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.