Traditionally, students have practiced computer networking and security skills at a centralized physical lab (and equipment) or a limited virtual lab appliance at their educational institution and this article is about how college students and faculty can access virtual labs which is a significant cost savings.

Physical labs and college-based data centers have high costs associated with the maintenance and repair of the hardware and software. Furthermore, researchers noted that the cost limitations for a physical lab and college-based data center should include personnel, electricity, and other physical environmental costs.

An external service providing a turn-key virtualized environment that is identical to the corresponding physical environment will decrease the need for high-cost physical labs yet provide open virtualized environments that let students experience the real-life scenarios that are critical in educating for technical careers.

amazing grades   Virtual lab platforms must serve students with on- demand, 24x7x365, access to a virtual lab environment from anywhere there is an internet connection. Virtual labs must also represent the full functionality of a real-world setting.

A proof of concept is underway in the South Central Coast Region to embrace and actuate the California Community College Chancellor’s Strong Workforce Program objectives to increase enrollment and facilitate more student completions.

Stakeholders throughout the region are working together to bring cloud-based labs to eight community colleges driven by the regional director of Information and Communication Technologies and Digital Media (ICT-DM) in collaboration with SynED and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s new Digital Transformation Hub.

The region spans Northern Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties. (See the full case study here.

This effort allows students to access labs for a variety of Information Technology (IT) and cybersecurity classes at any time and from anywhere. It also significantly reduces faculty workload thus allowing them to serve more students and increase the number of trained professionals in the workforce to fill the thousands of open IT positions in California and across the United States.

Cini and Krause (2014) suggested that higher education (including community colleges) will discard the “assembly model of one-size-fits-all” used over the past 150 years, due to online educational environments, which include virtualized environments.

The re-set of discarding the ‘sage on the stage’ to the educator as collaborator discards the typical silos of higher education learning, and will further redefine higher education in coming years because of the following significant aspects (Cini & Krause, 2014):

  • Demographic trends
  • Tuition cost
  • Continued proliferation of Internet-technologies
  • Trend towards competency-based education

The groundwork for the SCCRC virtual labs project began from observing other regional implementations of shared labs that were hosted on a designated college campus. Although a valid solution, campus-hosted labs are constrained by campus hardware investment, in-house technical support, third-party software licensing at individual colleges, limited support hours and campus security burden.

The SCCRC region desired to implement Labs as a Service (LaaS) with 24×7 support for faculty and students, third-party licensing bundled within the lab course, and a service level agreement (SLA) in place for availability and security thus eliminating much of the campus-based overhead.

The project is being coordinated by SynED, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting innovation in education, at all levels, through research and providing higher education professional services to facilitate the development of new models of curriculum, industry alliance, service, and delivery.

Jerry Buckley, Chief Instructional Officer at College of the Canyons, one of the region’s colleges, sees the conversations happening around this project as reminiscent of the discussions that took place as the first computer labs were being built in the 1990s.

“Virtual labs provide a great opportunity to completely reimagine how students engage with technology on and off campus. This opens up educational resources to students and to faculty, who now have access 24×7. You couldn’t say that five years ago,” Buckley said. “There will still be computer labs, but they will become more specialized and represent a different set resource to a different group of students.”

Paula Hodge, Regional Director and Deputy Sector Navigator for ICT-DM in the South Central Coast Region, learned about Cal Poly’s Digital Transformation Hub (DX-Hub), a new collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS) designed to help nonprofit organizations solve technical challenges through innovation. The virtual lab project proved to be a perfect initial project for the group to take on.

The DX-Hub’s design process is modeled after Amazon’s Customer Obsession, Design Thinking, and The Working Backwards Process. This called for the formation of a “two-pizza team,” having no more than 10 members that work with relative autonomy that could be nimble and make decisions quickly to rapidly innovate.

Focusing on the finished solution allowed the team to delve into the heart of the problem they were trying to solve by selecting appropriate technology, rather than choosing a technology first then finding a problem for it to solve. Free from bureaucratic constraints, the team was able to create a vision for better serving students, enabling faculty while still being institutionally and financially sound.

Following the DX-Hub process, SynED provided research to locate vendors that most closely aligned with the team’s design. Three top vendors were identified through a request for proposal (RFP) process. In addition to a demonstration, each vendor provided evaluation access to the team for unscripted testing and evaluation of the service. This process took place over the course of two months — lightning speed in higher education.

Practice Labs was selected as the winning vendor in May 2018. Practice Labs stood apart from  the competition because of its integrations with Canvas and other learning management systems. LTI integration allows for seamless and secure communication between systems and gives students access to all of the tools they need in one place with a single sign-on. In addition, it substantially saves time for faculty in managing their classes and grading students work.

Early results from the virtual labs proof of concept are positive. The pilot project will continue throughout the upcoming academic year. If this proof of concept is successful, the virtual lab service can be expanded to include other sectors and K-12 schools.

Throughout the testing and early implementation process, Practice Labs has proven to be much more than a service provider. The company has existing relationships with CompTIA, Microsoft, Cisco, and VMWare and allows students to earn certifications alongside their classroom instruction.

Ed Garcia, an IT faculty member at Moorpark College, began using virtual labs in his courses this summer and has already been able to increase his class capacity from 25 students to 40 without adding any additional lab space, hardware and work to his already full plate. He estimates that his workload will be reduced by half, which will allow him more time to focus on training adjunct instructors and developing the curriculum for a new associate degree in cybersecurity.

“I really believe this is a new digital divide because the training is at a whole new level of sophistication and student confidence and experience will be off the charts,” Garcia said.

Utilizing a virtual lab service has the potential to bring equality of access to students across the region. Smaller colleges and those in economically-disadvantaged areas can offer their students first-rate opportunities without incurring any additional overhead costs. Since access to labs is browser-based and requires relatively low-cost computers, colleges may also be able to shift funds from maintaining physical computer labs into purchasing inexpensive laptops, tablets, or other devices that students can use to access virtual labs — something that will benefit students who are not able to purchase these devices on their own.

Mark Peterschick, an IT instructor at Allan Hancock College, said virtual labs provide a critical missing piece necessary for students to complete A+ certification. Students can work at their own pace and gain the skills necessary to complement what they learn in the classroom and ultimately become workplace-ready technicians.

The proof of concept in the South Central Coast Region will continue through the end of the 2018-19 academic year. If successful, the project team will begin the RFP process for a long-term production contract for all eight of the region’s colleges.

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