Colleges, universities, and higher education facilities across the United States have joined the rest of the world in attempting to address and cope with the challenges of COVID-19. In these unprecedented times, every sector has been affected, yet each has a unique set of challenges to protect public health and safety and provide business continuity. Higher education institutions have been required to shift to some kind of virtual environment to ensure social distancing and protect the student body, while continuing teaching and learning. Although many have moved to online learning, not all institutions are prepared for a virtual learning environment.

The Effects of COVID-19 on Higher Education

Before COVID-19 hit the United States, higher education customers were focused on digital transformation. But COVID-19 has fast-tracked the need for digital transformation; these customers have had to transform overnight. As a sector, higher education had embraced the adoption of virtual learning, but when you look across the country, institutions are at varying degrees of implementation.

 

Some had taken advantage of online learning to create a global reach to students, increasing admissions without having to invest in additional infrastructure such as buildings and facilities. Others had taken a more residential approach focused on maintaining the student experience on campus, including face-to-face interaction with peers, professors, and staff.

 

Today’s pandemic has put a great deal of pressure on these institutions to quickly adapt to a virtual learning experience. The crux of the challenge for higher education institutions is that customized labs, software, and applications need to be delivered. Each department on campus has its own student computer labs, with desktops that have specialized software, applications, and datasets installed for that department’s area of study. The question many of the IT leaders on campus are struggling to address is: How am I going to deliver a specialized experience to my students, wherever they are, over the internet?

 

Yet it’s not only the student experience that needs to be addressed. Each department has faculty and staff that are likely to have desktop machines that house special programs, software, and applications. IT departments need to think about how these systems will be accessed remotely, if they are even web-enabled.

 

Moving to the cloud and enabling virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is one way that higher education institutions are transforming the learning experience for students, faculty, administrators, and staff. Although some universities and colleges have already moved to the cloud, there are now new VDI applications that enable IT departments to quickly expand the service without new on-premises infrastructure costs.

 

Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop is the most popular technology used by higher education, and it works with Azure NetApp® Files to help organizations move to virtual desktops in the cloud without experiencing any performance degradation. It improves the overall experience: It provides higher reliability and a high-performance storage service that is simple to use and easy to customize for each organization.

Building Your Virtual Learning Environment

If an organization hasn’t transitioned to the cloud yet, there are a few things to consider. Whether they favor an on-premises, off-premises, or hybrid cloud approach, education organizations need the flexibility and agility to move to the cloud as they see fit. If a college or university is looking to build from scratch and does not have any VDI footprint at all, it might consider a converged infrastructure solution or a disaggregated hybrid cloud infrastructure (HCI) solution.

 

If you’re an education IT leader evaluating which approach is best for you, consider the following:

  • Understand your organization’s appetite for capital expenditures (capex) versus operational expenditures (opex). Every organization is different.
  • Consider which model works the best for your organization’s culture. Do you want to invest in infrastructure on premises that will grow and scale over the next 5 years, or do you want to limit infrastructure costs?
  • Develop a view of how many users will be on the system. Consider how many students, faculty, staff, and administrators need access. What are their needs? What are the peak times of use? Look at historical network traffic to make an educated guess.

Although this pandemic might be forcing the hand for digital transformation and virtual learning, today’s technology is playing a major role in keeping students, faculty, and staff connected. NetApp is here to help higher education organizations that are working rapidly to improve the virtual learning and teaching experience. Learn more about how NetApp can help you prepare for disruption and improve overall virtual learning and business continuity.

Matt Lawson

Matt is a principal architect for NetApp U.S. Public Sector focusing on state and local government and education customers. His areas of expertise include cloud, ITSM, virtualization, disaster recovery, enterprise storage, and green data centers. Prior to joining NetApp, Matt spent over 17 years in IT in a higher education environment. He was an IT Director at the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) and served as Vice President for Information Technology at Thomas Nelson Community College, one of the VCCS member institutions. Prior to joining the VCCS, Matt led a software development team focused on teaching and learning products. Matt holds a Masters of Information Systems Management and Bachelors in Business Management from Brigham Young University.

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