Dr. Michael Dobe says Lamar University built a highly available network to meet student demand for bandwidth-intensive media applications.

Jan 11 2010

Meeting Distance Learning Technology Requirements

Networks have to be up for anything as demand for distance learning increases on campus.

Networks have to be up for anything as demand for distance learning increases on campus.

Since 2005, a series of devastating hurricanes and tropical storms have helped change Lamar University's ideas about the role of highly available systems and networks.

After hurricanes Rita and Ike hit the region hard, Dr. Michael Dobe, Lamar's CIO, says the passing of such major storms starkly underscored the need for a highly available network at the Beaumont, Texas, university. Since the storms, university officials have moved to substantially bolster the university's network recovery and overall availability.

For instance, the university has embarked on a SAN replication project, due for completion in 2010, to help improve the university's disaster recovery capabilities. At the same time, the institution finds itself facing another storm of sorts – student expectations for easy and reliable access to online materials and resources.

Lamar officials say increased demand for distance learning courses will have a greater impact on how universities provide constantly available network services to students and faculty in the coming years, more so than any hurricane or potential natural disaster.

35% of colleges surveyed provide 24x7 tech support services, while 25% offer 9-to-5, Monday through Friday support with limited evening and weekend hours.

Source: Campus Computing Project/WCET

“As time goes on, I believe that advanced technologies and university infrastructure will be an expectation of all students,” says Dr. Paula Nichols, executive director of Lamar University's division of distance learning. “Universities that cannot meet these expectations will be at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to attracting and retaining students.”

Meeting Student Needs

Dobe says the university is developing a robust, highly available network infrastructure now so that students who have grown accustomed to instant Internet access, and bandwidth-intensive online media content and other electronic resources have those same capabilities at Lamar. Dobe says the university has accepted that those features are the new technology baseline that students will use when choosing a college.

Of the school's 16,000 computer users, 3,500 access their courses completely online, explains Dobe. The university's premier offering is a distance learning program for Texas elementary and secondary school teachers who are working toward a master's in education.

Across the country, other colleges and universities have recognized the need for this level of availability, which is why senior university IT managers are increasingly at the helm of online programs at many institutions.

According to a Campus Computing Project study released in November at EDUCAUSE 2009, 45 percent of managers responsible for distance education are CIOs, 19 percent are provosts and 14 percent are vice presidents. “There's no question that IT is playing an important role,” says Kenneth “Casey” Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project. “And the CIO may now be the line manager for distance education on campus.”

Distance Learning Defined

Distance learning is a dynamic term, the meaning of which can shift from campus to campus. One university may define an online course as one that has 60 percent of its class materials online, while at another school that number may be 80 percent.

“Our courses range from entire online, electronically available programs to classes with only their syllabus online,” says Dobe.

Susann Rudasill, associate director for academic and professional programs at Florida State University in Tallahassee, says the college has seen a dramatic increase in the number of online courses in the past few years. About 98 percent of FSU's faculty have some form of electronically accessible technology integrated into their courses, she says. With that level of information online, it is clear that students, faculty and administrators need an infrastructure that won't collapse and is readily available all the time.

Under the Hood

Lamar prefers to outsource many applications, such as its education resource management functions, but prefers to keep others on campus. The university uses cloud applications such as Blackboard, but hosts its Banner ERP onsite.

“We partner with people,” Dobe says. “We can't afford to put money into the Taj Mahal of infrastructure.”

In constructing the access infrastructure, the university wanted to build an efficient two-way gate to its network. “We wanted to go out to the cloud, but also bring the cloud in,” he says, without creating network vulnerabilities.

Toward that end, Lamar installed two F5 Big-IP load-balancing devices and Blue Coat PacketShaper gear that lets the IT department shift network bandwidth in the evenings from empty classrooms to dormitories, where students are working. The devices in the data center are redundant and active/active, ensuring constant access, says Dobe.

"There's no question that IT is playing an important role and the CIO may now be the line manager for distance education on campus.”

Kenneth C. Green, Campus Computing Project

The University of Louisville in Kentucky is pushing to get more of its courses online, as most of its students commute or are regionally based and value remote access to class materials, says Mark Kasselhut, associate director for the university's Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning.

The university uses four IBM Blade application servers, an Oracle 10g database system and F5 Big-IP load-balancing devices to support its online efforts, says Kasselhut. Because most of the university's 22,000 students live off campus, expanding the scope of distance services is important. Students must be able to access their classes from anywhere, Kasselhut adds.

Distance learning and online courses also require a nimble, up-to-date support network, a lesson that FSU learned the hard way a few years ago. The school's network went down during finals week, causing complications for large online laboratory classes and other applications. “We worked around the clock to get the network back up in 24 hours,” FSU's Rudasill says.

After that, FSU dedicated additional resources to support the network's availability, including doubling its server capacity (by installing blade servers) and adding 40 percent more IT staff. The new servers expanded the school's distance learning load capacity by 300 percent and allowed it to move up to Blackboard 8.2. It deployed the new Blackboard application with ease, Rudasill says, because the servers let the school mirror-test the application before it was a wider implementation.

Expanding network capabilities creates more potential points of entry for unauthorized users. Security must be a priority for colleges looking to deliver a highly available infrastructure. Lamar University installed Fortinet FortiGate-620B firewalls at the edge of its network and Fortinet 500 firewalls internally. The equipment offered not only greater transmission throughput for its 400 megabit per second Internet connection, but also encryption and SSL VPN capabilities.

FSU also takes its security seriously. “We've set up monitoring servers so network administrators can watch for usage and block extra staffing for peak periods,” Rudasill says.

Consistently reliable remote networks continue to evolve. With students and faculty spread far and wide, network access is no longer a 9-to-5 option. Institutional and college information and online capabilities have to be up and running 24x7.

Winds of Change

To bolster its database and storage capabilities, Lamar University is also working on a SAN replication project that's due to be completed in June 2010, says CIO Dr. Michael Dobe.

The servers will allow distance learning students to check grades, tuition and transcripts. They will also let hosted applications on campus and library data services be replicated quickly after any interruption – an important capability in hurricane-prone Beaumont, Texas.

Replication and other disaster-recovery capabilities are particularly important for Lamar. The region has been hit by several major storms in the past five years. The server replication project will offer new capabilities and, more important, facilitate continuity for the school's ERP system.

“Recovery of business operations won't take weeks,” says Dobe. “It will take hours.”

<p>Phoebe Rourke-Ghabriel</p>