Another critical campus area now moving to the cloud

Cloud-based virtual labs could become key for universities looking to save money and improve student learning.

In an innovative move, faculty from colleges and universities are working with a tech company to create fully mobile, real-world, cloud-based virtual labs.

Why? Because as Virginia-based IT solutions provider Aeronomy explains, harnessing cloud infrastructure to help alleviate strained funding is critical for one of STEM’s most invaluable resources: the lab.

Founded in 2013, Aeronomy initially began as an infrastructure-neutral, cloud-based solutions provider for businesses, but quickly discovered they could serve the higher education market as well by creating virtual labs that allow colleges and universities to save on costs and better support students.

“Many universities are not doing too well financially, and their old school ways are part of the reason for that,” said Aeronomy chairman and CEO K. Scott Bethke. “Our idea is that schools should collaborate more with what’s out there. Some of the basics can be totally improved by technology. It’s advantageous for all universities to offer [virtual labs], as it can level the playing field for them.”

Essentially, Aeronomy creates and manages private, community-based clouds which primarily host virtual labs for universities. Students can then access their virtual lab at any time and from any device. This is generally done through their web browser, though more technical courses sometimes necessitate downloading minor additional software.

These virtual labs can be used as blended learning components of traditional courses, or stand alone exclusively online.

Real-World Labs, Thanks to Faculty

To date, Aeronomy has created about 30 different types of labs for the likes of the University of Notre Dame and a top 3 online university, the majority of which have been for technical fields such as cyber security, forensics, data analytics and gaming development. Thus, the virtual labs often carry very specific requirements, such as creating fully secure and isolated environments for each student’s practice without repercussions on a campus network, while simultaneously allowing them to experience the most up-to-date tools that will be at their disposal when entering the workforce.

This also means ensuring that labs are created with direct faculty influence during their 4-8 week development.

“Our uniqueness lies in connecting with faculty…so that we can create labs that match their desired learning outcomes,” said Aeronomy COO Christopher Wade. “That way, we understand how the labs work and we can support students better, which is the end goal.”

(Next page: Student input on virtual labs; a smart support strategy)

In addition, the company said student feedback during a virtual lab’s initial pilot process and beyond is vitally important. This extends to helping them when they encounter any difficulties.

“University help desk operations are built mostly Monday through Friday, yet we see key lab usage on weekends,” said Wade. “Our virtual labs compliment existing support systems. Aeronomy has a support system that’s set up at all times for things like password issues or not understanding how something works in the lab. We standardize everything to the same platform to reduce the support on both ends. This lowers support costs for schools.”

Lowering Costs

Aeronomy wants to make it clear that better supporting learners leads to reduced costs for an institution.

“It’s ultimately much better for the university,” said Bethke. “It’s a better alternative to million dollar labs…because a virtual lab is always available to [students], and they can participate virtually on their own at any time.”

The pricing for Aeronomy’s services are aligned with enrollment statistics, so institutions are only paying for exactly what they use.

This can be especially viable on a larger scale, with Aeronomy seeing even bigger befits for consortia and systems of connected institutions that share the same underlying resources to create labs that are used for introductory courses across all of the schools.

Saving Space

Additionally, the creation of virtual labs can lead to the reduction of more than just costs on campuses.

“Space at schools is always a big deal,” noted Wade. “By reducing physical computer labs, they can reallocate that space. It’s not about eliminating them, but instead it’s shrinking them so that schools aren’t wasting resources.”

This also lessens the amount of maintenance in physical labs, where resources are especially wasted during down times on a campus, such as breaks or summer vacation.

A Secure Edge

Finally, Aeronomy explained that their maintenance of their virtual labs can help strengthen an institution’s cyber security. By monitoring outside threats to the virtual labs, and in conjunction with the aforementioned idea about reduction of on-campus labs, IT officials are able to more easily narrow their own focus area in order to best protect an institution and their students’ data.

“I take great pride in helping people find ways to do things more efficiently,” concluded Wade. “We would really like to work with more universities, and help them find ways to deliver improved student learning experiences at a lesser cost.”

To contact Aeronomy, or learn more about their services, visit their website here.

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