May 28 2020

Improve Remote Learning With Virtual Desktop Infrastructure

With many colleges and universities opting for remote learning this fall, VDIs offer a way to bridge the desktop divide and improve student outcomes.

The fall 2020 semester won’t be business as usual for many higher education students. While some schools — including the University of Notre Dame and Purdue University — recently announced plans to resume in-person classes, others are planning for continued online instruction. 

According to recent COVID-19 guidelines from Harvard University Medical School, for example, “fall 2020 courses will commence remotely for our entering classes of medical, dental and graduate students.” Meanwhile, the California State University System announced that its planned approach “will result in CSU courses primarily being delivered virtually for the Fall 2020 term, with limited exceptions for in-person teaching.”

While this safety-based shift makes sense given current conditions and uncertain futures, it also poses a significant challenge: How can colleges and universities deliver online or remote classes that still support successful learning outcomes? Unlike the quick pivot to remote teaching that occurred this spring, schools will have had months to prepare more in-depth plans — and students will have far greater expectations for learning models that blend familiarity and function.

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According to Mike Joyner, senior solutions architect for client virtualization at CDW, there’s a simple rule for making this work. “User experience is king. It needs to be the same or better than in-person,” he says. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) offers a way to bridge the gap by giving students simple, streamlined, straightforward options for remote access.

But first, let’s start by explaining what, exactly, VDI solutions are and how higher education institutions can effectively deploy them at scale.

Revolutionizing the Student Experience with VDI Solutions

Many experts predict post-pandemic permanence for remote learning. But this isn’t the first time that virtual technology was set to revolutionize the student experience — or that it failed to meet the mark. In 2012, massive open online courses (MOOCs) captured higher education’s attention by offering an alternative to classroom-driven learning, but according to a recent MIT study, completion rates were staggeringly low. 

Bloomberg notes that despite their initial promise, “Students didn’t like online classes. Neither did their parents. And neither did their professors.” 

Years later, as the pandemic persists, similar challenges remain. Students working from home often struggle to find dedicated workspaces and forge effective connections. Consequently, despite their best intentions, schools may find themselves facing a MOOC 2.0 scenario, with high drop-out rates, low completion numbers and abysmal student satisfaction scores.

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Demystifying Desktop Virtualization Technology

While it’s impossible for schools to replicate the physical aspects of college life at home, VDIs offer the potential to more accurately emulate the user experience of working on school desktops and accessing on-campus resources. Some universities have already embraced VDI solutions in hopes of reducing computer sprawl and supporting part-time students. 

The concept of VDI is straightforward: Running on-premises or in-cloud data centers, desktop virtualization software makes it possible to create a virtual desktop image that is delivered via network infrastructure to end-user devices such as PCs or tablets. Users can then interact with applications and services on the VDI as if they were on local machines. 

As noted by Joyner, by providing this type of on-demand access, universities can leverage existing, resource-rich desktops, such as those running high-powered graphics processing units for AutoCAD or SolidWorks applications.

VDI Solutions Offer Flexibility

For schools considering VDI adoption, finding the ideal infrastructure fit is crucial, especially if virtualization software lives on local server stacks. Joyner breaks down three tiers of VDI, each with its own potential benefits and drawbacks:

  • Tier 1: Joyner points to solutions such as Citrix XenDesktop or Horizon in the tier 1 space. He describes these VDIs as “the Cadillac of user experience and the closest to a normal desktop.” However, he also notes that they have the biggest requirements for infrastructure. Tier 1 VDIs provide each user a dedicated virtual instance, allowing them to make the best use of any connected services, solutions or apps.
  • Tier 2: According to Joyner, tier 2 VDIs are multisession instances. These types of VDIs, he says, “have terminal services that provide a multikernel environment to offer more density per virtual session.” Here, the big advantage is volume — more users in a smaller virtual space — but Joyner points to the potential for “noisy neighbor” problems. If, for instance, another user on the same virtual machine has a runaway process, it could affect the experience for everyone. Solutions such as VMware’s RDSH offer tier 2 functionality.
  • Tier 3: These solutions require the lowest infrastructure commitment by focusing on application delivery. Joyner describes it as “injecting a set of applications into the OS,” which allows students to access what they need, when they need it. This isn’t a one-to-one desktop experience, however. Instead, it’s an app-focused analog of university IT resources. 

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No matter the tier, Joyner points to the critical benefit of connection management, which ensures that available resources are effectively balanced among users. For colleges and universities, finding the right solution to ensure student success depends on the combination of current IT infrastructure, existing desktop hardware and the volume of users who require reliable, real-time connections.

While remote learning remains a necessity, it’s not enough to simply deliver canned lectures and allow limited IT access. The student experience and ease of use are critical to improve course outcomes and encourage ongoing student enrollment. Implemented effectively, VDI offers a potential means of accomplishing both.

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