Ayrshire College uses virtualisation as a platform for flexible learning

Profile picture for user Mark Samuels By Mark Samuels July 4, 2017
Students and staff benefit from new types of educational experiences

Hand and laptop with cloud computing diagram © ra2 studio - Fotolia.com
IT decision makers in education face a significant challenge – they must use technology to support the fast-changing training needs of students, while delivering excellent value for money. Ayrshire College is meeting this challenge head-on and is using virtual desktop infrastructure and thin client technology to deliver a flexible learning environment.

The investment in technology forms a key element of Ayrshire College’s recent move to a new £53 million campus in Kilmarnock. Brad Johnstone, head of ICT at Ayrshire College, says the construction of the new campus, including decisions around its IT infrastructure, involved a significant exercise. Other decisions about hardware and networking were made during the construction process, but the real-game changing calls were made regarding personal computing in the classroom:

We looked at the traditional model of fat clients, with PCs and software installed locally. That would have been the easy option for us to choose, but there’s also work and effort required to maintain those desktops. They tend to have a four-year lifecycle, in terms of updates and refreshes. What’s modern today won’t be fast this time next year. To maintain a higher level of IT-enabled teaching and learning, you need better kit.

That realisation led Johnstone and his team to consider their options. They were keen to give staff and students the opportunity to log in from anywhere around campus, and to access a personalised desktop and applications specific to their courses. After a period of due diligence, Johnstone and his team implemented a virtual desktop solution, using Citrix XenDesktop, and deployed IGEL thin client terminals.

XenDeskop sits on top of a Microsoft Hyper V virtualisation platform, running on Hewlett Packard Enterprise Moonshot servers. The college has purchased IGEL multimedia UD3 thin client terminals for 12 classrooms. It also runs IGEL Universal Desktop Convertor (UDC) software on 400 new laptops. UDC converts any x86-based device into a Linux-based thin client. Johnstone says the set-up helps deliver a modern learning experience:

We want to keep the students at the heart of everything we do, regardless of course. The VDI technology is helping to sponsor a much more flexible approach to teaching and learning. We’ve created IT-enabled classrooms, where students can access laptops whenever they need them.

Empowering staff and students

The laptops are stored in twenty rooms, called IT-enabled labs, which house 20 devices in two cabinets. A lecturer has the keys to the cabinets and controls lending the laptops to students, so they can do group work and research.

Laptops are not just centred on specific classrooms. Students can also use laptops across the campus by loaning a device from the college’s learning and resource centre. When a student logs into their virtual desktop, they are given access to a web browser, Microsoft Office, Adobe PDF packages, applications specific to their course and an online learning tool from Moodle. Johnstone says the approach gives IT staff the opportunity to deploy technology in a way that works for both the college and its students:

Different people want to learn in different ways and technology is allowing that to happen more and more. We wanted to empower our students and enable our staff to use our learning space in many ways. Our approach means laptops can now just become a part of everyday learning.

Johnstone and his team use IGEL’s free Universal Management Suite to set up, configure and manage day-to-day support requests. Rather than having to update each PC individually, IT staff can makes modifications across a suite of thin clients simultaneously. Instead of large seasonal updates, the technology team can run refreshes and patches on a regular, incremental basis, says Johnstone:

If something’s not quite right, you fix it once and it rolls out across all devices. We don’t have to go into a classroom and take students out for a couple of hours while we update all the computers. Our staff are more in control of how they fix things, when they fix things and how they update the technology.

Creating a platform for future growth

While virtualisation itself is nothing new, Johnstone says the campus-wide approach taken by Ayrshire College is novel in terms of the education sector. It was, he suggests, a risk to place a whole new campus on a virtualised platform, especially if the system goes down for any prolonged period.

However, the platform has been running since last October and there have been no significant outages. The successful implementation of VDI means staff and students have woken up to the power of virtualisation. In fact, Johnstone says the high degree of cross-organisation buy-in creates a new kind of challenge for the IT team.

Everyone across campus recognises we have a very reliable and flexible system now. That level of acceptance means we’re starting to get questions about what else we can do with the platform. In fact, the system is working so well that students and staff are keen for the technology to be pushed to other areas.

Johnstone recognises that kind of programme requires significant investment. The Kilmarnock Campus, which opened in October 2016, is home to 338 staff and 5,500 students who study over 100 courses. Developments at the campus represent phase one of a three-year strategy to push the VDI platform across the whole Ayrshire College estate. The aim, subject to funding, is to also introduce Citrix and IGEL technology across satellite locations.

Interestingly, Johnstone says future developments in the programme will in part by driven by the demands of the local economy. If an airline decides to increase flights to the local airport at Prestwick, for example, the college could introduce new aeronautical courses and train people locally to do the jobs. Johnstone says having a responsive and flexible IT platform means educators at the college can be nimble:

We can respond to new demands and support the training needs of local organisations. We’re having a lot of conversations with business, councils and secondary schools to ensure that we’re training students in the right areas. We aim to be at the heart of the local community in Ayrshire and VDI gives us flexibility to offer new types of classroom learning.

My take

Ayrshire College’s campus-wide implementation of virtualisation and thin client technology represents a novel take on the challenge of providing a flexible learning environment in a fast-changing digital world. Strong links back to the local community mean long-term benefits should be gained.