A solution to enable virtual learning during the pandemic has become a permanent step away from desktop computers and into cloud computing at one Ontario school board, with other boards likely to follow suit given the equity, convenience and potential savings realized.
Using sophisticated software programs such as AutoCAD and Adobe Creative Suite is becoming increasingly necessary for secondary students who are interested in courses in fields such as design, engineering, and technology. These programs require significant computing power and are typically stored on high-end desktop computers in classroom labs.
Supporting students already enrolled in these programs after the shift to lockdown learning in 2020 posed an immediate challenge for Chris Dale, Executive Manager of Innovative and Collaborative Technology Services at the London District Catholic School Board.
“We understood that some families did not have computers at home that were capable of running such large programs, and access for all students was a critical priority. I knew about Azure Labs through ECNO and approached them in fall 2020 to explore a pilot subscription,” says Chris.
Microsoft’s Azure Labs allows organizations such as school boards to run software on virtual computers in the cloud rather than on individual hardware.
Authorized users can access complex software from anywhere provided they have an internet connection and a basic computer. Subscribing organizations pay a fee by the hour for each user. Teachers and monitors can access real-time data about student participation, which provides opportunities for early intervention if students are struggling or not participating.
Andrew Bayko, an Analyst with ECNO’s Shared Technical Services Advisory Committee, moved quickly to help Chris implement the program including setting up and testing the subscription, creating program templates for six courses to be piloted through Azure Labs, ensuring conditional access and troubleshooting minor technical issues as they arose.
“Our IT team had their hands full to say the least, and so the roll-out was very ECNO heavy – their team did the bulk of the work, and we were very grateful for that. Within just a handful of days we had our virtual lab up and running,” says Chris. Once the system was set up, Andrew and Chris worked closely with teachers on implementation.
Change management was a key variable for successful implementation.
“The backing of our senior administration team was a key first step,” notes Chris, “and then we conducted a quick review with our secondary principals and department heads to find the most appropriate courses for the pilot. The biggest challenge was getting teachers trained up on how to connect with computers in the cloud. That’s the stuff we perhaps had taken for granted that the end users didn’t know. Once they’d sorted that out, they were fine and had no problem, they were off and running.
Following the successful test run, the Board has expanded its use of Azure Labs to 30 secondary courses for the 2021-2022 school year. Although most students are back in class, a mandate to support ongoing virtual learning and equitable access were primary reasons to stick with the new approach.
The pilot project revealed return on investment and efficiencies.
A significant savings of budget and time emerged as another compelling reason to expand the initiative. The cost per student averaged less than $100, amounting to solid savings in the long term compared with the budget required to keep the equipment current.
“Like most boards, we have a lot of old hardware in our schools and labs and when we look at the cost of replacing these high end machines, at an average cost of $2,000 per computer every four to five years, Azure Labs is a more cost-effective solution. We’ve been able to slow the pace of our capital investment, work with departments to incorporate Azure Labs in their operating budgets, and we are reducing the time our technicians would normally spend replacing, upgrading or fixing these computers,” notes Chris. “It’s done virtually and that’s giving our team time to deal with other pressing technology needs.”