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University benefited from early virtual desktop investments when pandemic struck

Edinburgh Napier University was able to react quickly to some of the main challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted almost every part of work and public life, with the education sector hit particularly hard. Universities were forced to change their ways overnight and students were unable to attend lectures in person.

But some were able to reduce the sudden impact of coronavirus lockdowns through investments made in the latest technologies over the last few years.

Edinburgh Napier University, for example, benefited from its existing investments in virtual desktop technology when Covid-19 restrictions forced it to close its doors. Despite the challenges brought by the pandemic, students have had 24-hour secure access to all the resources they need for their studies since early in the pandemic.

Iain Russell, head of infrastructure at the university, which has nearly 20,000 students, is responsible for systems used by them and staff, networking and security, as well as datacentres. He told Computer Weekly that when the Covid-19 restrictions came in, making in-person lectures impossible, the university was able to quickly switch students to remote learning.

“When the pandemic hit, we didn’t have enormous challenges because we already had a virtual desktop environment running,” he said.

The university was already using VMware technology, which began with network virtualisation and it has since added more of the supplier’s technology.

For example, through VMware Horizon and on-demand cloud, Edinburgh Napier provides desktop virtualisation, which enables the students to access all they need remotely. This was already in place when lockdown struck and it was able to cope with the sudden increase in demand, being cloud-based.

The system is able to deal with spikes in demand for remote access through the cloud. “If there is a sudden explosion of students requiring access, we can easily push out into the cloud using [Microsoft] Azure and don’t have to increase capacity on campus,” said Russell.

The biggest immediate challenge to Russell’s team of 22 when lockdown hit was not brought by students, but was on the teaching side, he added.

This included helping lecturers move teaching materials online, with a major challenge in overcoming the culture change. This created a different mode of teaching for academics, who had to record lectures in advance.

“There was a lot of hand-holding to make sure academics were aware of the right technologies to use,” said Russell. Adding to the challenge, this had to be done remotely and Webex and Microsoft Teams were used to collaborate.

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When universities shut their doors, as well as an end to in-person teaching, there is a sudden loss of collaboration between departments. Russell’s team again applied VMware technology and skills to address this, enabling continued collaboration through VMware’s NSX security and network virtualisation. “Through virtual networking, we can provide secure bubbles for individual user groups,” said Russell.

With the current restrictions placed on universities by the pandemic showing no signs of being lifted, Edinburgh Napier has to ensure that all students have equal access to digital tools.

Russell said there were challenges to overcome because of the disparity between the technologies that students had access to.

The university has addressed this by providing laptops and internet connections to all students who need support. “We have been able to provide laptops through a digital poverty scheme supported by Scottish government and have introduced leasing schemes so that students can buy laptops by paying monthly,” said Russell.

The university is ensuring that all students can get connected, for example through government schemes, it is hoping to provide 4G dongles.

And there will be no let-up in the challenges facing the university’s IT teams as demand for courses is high, despite the pandemic. “We thought applications would be down this year, with people deferring a year, but our applications were up, which is bizarre,” said Russell.

Going forward, Russell said his team’s challenges will be making sure the university has the right resources for blended learning by having teaching materials online and on campus when students are able to return. The university’s on-campus libraries have remained open.

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