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A high-level guide to converting campus labs to remote desktops

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Remote desktop solutions, or remote desktop protocol (RDP), provide Higher Education organizations with the ability to extend university-managed IT services to students and staff.

RDP is just one solution for providing resources to students and staff off-campus and, as with any solution, there are many factors to consider when it comes to using this approach to making campus lab devices accessible remotely. This page will look at how RDP can be implemented as a solution and the benefits and challenges of doing so.

What is remote desktop or RDP?

Remote desktop is a client application and provides a user with the ability to connect to a computer remotely and use it as if they were sitting in front of it. This provides them with access to the tools and software installed on it.

Remote desktop software has risen in popularity and use over the last few years as remote working and studying opportunities grow.

A remote desktop server makes it possible for a user to connect to a computer anytime, anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection. This allows the user to access anything they might need from the host computer through a remote PC, laptop, or tablet when at home or in another location.


For further info on RDP, read our article: Converting campus labs to remote desktops; a long-term strategy or a short-term hack? >


RDP as a solution for Higher Education

RDP in higher education

Outside the coronavirus pandemic during which colleges and universities were forced to close and provide remote study and teaching facilities with immediate notice, many Higher Education organizations are yet to implement remote study solutions. 

Traditionally, universities and colleges provide students with access to the IT resources they need to complete their coursework through managed devices on-campus, such as PC labs or computer clusters, as well as campus-based networks and intranet sites.

Many courses require specialist hardware that may only be available in specialist faculty locations and require students to be on campus in order to use them.

As the demand for students who want to use their own devices to complete university work or to work remotely grows, many organizations have turned to solutions to facilitate remote learning opportunities.


The benefits of RDP in Higher Education

RDP provides colleges and universities with the ability to make existing campus lab computers and devices instantly accessible to both students and academics at home instantly by making desktops accessible remotely.

When implemented, RDP can provide the following benefits:

Continuity of education

RDP allows IT departments to make existing on-campus computers with all the installed software and file storage systems, available to students at home, almost overnight.

This means that staff and students can access the software and hardware they need to continue teaching and learning when they’re off-campus. Whether it’s accessing specialist software titles for coursework or getting access to a campus lab with the related data and files, RDP can provide this with minimal disruption to students and learning.

In situations such as the coronavirus pandemic when the switch to remote learning and teaching was made almost overnight, RDP provides the perfect solution. Going forwards, it means that students do not need to be tied to campus machines when completing coursework or accessing university resources.

An inexpensive solution

Providing remote desktop access to students is a low-cost method for addressing the remote learning challenges that Higher Education faces. As a basic technology that’s been around for a long time and, with limited functionality, RDP carries a low price tag.

For example, Microsoft/Windows provide RDP tools and solutions out-of-the-box, available almost free of charge to many universities and colleges. A Microsoft remote desktop app is easy to get hold of and can provide a low-cost solution.

Quick implementation time

RDP is a solution chosen by many organizations because it can be implemented extremely quickly. It provides the end-user with remote desktop access and is easy to implement because the physical devices already exist and are set up or ‘imaged’ with the relevant settings. These are the existing campus lab devices that IT departments typically spend all summer in preparation for students returning to campus.

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


The challenges of RDP in Higher Education

While RDP provides many short-term benefits, there are also challenges associated with the solution when looking to provide remote access to university software.

Impact on student experience

Although RDP can provide benefits when it comes to continuity of education, it can present challenges when it comes to student experience. This is mostly due to its limited functionality that, while it may be a cost benefit, means the basic technology can be limiting over the long-term.

During normal circumstances, when all students are on campus and using campus lab devices in-person, RDP can pose a number of challenges when it comes to maintaining student experience.

Once a user is connected to a host computer, that machine is no longer accessible to students on campus. You may have a lab full of machines being used remotely, preventing students who have traveled to campus from gaining access to the resources they need. It also presents a problem for students who do not have their own devices to access these machines remotely.  

Security

When it comes to RDP, it’s important to keep security policies tight. With such an easy and quick to implement solution, it can be tempting to jump right in and implement it in the cheapest and quickest way but it’s important to have a clear view of security policies when it comes to RDP.

If you’re enabling off-campus/off-site access for the first time and don’t have the rigorous security protocols in place in the same way as universities who have been providing remote access for some time already, it’s something that will need to be considered.

There are concerns when it comes to the security of implementing RDP. Corporate organizations tend to favor VDO solutions such as VMware and Citrix as they’re highly ‘locked-down’. Security is built into these solutions as standard and is designed to be enterprise-grade IT security.

RDP, on the other hand, uses older protocols and is vulnerable to attacks including:

  • Malicious attempts to access remotely connected PCs
  • Brute force attacks to obtain user credentials
  • Malicious attempts to access remote workstations or servers
  • Attacks on internal data stores and directory services

Long-term issues

RDP provides great benefits as a short term solution but, when it comes to providing remote studying and teaching facilities in the future, it doesn’t give IT a way to provide remote access to university resources over the long-term.

Remote desktop software cannot do anything above and beyond making desktops available to access from non-campus locations. This makes it difficult to implement RDP as a long-term solution.

RDP’s ability to make resources accessible to students and staff off-campus is predicated on the ability and preparedness of on-site IT resources; your lab desktops.


Pros and cons of implementing remote desktop as a solution

To decide whether RDP is a suitable solution, it’s important to consider what you want from it. If you’re looking for a quick emergency fix to get students up and running online and remotely as soon as possible, RDP is the perfect solution.

However, longer-term solutions will allow you to provision managed IT resources on student-owned devices (e.g. BYOD). As with any solution, the student experience and ensuring they have access to a high quality of education is the priority of any IT department in Higher Education.

 

Pros of RDP solutions

Cons of RDP solutions

Remote desktop software allows organizations to provide students with continuity of education when they’re off campus. RDP allows them to access everything they would be able to use when on campus.

Security can be a huge issue when it comes to remote desktop solutions. The remote desktop connection can leave organizations open to attack from hackers.

RDP provides a low cost solution to providing students with a means to complete their studies and access resources remotely.

Once a computer is being accessed via remote desktop, another user either on or off campus cannot use it. This can be detrimental to student experience when on-campus.

RDP as a solution is quick to implement which means remote studying facilities can be provided immediately.

When it comes to long-term access to remote desktops, RDP can be limiting. With students both on and off campus looking to use the computers, it can be tricky to provide them with the access they need at all times.

Students and staff can access the software and files they need anytime, they are not tied to campus or sitting in a computer lab.

RDP’s ability to make resources available depends entirely on the availability and preparedness of on-site IT resources.

Students and staff can access a remote desktop using any device. Many programs may only be compatible with one operating system but this doesn’t matter with RDP as they can use the computer as if they’re sitting in front of it.


How does RDP compare to other solutions?

While RDP provides a great low cost, easy to implement solution for those organizations that are looking to provide students with remote access to resources for the first time, other solutions may provide better long-term results and benefits.

Virtualization

Virtualization technologies provide a way to centrally manage and deliver key IT resources on-demand and to any device. Virtualizing your university’s software estate allows you to make it available to students wherever and whenever and even allowing them to take it offline too.

Virtualization provides benefits for both IT and students. It allows IT to make updates and roll-out technology and services to students from a centralized location on any device.

For students, they’re provided with on-demand access to specialized lab software so they can get their work done. Having access to software on-demand is where virtualization differs to RDP. With RDP, students may have to wait for campus computers to become free before they can access any resources.

BYOD

BYOD allows students to access university software remotely on their own personal devices. Unlike RDP, it can be achieved without the use of a host computer and can provide a more agile way to provide users with access to the resources they need anytime, anywhere. While not strictly a technology like RDP, BYOD can be achieved through RDP. However true, scalable, and effective BYOD is usually accomplished through other technologies such as VDI and application virtualization.

BYOD makes applications available on student’s own devices, on-demand which means they are not tied to campus labs. The biggest benefit of BYOD over remote desktop access is it leaves computer labs free for students who are on campus.

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