Virtual Desktops: Ensure Access and Equity in Student Computing. Gerard Flynn Director of Technology and Learning Pepperdine University

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1 Virtual Desktops: Ensure Access and Equity in Student Computing Gerard Flynn Director of Technology and Learning Pepperdine University Thomas Hoover Director Instructional Technology Support Pepperdine University Leaders in educational technology face a number of challenges when seeking to provide students with access to fair and equitable (not to mention up-to-date) technology. Hardware is expensive, software is difficult to keep patched and updated, and the administration of the computing environment often requires numerous skilled technicians to keep everything running. Educational institutions that offer distance learning opportunities face further challenges as students enrolled in such programs may possess any of a number of desktop computers at their homes and these computers may run a variety of software programs. The limitations of both the hardware and software available to these students may restrict them from participating fully in distance educational programs (Browne, 2003.) This problem may be especially compounded in economically disadvantaged or ethnically diverse communities as the students may not have access to any computers, much less those equipped with the latest software (Shelley, Thrane, et. al. 2004). In an attempt to provide equitable computing environments to students separated by distance, Pepperdine University conducted a 24-month study to assess the costs and feasibility of replacing desktop computers with virtual machines that allow multiple people to share a single personal computer (PC). The results of this study will be presented as they relate to distance learning and access and equity in student computing. Brief Overview of Desktop Virtualization Traditionally, computer users connected directly to a physical PC hardware device. Thus, a lab equipped with fifteen computers would serve no more than fifteen users; the relationship of computers to users in this configuration is one-to-one. Desktop virtualization, however, allows users to have a true desktop experience without being directly connected to a computer. This is possible because of the software that runs on the host computer that allows for more than one person to use one physical machine and one operating system at the same time. For example, in the aforementioned fifteen-seat lab, one machine could be set up to allow for fifteen different connections, allowing for a one-to-many relationship. The result is fewer computers and more users. There are several different ways that desktop virtualization can be accomplished. One way is to purchase expensive backend servers that allow several devices to connect to and receive an operating system from that server. A simpler way, however, is to use a specialized software application that allows for a host machine to share its operating system with others who interact with the host using remote computer mice, keyboards, and monitors. The latter method can enable between six and thirty people to use one machine at the same time. Desktop virtualization is built upon the premise that today s regular PCs are supercomputers when compared to the PCs of just a few years ago. As such, most regular users are using only a fraction of the true computing power of these modern PCs. Mark Weston, education strategist for Dell, notes the advantages of using desktop virtualization, citing reduced budgets and limited staff as incentives for implementing these cost-saving measures. When schools begin to look at how to reduce costs and Copyright 2010 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 1

2 increase productivity, he says, those concerns drive them into a conversation about virtualization. (Waters, 2004). Use of Desktop Virtualization at Pepperdine University Two years ago, Pepperdine University conducted a 24-month study to assess the costs and feasibility of replacing desktop computers with desktop virtualization. After much research and several meetings with numerous thin client vendors, we chose a desktop virtualization product that made the most sense for our environment, produced by NComputing. We set up several units across the university and did pilot tests with those who used the virtual desktop units. After several months of having students, staff, and faculty test the units, we expanded the pilot project by installing desktop virtualization devices in some general use areas such as the library and student lounges. We then collected feedback from students using surveys and focus groups to gauge student reaction to the virtual desktop user experience. The results of this pilot project revealed 88% electricity savings, 82% cost savings (compared to replacing each station with a new PC), and a positive computing experience (Hoover, 2009). Our cost savings were better than average as we recycled some equipment; without recycling existing hardware, virtual desktops are roughly thirty percent the price of a new PC. One of the effects of implementing virtual desktops across the university was the ability to standardize student computing in most of the computer labs and public use areas. In addition, we were able to increase the number of computers available to students. But what was particularly beneficial for students was the ability to access specialized computer software programs that were not available on local computers. For example, virtual desktops at Pepperdine University s Irvine, California center operate from host computers at Pepperdine's West Los Angeles campus (near LAX airport), some forty-three miles away. Consequently, students who do not have computers at home or who do not have the computer programs required for their courses (e.g. SPSS), were able to access identical computing environments at either campus in order to work on their distance education coursework. At the conclusion of the pilot study, we collected student feedback about the virtual desktop experience and the results were generally positive. Forty-one percent of respondents indicated that the virtualized desktops were better or much better than the actual desktops previously provided. In addition, seventythree percent of respondents were not aware that the new stations were running virtualized desktops. Students also noted their appreciation of the IT department reducing the number of physical computers on campus as it was considered to be environmentally friendly. (Hoover, NComputing User Survey, 2009) After gathering feedback from the students, we shared our findings with the rest of the university by making a presentation at the university s budget managers monthly meeting. In light of the recent university-wide budget cuts, it was not surprising that several more departments became interested in adopting virtual desktops. As a result of this pilot study, we now have one hundred fifty-five units installed across our campuses in general use areas including academic labs, library spaces, and staff areas and we have saved well over one hundred thousand dollars (Hoover, 2009). Within the next several months, we are expected to add another one hundred fifty units, bringing the total number of virtual desktops close to three hundred. The savings are significant; virtual desktops are roughly thirty percent the price a new PC and use twenty percent the energy of a traditional PC. Despite the tough economic climate, marked by layoffs and reduced budgets, we have been able to give our students more computers and a better user experience. Moreover, the move toward desktop virtualization has made computer maintenance easier to manage from an administrative perspective. Ongoing savings will continue to be realized through reduced costs in both hardware acquisition and software licensing. Copyright 2010 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 2

3 Proposed Use of Desktop Virtualization at Universities and Community Colleges The experience of implementing desktop virtualization at Pepperdine University can serve as a model for other universities and colleges that are looking to increase productivity, to extend computer access to more of their student bodies, and to save money. Suggestions for using desktop virtualization include the following areas/uses: Academic Labs Library/Public use areas Staff and student work stations Kiosks Registration stations Language labs Adult education centers Inexpensive digital signage Implementation of desktop virtualization would allow multiple campuses to be administered from one location. It would also enable consistency and uniformity in that all devices can have access to the same software programs. Most staff members and administrators could use NComputing desktop virtualization units thus saving thousands of dollars in hardware, software, and maintenance. The possibilities for use also include increasing access to education to those who would otherwise be unable to attend university in a traditional setting. Students who are handicapped, elderly, house-bound, or even incarcerated, could be issued NComputing units, computer mice, keyboards, and monitors to ensure that all possess equitable computing equipment. The cost of such an implementation could be funded by grants, computer fees, or perhaps by reallocated resources obtained from reducing computer hardware budget lines. Virtualized software applications could also be provided institutionally, thereby ensuring that all students have access to the same hardware and software without needing to update, patch, or maintain either, as those things would be done by a central Information Technology department. Proposed Use of Desktop Virtualization at K-12 Institutions The applications for desktop virtualization can also extend to K-12 education. Certainly, it can be used in many of the same ways as in colleges and universities, to provide inexpensive digital signage and to help expand access to computing in common areas like computer labs and libraries. But it could also be used for the following programs, groups, and individuals: Year abroad programs Walk up stations for parents to check on child assignments, attendance, etc Work-at-Home Fridays instead of furloughs Charter schools Homeschoolers Enrichment programs Summer school The idea of equal access to computing for all students is especially important at the K-12 level as there is a large income disparity among many of the populations that these schools serve. One of the most important benefits of desktop virtualization is the ability to bridge the digital divide by giving all students access to computers. Copyright 2010 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 3

4 Conclusion Desktop virtualization is a cost-saving and energy efficient option for schools and universities that can increase student access to resources while reducing work for IT administrators. The benefits for distance education are numerous, but most exciting is the prospect that every learner could have access to state-ofthe-art computing for as little as $300 and the hardware and software could be managed remotely from an individual school or by an entire school district to guarantee that everyone has the latest, patched software running on the latest operating system. Indeed, the Republic of Macedonia has implemented such a Computer for Every Child initiative, providing computing capability to 360,000 children in primary and secondary schools using NComputing virtual desktop devices. (NComputing, ) The possibilities are promising, but in order to successfully implement desktop virtualization, significant testing is required to ensure that the many component pieces are in place for it to work successfully. The most important element is procuring state-of-the-art host machines. In addition, it is crucial that students wishing to take advantage of this technology from their own homes have broadband internet connection to access the virtual desktop off of the campus. The adoption of any new technology is going to require specific requirements and attention to detail. There is little doubt, however, that desktop virtualization is soon to become ubiquitous and can provide access to equitable computing resources to a large number of students. References Browne, E. (2003, November). Conversations in Cyberspace: A study of online learning. Open Learning, 18(3), Hoover, T. (2009, March 1). NComputing desktop virtualization at Pepperdine. Retrieved June 6, 2010, from Pepperdine University IT Help Knowledgebase: e Hoover, T. (2009, March 1). NComputing user survey. Retrieved June 6, 2010, from Pepperdine University IT Help Knowledgebase: y.pdf&pageid= NComputing. ( ). NComputing case study education. Retrieved June 6, 2010, from Republic of Macedonia first nation to provide a computer for every student: pdf Shelley, M., Thrane, Lisa, et al. (2004, Summer). Digital citizenship. Social Science Computer Review, 22(2), Waters, J. (2009). Virtualize me! T.H.E. Journal, 36(4), Retrieved from ERIC database. About the Presenters Gerard Flynn is the Director of Technology and Learning at Pepperdine University. He is co-founding a Center for Technology and Learning, which provides training, documentation, and support for educational technologies including learning management systems, lecture capture, online collaboration, and video conferencing. Gerard has an MBA and teaches ERP classes to staff and faculty as well as Computer Science classes to undergraduate business majors. He has co-authored two books: Succeeding in Business with Microsoft Office Access 2003: A Problem-Solving Approach and Succeeding in Business Applications with Microsoft Office 2003: A Problem-Solving Approach. Copyright 2010 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 4

5 Address: Pepperdine University Pacific Coast Highway Malibu, CA Phone: Thomas Hoover is the Director of Instructional Technology Support for Pepperdine University. He is cofounding member of a Center for Technology and Learning, which provides training, documentation, and support for educational technologies including learning management systems, lecture capture, online collaboration, and video conferencing. He has been working in Information Technology at Pepperdine University for over eleven years and is a known expert in thin computing and virtualization initiatives. He spoke at the Campus Technology 2009 Conference in Boston, as well as the EDUCAUSE Annual 2009 conference in Denver and will be presenting at Campus Technology again in July of Tom has a master's in Public Policy. He is married and has a daughter and a son. He enjoys golfing and traveling. Address: Pepperdine University Pacific Coast Highway Malibu, CA Phone: Copyright 2010 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 5

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