Virtual cloud desktops make education anywhere a reality


This fall, students can go back to school without ever having to step into a classroom.

Amazon WorkSpaces, a cloud-based virtual desktop service, is now available in Canada. The service provides user access to the documents and software they need, anywhere, anytime and from any supported device. It’s a natural fit for the education sector, Diego Magalhaes, a senior solutions architect with Amazon Web Services (AWS), told participants at a recent ITWC webinar.

A virtual desktop service meets the needs of changing work and study environments. “People are telling us that we must embrace the use of personal devices, and that they don’t want to spend so much time commuting to work or school,” said Magalhaes.  Canadian schools and universities are also worried about security, data sovereignty and tight budgets.

Amazon WorkSpaces addresses all of these challenges, said Magalhaes.

Why virtual desktops in the cloud are trending

Amazon WorkSpaces makes it easy to provide the resources for distance learning or remote classrooms, said Magalhaes. It has a number of advantages as compared to on-premises virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solutions.

The service can be used to set up either Windows or Linux desktops in just a few minutes and can quickly scale up to deal with variable enrolment. It supports BYOD, allowing students and professors to use any device they choose, including PCs, tablets or MacBooks.

Adopting a managed, pay-as-you-go virtual desktop service brings an “end to the PC lifecycle treadmill and saves capital costs,” said Magalhaes. There is less hardware inventory to manage and replace when it reaches end of life.

Security and data sovereignty are not a concern with Amazon WorkSpaces, said Magalhaes. No sensitive data is retained on user devices and data in the cloud and in transit is encrypted. The data will never leave Canada under any circumstances.

Cloud first at Cornell University

Marty Sullivan

Cornell University, one of the top private universities in the U.S., is reinventing course delivery using virtual cloud desktops. “Our goal is to virtually deliver software so that we have a BYOD model for students and faculty alike,” said Marty Sullivan, cloud engineer.

The University also wants to eliminate computer labs. “Lab time is a problem,” said Sullivan. “When professors need to teach using software, they have to fight over the best times to use the computer labs or get stuck without one. With Amazon WorkSpaces, any lecture hall can become a computer lab.”

Implementation of the service began with a student pilot, an approach that Sullivan recommends as the best way to get started. The feedback from Mechanical and Aerospace students who used the virtual desktops to run computer simulations was general positive. “They were happy to work on it in their dorms or in Starbucks, rather than trying to get to the lab,” said Sullivan.

One of the surprising benefits is what they’re learning from the usage reports, he said.  “Faculty is super interested in when students do their work and how long it takes them,” said Sullivan.“They want to be able to identify students who need help before they drop out or fail.”

“Overall, we were impressed with what it enabled the faculty and the students to do,” said Sullivan. “The service is scalable whether you have 10 students or 500 and it’s super easy to use. That’s really where the magic is.”