As the higher education environment becomes more digital – and more global – it’s growing increasingly difficult for schools to provide access to software and data. Most departments and programs require unique solutions, and contracting for individual licenses can become a mess. Quite a few schools have also merged into city- and state-wide consortia, and many students need to access programs on multiple campuses. Overall, the device-centric model of computing (and contracting) just doesn’t work anymore.
Fortunately, plenty of companies are now offering virtualization services that make the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) model feasible and affordable. Take the Lone Star College System, where Vice Chancellor Link Alander is implementing VMWare’s virtual desktop. Within the next year, Lone Star’s 90,000+ students and faculty will be able to use their own devices to access software and data from each of the system’s six campuses.
Focusing Wireless Density and Centralization
Lone Star began redesigning its IT infrastructure three years ago with a focus on wireless density and centralization. “Networking isn’t just about wireless anymore – it’s about wireless density,” says Alander. Because of its growing student body and the increasing tech demands of its academic programs, the system needed a way to centralize email, productivity apps, and critical data. “The virtual desktop was the only way to provide a rich, quality experience and still meet legal requirements around licensing,” Alander says.
For now, one Lone Star campus with roughly 7,000 students is taking advantage of the program. Students and teachers log in to a central hub for email and Office 365, as well as advanced editing tools like AutoCAD and Premier. Saving to the virtual desktop’s “My Documents” folder also routes their data to a private cloud.
The virtual environment works on a variety of devices and operating systems, as well. A Lone Star poll revealed a 2.6 to 1 IP address-to-student ratio, so the desktop’s interoperability is clearly needed. Some classes even feature device-centric content – especially for iPads – but the virtual environment allows Windows and Mac users to stay on the same page.
Finally, Lone Star’s new infrastructure has drastically streamlined workflows for students attending multiple campuses. Most LC students visit at least two campuses per week, and a few even have classes at each of the six campuses in a single semester. “By virtualizing students based on their academic loads, we can bring that full experience together,” notes Alander. “Now they don’t have to travel from one campus to another just to run an application.”
Getting Away from “Old IT”
BYOD has generated some security concerns among educators, but Alander isn’t too worried. “Users are isolated to standard ports, and they’re not really ‘inside’ the network until they’re inside the virtual desktop,” he says. It’s not as if anyone can access every Lone Star folder from a mobile device; users with log-in credentials are confined to the specific files and apps provisioned to them via the desktop.
In the long run, it seems that BYOD and desktop virtualization are going to be must-haves for schools big and small. Just about every academic field is becoming more technical and software-centric, and students are demanding access to off-campus data, applications, and course content. “Anymore, we can’t just sit there and say, ‘we will support you if you do a, b, c, d, and e,” says Alander. “That’s old IT.”