campus, and for how long when they actually do return. Perhaps they could be coming back in September, or maybe they’ll have to start again in spring 2021. Some publications online are even suggesting that ‘normal service’ and campus life won’t be fully resumed until 2022!

This level of uncertainty makes it very difficult for IT to plan for how it can support students; whether they’re the existing students looking to finish their studies and graduate, or the new intake of next semester’s students who might have to start their studies remotely, with an entirely new set of expectations around how they access managed IT resources.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

We all want life to return to normal as quickly as possible. But what has become apparent in recent weeks is that many Higher Ed IT leaders and CIOs are already putting measures in place that are flexible enough to accommodate whatever happens in the future. Proactive IT planning ensures universities can continue to provide top-quality educational services regardless of the existing situation.

And it’s important to choose the right technologies or processes to facilitate any eventuality, all while providing value, achieving strategic IT goals and improving student outcomes in the long-term.

Putting students – and staff – first

A recent article published by UniversityBusiness, based on a survey of undergrads and university applicants, has shown that fewer than half of students are ‘happy’ with online learning, or the thought of the start of their course being run online:

Student satisfaction with online learning

During the present situation, it’s crucial not to overlook the student experience, and the role of Higher Ed IT in serving those customers. When an estimated 49% of the student population isn’t completely satisfied with online learning as a replacement for face-to-face learning, IT needs to do what it can to bridge the gap and provide campus-based technology services to end-users off campus.

Let’s not lose sight of what this article was all about here; RDP and remote access solutions… When it comes to putting your students first, RDP can help to accommodate existing students who need continuity of service and quickly, perhaps ahead of exams or end of year coursework submissions. RDP for that reason is a good way of putting a small percentage of your student population first.

But don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. More students will be joining your university of college later this year, and the rest of your existing population of students will also be demanding when it comes to next semester. By then, there will be an expectation that universities will have put in place everything they need to adapt to the (maybe) ongoing format of online or remote learning. Those students will have higher expectations of their technology experience as time goes on. Where they initially valued IT’s quick reaction to fixing the problems with the likes of RDP, they will soon come to expect the same service as if they were on campus.

RDP is not going to be a viable solution as time goes on. It’s ability to make stuff available off-campus is entirely predicated on the availability and preparedness of the on-site IT resources; your lab desktops! Don’t forget, RDP is basically just a window through which students can access existing apps and desktops that are on-campus.

Challenges arise when it comes to updating those campus lab devices, applications and services. Typically, universities spend the time between semesters – and especially the summer break – to ‘ready’ managed computers for next year’s students and staff. That could be key updates to Operating Systems or applications, or indeed new applications and requests from faculty staff for the latest – or older versions – of specialist software. It could also be that IT spends that time updating on-site hardware, such as upgrading the performance of the lab machines themselves.

There’s also compromises to the student experience when using RDP. In a post I published last week, I wrote that:

Solutions such as Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)… 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…

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.

With students now accessing learning resources remotely, it’s important to give them what they need when they need it. RDP can do that to an extent, but once you’ve reached your limit of available PCs, students are essentially ‘locked-out’ of the system. On top of that, through RDP the specialist applications still run on the remote device. That can be fine, as long as those devices can be upgraded in time from a performance perspective, and as long as your students have a quality internet connection to access those remote devices.

This will also help you prepare for the unknown of the future, taking into account that nobody knows when students will return to campus. What if you implemented RDP and then a decision is made just a few weeks before the next semester, that some students will be able to return to campus? In that scenario, you’d end up with a sort of hybrid fall, and it would be almost impossible to manage and police your RDP environment so that some students on campus and some students off campus can all access those lab devices. You’d have to prioritize the students who are physically at those end-points, and as such you wouldn’t be able to support those who are off campus.

Consider instead, putting your students first by delivering resources and IT services to them on their own end device, with no restrictions, on-demand

Look at things more strategically

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve spoken with and heard webinars presented by CIOs from across North America and Europe to learn how our customers have responded to the challenges they face by COVID-19 and students not being allowed on campus. (Naturally, our dataset is skewed because the vast majority of Software2 customers are already enabling off-campus access to software on any device!)

What was clear from the IT leaders I heard from was that they all understood the importance of longer-term strategy when it comes to implementing technology that both improves the service the university offers and meets the university’s business goals. Many of them acknowledged the importance of their internal BYOD strategies and attributed its success to being able to support online learning almost overnight.

For those same institutions and CIOs, the uncertainty of the near future seemed less worrying. Their students were currently learning off campus, but in a way that was almost consistent – from an IT perspective – as if they were on campus; using their own device anywhere and anytime to access managed IT resources. Despite the awful situation, it was largely business as usual.

The secret of crisis management is not good vs. bad. It’s preventing the bad from getting worse (Andy Gilman)

We’ve seen that the current crisis has caused a lot of universities across the world to reassess their BYOD strategies and their IT priorities. CIOs and other IT strategists will be considering implementing wider programs of IT activity and technologies to deliver on those key policies.

Preparing for a 'virtual' fall

As I mentioned earlier, the uncertainty around when students will return to campus is challenging for Higher Ed IT. So how do you prepare what you don’t know about, and by when? A recent CNN article suggested that many of the top universities in the US are considering ‘in-person classes’ and on-campus access not to resume until sometime in 2021.

Percentage of universities preparing for a 'virtual' fall

Option 1: We’ve talked about this in other articles in more detail, but the possibility of students coming back on campus in September is almost as challenging, from an IT point of view, as if online learning continues into 2021.

That’s because IT typically spends the summer months readying and ‘imaging’ campus-based devices, ahead of the students coming back on campus. This process, as I mentioned earlier, involves upgrading hardware, updating lab machines and installing the latest software, updates and firmware. The longer the current crisis lasts, the more difficult it becomes from IT to image campus devices with all the software they need for the new intake of students.

Without any form of virtualization, every single lab computer needs to be updated manually. That’s a lot of work which may or may not be needed if the students can’t get back on campus in September!

Option 2: The other possibility is that students are still learning remotely during fall semester, where IT needs to extend its emergency provisions that are currently in place (e.g. RDP) to new students and students moving onto their second or third years of study.

If it’s deemed that you want to continue with an RDP approach to making campus resources available off campus, then you might still need to spend summer imaging those lab devices. Afterall, those devices won’t be available for students to access remotely if IT is updating them during term time.

The alternative here is to make these IT resources available on-demand, using virtualization. This would help you accommodate both possible options in September, whether everything is back to normal or whether your fall semester is a more of a virtual fall. Virtualization technologies can help you to centrally manage and deliver key IT resources on-demand, to any device anywhere and anytime. By virtualizing your university’s software estate, you can make it available to students wherever and whenever. They can even take it offline, too!

Virtualization helps both IT and students. IT can make updates and roll-out technology and services to students from a centralized location on any device. And students can get ‘on-demand access’ to their specialist lab software so they can get their work done.

Option 3: Perhaps the most difficult of the three options to cater for, in this scenario, ongoing social distancing measures could stipulate that campuses can reopen on the basis that on-campus attendees are limited to a certain number to ensure students can maintain a safe distance from each other. That, of course, would extend to campus lab devices, where perhaps only every other PC in a lab could be used. 

In the webinar below, we cover the concept of a hybrid fall in more detail, including how you can prepare campus devices and IT strategies for this scenario.

In our recent webinar, our CEO looks in more detail at how Higher Ed can prepare for a virtual fall, whether it's being able to get campus labs and devices ready for September, or preparing for a more 'virtual' fall where students need ongoing access to their specialist software off campus, at home.

Nick also looks at how to adopt a flexible approach to delivering software, maintaining continuity of education, and enabling BYOD, by:

  • Avoiding the summer 'imaging' process for managed devices
  • Delivering software to any device across campus on-demand
  • Making software available to students off-campus, at home
  • Delivering a better IT service to all students and staff
  • Enabling key strategic IT initiatives such as BYOD

Get the webinar recording now >

Virtual fall webinar

On a recent webinar, we asked over 100 university IT professionals whether their institution was "actively preparing for a 'virtual' fall". 76% responded 'yes', with only 3% saying 'no'.

With that in mind, it’s important to prepare for all possible eventualities:

  1. Students coming back on-campus in September/October 2020
  2. Students continuing with online learning for the fall semester
  3. Ongoing social distancing measures, necessitating a 'hybrid' scenario

RDP: a valuable solution or a quick fix?

In this article, I’ve explored RDP and how it fits in with university IT’s emergency and strategic technology stacks. To make the decision about whether RDP is for your institution, you should first analyze what exactly it is you’re looking for. Is it that quick emergency fix to get existing students up and running online? Or perhaps you’re looking for more longer-term strategies around how you provision managed IT resources on student-owned devices (e.g. BYOD).

Whichever option you decide, it’s important to always keep the focus on improving the lives and experience of your students. Helping them to continue being successful and get the quality of education they need is, as it always has been and always should be, IT’s main priority.

Contact us to find out more about how we’re helping Higher Ed during this time with AppsAnywhere, our virtualization solution that gives IT a way of delivering software on-demand to any device. If you’ve got questions about RDP, get in touch and we’ll be happy to have a chat!


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