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Some higher education institutions are turning to a hyperconverged infrastructure to improve connectivity.

Education’s New Normal? Building a Better Infrastructure for Remote Learning

The pandemic has shifted education from the classroom to the home, with many students across the country – from kindergarten to college – now engaged in remote learning.

According to government data, nearly 7 million students at the postsecondary level were enrolled in distance learning courses in fall 2018 i). This number is likely to balloon come this fall when schools across the country reopen

Many colleges and universities plan to adopt a hybrid learning model that combines in-person and virtual instruction. Ninety-two percent of higher education institutions in a recent Institute of International Education (IIE) survey said they plan to embrace a hybrid approach this fall ii).

For this model to work, schools must modernize and adapt their IT infrastructure. Some higher education institutions are turning to a hyperconverged infrastructure to improve business productivity and connectivity and to equip students and faculty with the necessary resources to continue the learning process. This approach may point the way forward for other institutions and help them better navigate education’s new normal.

What is a Hyperconverged Infrastructure?

A hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) virtualizes data center hardware and uses intelligent software to bring together servers, networking and storage environments to replace legacy IT infrastructure. That increases performance and productivity for IT teams and helps organizations optimize their IT costs.

HCI has emerged as a result of the rise in software-defined technologies that aren’t dependent on hardware to deliver IT capabilities. HCI features two key components. The first is a distributed plane that runs across a cluster of nodes to deliver storage, networking and virtualized services for container-based applications, virtual machines and other applications. The second is a management plane, which simplifies management for IT teams and increases their visibility into the organization’s IT ecosystem.

“It basically allows you to have a much smaller footprint in the data center. It allows you to have a much easier management of that environment, and it allows you to connect to other things [applications, devices and systems],” says Mark Benson, national systems engineering manager for state and local government and education (SLED) at Nutanix, which helps public sector organizations modernize and scale their data centers and run applications in a hybrid environment.

Benson says leveraging HCI gives higher education institutions and public sector organizations more flexibility to run their IT operations either on-premise or in the cloud and “run a much more efficient application workload, wherever it may reside.”

HCI has several benefits for universities, including integrating networking, storage and virtualization resources, enabling their IT teams to deploy applications faster and allowing their organizations to improve their IT productivity and resiliency at a time when unprecedented changes have increased the need for services.

All of these capabilities are necessary to facilitate high-quality remote learning environments. Some universities, such as UNC Wilmington in North Carolina, are already taking advantage of HCI to deliver e-learning this year.

Case Study: How Hyperconvergence Empowers Distance Learning at UNC Wilmington

UNC Wilmington serves 17,000 students, with degree programs ranging from bachelor’s to master’s degrees and Ph.Ds. Like thousands of other schools across the country, the university pivoted to remote learning in March when the pandemic first emerged.

Sharyne Miller, UNC Wilmington’s chief information officer, leads a 95-person team that supports the entire university. Her team often collaborates with other IT teams at the university that support specialized systems, such as the Office of E-Learning.

“Our infrastructure, during any type of situation, really needs to support our students, our faculty and our research and keep the business going,” Miller says.

Before adopting a hyperconverged infrastructure, she says, the university faced challenges with systems that were aging out and past their lifecycle. With buy-in and support from the administration, Miller and her team began to look at different options to modernize the school’s IT infrastructure. They eventually landed on a hyperconverged infrastructure because it enabled the organization to reduce its data center footprint and gave them the flexibility to run applications either on-prem or in the cloud for more efficient workloads. This was especially important for the university’s learning management system (LMS), which runs year-round for certain programs, including UNC Wilmington’s12-month online nursing program. The university has implemented a new LMS that is now fully in the cloud, and HCI ensures there’s little or no downtime for this system.

“We do look to be cloud-first, but we also live in Hurricane Alley,” Miller says, referencing another business continuity challenge the coastal university faces. “We want to make sure we have a little bit on-prem and a little bit in the cloud, depending on where it fits best.”

Miller says adopting HCI has stabilized the university’s IT environment, allowed her team to be much more efficient and reduced downtime for applications that serve the university’s faculty, staff and students.

“When you take a look at your infrastructure and you see the amount of cycles your team can spend patching, securing and upgrading [systems], and if it does result in downtime — which often it does if you consider that you're doing those same tasks to three different tiers — there could be considerable downtime for the campus,” she says.

It’s important, she adds, to try “to look ahead and say, ‘How can we reduce those windows? How can we make our team spends less cycles doing that and [instead engages in] more value-add?’”

UNC Wilmington plans to operate as a hybrid campus this fall. Currently, about 30 percent of courses are online, 30 percent are hybrid and 40 percent are in-person. Miller says she and her team — and the university as a whole — have already gained significant understanding through this experience.

“I've learned a lot about the resiliency of a campus who wants to do the right things for their students in so many ways and an administration that wants to do that, as well, by always keeping health and safety at the forefront,” she says. “When you're doing that, it's a lot of work and there have been a lot of people who really haven't stopped spinning their wheels since March. So much of what we're doing relies on technology, and it's really given people a good feel for how much ITS [Information Technology Services] wants to contribute and can contribute. Everybody working behind the scenes and everybody working in front, when we all pull together like this, we really can make a difference.”

  1. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=80
  2. https://monitor.icef.com/2020/08/survey-most-us-colleges-will-adopt-a-hybrid-learning-model-for-fall-2020/

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Quelle/Source: Center for Digital Education, 23.09.2020

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