MOOC retention

University discovers how to bring expensive on-campus resources to online students

The 'One-Click Classroom' is a student-first approach to Desktop-as-a-Service.

In 1949, University of Maryland University College (UMUC) first sent faculty overseas to provide higher education at U.S. military installations.  Fast forward to 2017, and UMUC is the largest online public university in the United States, celebrating our 70th year of serving adult students in Maryland and around the world.

Roughly one-in-seven of all higher education students are enrolled in online coursework.  At UMUC alone, more than 85,000 students attend classes online. Roughly 50 percent of those students are parents and 60 percent are affiliated with the military.

While distance education means something very different than it did back in 1949, one thing has not changed: UMUC is still dedicated to our core value of “Students First,” with courses that include embedded digital resources at no cost to students.

However, our online approach has a unique set of challenges, especially when coursework demands specialized software tools for hands-on learning. How do we provide near-ubiquitous access when students are geographically dispersed, use different types of computer platforms, and don’t have access to campus computer labs?

Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS), or the creation of a virtual desktop for students that houses key applications without having them installed on their computer, seemed like the solution. DaaS can help universities overcome access challenges by delivering industry-grade software to remote students. It was the solution we were looking for, but after deploying, we learned the current crop of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) did not meet UMUC’s “Students First” philosophy.

In Need of an Academically Sound Solution

First, the VDI system we were using was not scalable (i.e., it was very challenging to balance the expected student demand with performance.). This legacy solution also required students to install software locally, which was a major obstacle to students using shared computers, for example at a library or computer lab.

The legacy solution was also designed on a “per course” structure, where student desktop environments were tied to their current classes. Students using more than one VDI needed separate log-ins—as many as seven—and once they finished the class, students lost access to that computing environment. This last point was especially important for us to solve since this meant students lost access to work and applications at the end of each course.

Our new approach needed to be driven by sound pedagogy and the student experience, rather than technology.  Our students needed a fully-integrated, single-sign-on, one-click, distance classroom experience.  It needed to be accessible by students throughout their academic journey, on any computer type, and through a simple browser.  Most of all, it needed to scale at the program level so students could take their coursework with them throughout their UMUC career.

After several rounds of proposals from all the major players in the market space, we realized that most commercially available solutions on the market were designed for the corporate office and didn’t meet our “Students First” requirements. Here’s how we overcame that challenge.

(Next page: A fresh take on the education Desktop-as-a-Service)

A Fresh Take on the Education DaaS

We set up a 10-person internal team within UMUC. Given broad freedom on how to approach the challenge, we developed a set of “user stories” to guide the development process and ensure we were creating a system that worked for instructors, students, and administrators. For infrastructure, we leveraged the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud and Amazon WorkSpaces, a cloud-based desktop computing service. Six months from the original concept, we launched.

We’ve completed integrating Amazon WorkSpaces into the student’s online classroom. With just one click, they can access it alongside their syllabi, calendars, and course evaluations. The system has allowed us to do things for our students that weren’t possible previously. For example, we developed Lab Broker a tool that  allows our cybersecurity students to spin up multiple virtual machines with vulnerabilities and then test their cyber skills on those machines. Without Amazon WorkSpaces, it would have been very difficult to deliver both the scalability and reliability Lab Broker demands.

Since its official launch in September 2016, more than 6,500 UMUC students have been using the new system. From September 2016 through January 2017, we recorded more than 340,000 hours of student usage, with the average monthly student usage hours increasing almost 400 percent. By Fall 2017, we expect to have more than 10,000 Amazon WorkSpaces in use during the semester, a number and scale not achievable with our legacy system.

Universities Are Places of Learning, Even for Us

By all measures, the platform has been a huge success.  Students and instructors alike have praised the platform as “transformational,” “fantastic and easy to use,” and having a “material impact on how our students learn.”

Like any major endeavor, there were some valuable lessons learned.

To other universities looking to solve a similar challenge, the first piece of advice I have is to keep your teams small. We were able to achieve soup-to-nuts deployment in three months because we only involved the right people. This allowed us to be more agile and collaborative.

The second is to go into a project with a set of requirements driven by your end customer. Think about what is possible, not what is available.

Also, keep the lines of communication open. Critical to this initiative was ensuring continued engagement and input from stakeholders, including university departments, individual instructors, staff, students, and technology collaborators like AWS. Understanding what students need and what would be possible is crucial.

Roughly six months ago, our legacy system required individual log-ins for each course’s desktop environment. Work and tools students gained in one course were not transferable to courses in subsequent semesters, and students were limited by physical requirements of the computers they were using. Furthermore, we had significant scalability and stability challenges.

Today, our new system has none of these problems. Students can now access a single computing environment for all their classes via web browser with no software installation required. Student work also stays with the student for the duration of enrollment and we are able to effortlessly scale based on demand.

Our team is proud that we not only made a difference in our student’s educational lives but we also developed a system that will prove to be an invaluable asset and investment for UMUC in the long term. I definitely encourage other institutions to explore similar paths.

When you take the time to imagine what is possible and put your students first, everyone wins.

eSchool Media Contributors