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“When it comes to learning new technologies, having the space to explore and play around is very important. With the solution we’ve put in place, our students now have that possibility. They can learn in their own time, from anywhere.”
Shaun McBrearty, Assistant Lecturer in Computer Science at IT Sligo is explaining how teaching and learning on his courses have been transformed by technology the institute has introduced over the past year.
“Not all of our students are able to afford the high-end laptops previously required to undertake some of our courses,” adds Kieran Kennedy, Senior Technical Officer at IT Sligo. “But now our students can access very powerful technology virtually, even from an entry-level machine. It’s a game changer for many of them.”
The transformation is being made possible by Azure Lab Services – a cloud-based virtual learning platform that students and teachers can access from anywhere. It is changing how IT Sligo delivers its courses, providing a glimpse into the ways it might transform education going forward, making learning more engaging, accessible and egalitarian.
“It is really levelling the playing field from an accessibility point of view,” says Kennedy.
Based on the north-west coast of the Republic of Ireland, Institute of Technology Sligo offers a wide variety of technology-focused undergraduate and postgraduate courses to students across the country and abroad.
What distinguishes the institute from other higher education providers is the proportion of its courses that are delivered online. “About 50% of our students are full-time, in-person attendees and 50% are online,” says Kennedy.
“We have students from over a hundred different countries,” he adds. “There are about 7,500 students in total at the moment, but we are looking to grow that number.”
IT Sligo is focusing its efforts to expand the student base on the online side of its operations, having set itself the ambitious goal of increasing the total number to 10,000 by 2022. “We’re currently on-course to exceed that target,” says Kennedy.
“The technology infrastructure we have allows us to scale our operations and take on those additional online students,” he adds. “But the reason we’re actually growing is because the quality of the content of our courses, the quality of the lecturing, and the quality of the students we are producing is improving.”
For courses like those that McBrearty delivers, improving the quality means giving students access to high-end technology. “The suite of modules that I teach covers virtualization infrastructure management and cybersecurity, which includes things like software and network penetration testing,” he says.
“In order to simulate any kind of real-world environment there, we need very high specification equipment; 16 gigabytes of RAM, quad core processors, that type of thing. And while we have some labs with that equipment on campus, as the Institute has grown in size the availability of those labs has become an issue in terms of capacity.
It got to the situation where you could be teaching a class of first years, and if there was a little bit of space in the back of the lab, you would maybe let some of the fourth years in to catch up with the practical work,” he recalls.
“It was far from ideal. But we don’t have those issues anymore.”
McBrearty first heard about Azure Lab Services from the team at Microsoft Ireland, with whom IT Sligo have a close relationship. “I emailed the Microsoft team explaining the capacity issues we were having and outlining our requirements. They came back with a lot of really detailed solutions.
“And when I saw Azure Lab Services in action, I realized it was exactly what we needed.”
Azure Lab Services enables educators to easily run a class or set up a training lab that students can access from anywhere, at any time. By providing simple, on-demand access to preconfigured virtual machines (VMs), the platform allows teachers to support the learning scenarios they want to create.
For McBrearty and his students, it has been a game changer.
“Azure Lab Services has given me much greater flexibility as an IT lecturer,” says McBrearty. “I can go in, administer and control things myself. I can create the types of learning environments and scenarios using virtual machines that I would previously have relied on the on-premise labs for.
“I can also track student usage,” he adds. “So I can see how much they’re engaging with the course. When we used to do this all on campus using our on-prem equipment, it was a rush for students to use our practical labs. Whereas now you can see students spending up to six hours a week working on some stuff using this equipment.
“It’s great to see, because it’s not just a rushed practical lesson anymore, there’s more flexibility for students to go back and redo things or become more familiar with using certain technologies. There’s much more self-exploration. And with many of our students working, they can do this when they want.
“Then of course there’s the remote access I have,” he adds. “So I can help out students that have maybe run into an issue, or who need something clarified or exemplified.”
McBrearty has used Azure Lab Services to deliver one module so far, with all 17 students using the platform simultaneously. “Next semester, I’ll be delivering three modules using Azure Lab Services,” he says. “There are 57 students in total currently registered to study these modules, so I’m anticipating around 40 simultaneous users.”
And the benefits of Azure Lab Services don’t just stop with the quality of teaching and learning. “It also offers huge cost savings,” says Kennedy. “It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but we certainly save on reduced technical assistance and an increased speed of deployment.
“And if we wanted to run these environments ourselves on our own hardware, the costs of running that with all the power and cooling, particularly if it’s servers – it would be huge. And during the summer, when nobody needs it, we’d still be paying for the hardware and it would be running 24/7.
“With Azure Lab Services, you turn it on when you need it and then you just destroy it when you don’t need it anymore, at the end of the semester. There’s huge cost savings in it.”
The team at IT Sligo are keen to stress one other critical characteristic of Azure Lab Services: it is easy to use for teachers.
“We are a Microsoft House,” says McBrearty. “And that’s partly because the Microsoft suite of products in general is very easy to learn and understand. So when it came to learning how to use Azure Lab Services, I just went through the documentation that was online – the walk-through guides. That was enough to get me going.”
“I obviously had to learn how to set up and create a lab, create a template, create virtual machines from it,” he adds. “But to be honest, they weren’t difficult tasks. And if I ever ran into an issue, it was just a case of sending a support ticket off to Azure support.
“I never had a situation where a problem couldn’t be resolved.”
It takes a weight off Kennedy too, who’s involvement has been limited. “From my point of view, there’s very little additional support required,” he says. “Sean came to me with this proposal of using the Azure Lab Services. Once he had access to it, that was the end of my involvement. So from a support point of view, it’s been ideal. And I don’t have to keep an eye on the budget either because it’s already set. We know how much it’s going to cost per semester or per academic term. All in all, It frees up a lot of my time.”
These types of time saving are vital if IT Sligo is to continue to push innovations at the institute.
“I’m currently working on a chat bot created with Azure Bot Services,” says Kennedy. “It’s going to sit in front of the help desk and answer those repetitive questions that we keep getting from students. But that’s really only scratching the surface with what we can achieve with Azure going forward. There’s so much I want to get my teeth into next year, it’s just a question of finding the time to do it.”