Edith Cowan University tears down learning barriers with Azure Lab Services

As one of Australia’s newer tertiary institutions, Edith Cowan University (ECU), has always done things a little differently. From its inception in 1991 it sought to reshape the way higher education was delivered and its courses are created in consultation with industry.

With several hundred students each year passing through various computer science courses ECU needs to provide computer labs where students can tackle assignments, exams and projects.

Every time a new cohort came along the lab needed to be remodeled, the right content loaded onto on premises equipment, that constantly needed updating to keep pace with the real world. Faculty was challenged to manage the labs, often having to load applications manually onto 50 devices at a time for a computer lab to take place.

The on-campus facilities also meant students had to physically attend a lab during prescribed opening hours. It was an approach clearly at odds with ECU’s global ambitions and determination to provide a flexible learning environment for students.

Vito Forte, ECU’s chief information officer, knew there had to be a better way. The University had already embarked on a cloud-based transformation that will eventually transfer 520 workloads into Azure in a move that promises scalability, elasticity, security and value.

What if it the student labs moved to the cloud as well?

A proof of concept using Azure Lab Services to host a cyber security penetration testing module was rolled out with students accessing the module through their usual university sign on, from their own device when and where it suited them. Students log in via the Azure Lab Services site and use their Office 365 credentials to connect to the appropriate Lab.

Azure Lab Services was fully managed by Microsoft and ECU was charged on a per usage hours basis instead of having to buy and manage a lab chock full of computers whether they were needed or not.

Since then the team has begun to explore how similar Labs could work for the School of Science – Metabolomics & Computational Biology, or for students engaged in genome modelling.

Vito Forte, chief information officer, ECU explains the University progress to date.

Microsoft: What was the challenge that you were facing?
Vito Forte: In our School of Science – specifically computer science, the courses that we run involve a lot of practical work which involves isolated virtual machine (VM) capability for several hundred students to execute particular types of assignments. The traditional way of doing that was through rooms that had lots of equipment that had to be set up and then torn down and set up again.

After I started 18 months ago there were some discussions with the School about purchasing a very large physical environment to run a lot of virtual things on it. I asked, ‘why are we doing it this way? Why aren’t we taking advantage of the cloud?’ That started the conversation with Microsoft.

MS: So that’s when you started to look at Azure Lab Services?
VF: We heard about the early iteration around Azure Lab Services, saw there was value there – and got involved really early in terms of providing feedback to Microsoft.

MS: When do you launch?
VF: We plan to go live in the second semester and really validate the value associated with this. At the moment Azure Lab Services is not mandated across the school – but this should be successful and then we would mandate the use of this across that particular School for their courses. If I look a bit further there is no reason why other computer lab activities could not be done in the same manner.

MS: Is this part of a broader cloud transformation?
VF: We are going through a large cloud transition away from managed services into Azure. That is scheduled to be finished by the end of the year – we’re moving roughly 520 workloads, the whole computing environment. Why? Because we get a lot of capability flexibility and will be saving a substantial amount of money on our existing services.

MS: How will you measure the impact of moving to Azure Lab Services?
VF: There will be some time and cost dimensions – but the other aspects will be usability at the student level as well as accessibility. How do we remove friction? It’s part of an overall strategy and vision around virtualising the University. We want the University to be a place for people to come and collaborate and gather – but we also want to use digital to make that available anywhere.

You can be at home or in another part of the world and still participate. We are setting up a large campus in Sri Lanka and the majority of the courses are around cyber and computer science. What Azure Lab Services does is with minimal to no additional cost or effort we have the ability to scale. If we bought on prem equipment we’d have to buy more on prem equipment in a different country, set it all up, operate it, manage it. So that scalability effect really starts to kick in.

MS: And what about the learning outcomes of the move to Azure Lab Services?
VF: Fundamentally it’s about usage and student success. Part of the process here is if we remove the level of friction associated with the student being able to access the materials and things they need to be successful that should show an uptick in the level of success. We are doing as much as we can to not be the problem.

MS: What might the future hold?
VF: In some of our research areas we are taking advantage of a number of the Azure capabilities in machine learning, looking right now in terms of student experience with chatbots and other assisted technologies. Analytics is another area starting to take shape. The University does some research in the augmented reality and virtual reality area and we are now trying to see is there value associated at a student learning level. We tend to be very vigorous in terms of learning outcomes and measuring learning outcomes rather than we are just going to throw technology at something and hope for the best.

Our biggest challenge isn’t a lack of ideas it’s resources and time to invest in some of these areas.