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University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Learning virtually anywhere

In September 2008, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) had about a thousand devices connected to its campus wireless network during peak hours. By September 2016, that number had jumped to more than 20,000. Now, as students come to campus with an average of five devices—cell phones, laptops, tablets—they bring with them new expectations and infinitely more connections.

As UNCG has learned, technology has created opportunities: higher education is no longer limited to the four walls of a classroom. It also presents challenges: students expect their academic content to be available on any device.

University of North Carolina at Greensboro

In response, UNCG is taking a bold approach. In 2016, after a couple of years of pilot programs and fine tuning, the university launched the MyCloud UNCG App Store, thus entering the world of virtualized technology services.

Thinking outside the classroom box

In the old model, if the lab portion of a course required students to use specific software, they would come to campus and access the software on campus computers. Others might buy the software and install it personally on every device they own, likely paying a licensing fee for each installation.

Thanks to UNCG’s new virtualized approach, students can, instead, log into the MyCloud UNCG App Store, choose the application they want to use and run it from any supported device. Best of all, they can do that without having to be on campus or pay additional licensing fees.

UNCG’s Information Technology Services (ITS) division currently manages 13 computing labs. Now, the software required for each of those labs is hosted in the MyCloud UNCG App Store, and that virtualized general student lab is available to all students.

The goal, says UNCG chief information officer Donna Heath, is “to fill this need for mobility of services and give our students more flexibility in how, when and where they learn.”

University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Being able to access software remotely frees off-campus students to commute or work from home as they need, and stretches the bounds of a traditional class schedule, Heath explains. And, by allowing students to complete the lab portion of a course from home, they are encouraged to get the most from in-person time with faculty during lectures or one-on-one meetings.

Jumping on the virtual bandwagon

“Our students love it,” Heath says of this shifting approach. “The response has been incredibly positive, and I can understand why. Having to come to a lab and compete for a computer adds time and complexity to students’ already full schedules.”

Heath can imagine a future where traditional computer labs might be repurposed as collaborative spaces. In that way, virtual IT services may very well change the physical services that universities like UNCG offer.

Changes like these will take more time, though. After all, this approach is, as Heath calls it, a paradigm shift.

Students, who are used to the iTunes App Store or Google Play model, are able to embrace this new way of computing and thinking. For others, it’s a larger leap.

“The burden is on us to provide a service so intuitive and easy to use that people immediately see the value in using it,” Heath says. “If you don’t get that right, you don’t have good success with adoption.”

A united front

UNCG’s move to virtualized technology services is being led by the ITS division, a robust 140-person team. Five key individuals were tasked with building the necessary virtual environments, and additional staff contributed to one component or another of the new framework. While each of those individuals was highly skilled to begin with, they also received additional training, both on and off campus.

University of North Carolina at Greensboro

“This is a very talented group of staff who care deeply about building solutions that work for our students, faculty and staff,” she says. “Plus, we are a very centralized IT shop at UNCG, and that enables us to build and deliver technology services with significant institutional impact.”

The new space race

Other universities are looking to a virtualized approach. “We didn’t invent the wheel, but we are farther along the path than many others,” Heath says. That’s not completely shocking, as this isn’t the first time UNCG has led the pack.

The university was one of the first three schools in the nation to implement Google Apps for Education, and it’s an early adopter of the “cloud first” approach. UNCG uses Gmail, Canvas, a campus learning management system and Box cloud storage—all cloud-based services.

“We are paying very close attention to the services we offer, and if we cannot provide a service internally that is better, faster, cheaper than a commodity provider can, our default is to go to the cloud first,” Heath says.

When asked about the motive behind UNCG’s cloud and virtualized services, Heath’s answer is short and simple: student success.

Published on: September 25, 2017

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