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.

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