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Students want access and interaction with HE providers through the devices they know and love best – their phones. Paul Fisher explains how universities can be more plug and play

It is not too far fetched to say that probably every university student today owns a mobile device of some kind and that, given the chance, they would use them for more than accessing social media and taking selfies. According to a 2018 study by Learning House and Aslanian Market Research, nearly 67% of students use their mobile devices to complete online coursework, 51% use their phones to access course materials, and 41% use phones for online research.

Mobile campus benefits

In today’s modern education environment, learning goes beyond the traditional tutor-group setting. Faculty and students want to be able to access syllabus information, coursework, and any other educational applications any time, any place. This means being able to access computer desktops and educational resource applications on the move and ideally on any device they choose, be it a laptop, tablet or phone.

With their natural affinity for mobile technology, students gravitate toward mobile campus-learning models. Mobile devices are more flexible than desktop devices, and students are very comfortable using them. Delivering coursework to mobile devices allows tutors to reach students where they are most confident, whether at home or on campus, without either being tied to restrictive tutoring hours. They also expect, in accessing coursework, to be able to use their devices in the familiar way, using tap and swipe gestures. The goal is for mobile working to be fast, simple, stress-free, and therefore productive for everyone, students and faculty alike.

On the university side, the use of online classroom software and educational applications is growing apace. Online courses often supplement traditional on-campus education and in some instances, comprise the whole course. This is great news for all the working students – almost 50% of online undergrad students work full time, a number which rises to 70% when it comes to online graduate students.

Universities need to learn about, and adopt, solutions that help them accommodate this online culture where mobile devices are the default way to access everything, including education, on the go. The challenge for university IT teams is how to optimise mobile access to enable students to maximise their learning in this way.

A truly mobile campus means extending access to resources across all university buildings and beyond 

The challenge for IT administrators

University IT administrators face numerous challenges from bring-your-own-device (BYOD) security to enabling mobile access as widely as possible. Let’s start with BYOD, as this is one of the main reasons why there are so many different device operating systems on campuses.

There are lots of good reasons – from fewer viruses to the ‘cool’ factor – for students to prefer Mac to Windows. 

The presence of Macs on a mobile campus is a two-fold challenge for IT, which must enable Mac users to both access the Windows applications they need for coursework and integrate these often unregistered, unmanaged, unsupported and above all, unsecured, devices into the university’s network so that they receive the same level of support, functionality and security as Windows PCs. But it’s not just Mac, in today’s mobile world, universities need to provide students, and staff, with secure and instant remote mobile access on whichever device they choose to use including Chrome OS, Linux, iOS, Android, or any device with an HTML5 browser.

When it comes to security, IT must keep the university network and data secure, ensure compliance with general data protection regulation (GDPR) and keep applications up to date. With a potentially wide number, and many different types of mobile devices to manage, it’s an organisational headache for IT to install security software and add updates and patches on them all individually, especially if they are BYOD items. At West College Scotland, for example, IT must manage 300 Mac computers mainly used on the college’s design courses or by evening-education students at home, as well as 5,000 Windows PCs. The answer in this case was to use a Mac management solution that could integrate easily and completely with the existing Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) and this made all device management, including security updates, simple and efficient.

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Another consideration for IT is that universities commonly run many different applications, with each department requiring specific software to meet its needs. 

They also need to be able to cover a wide area with mobile access to avoid students having to physically go to one specific location on campus, during opening hours, to access the applications needed to do their work. A truly mobile campus means extending access to educational resources across all university buildings and beyond to where students and tutors live, as well as their local libraries and coffee shops – essentially anywhere with an internet connection. With this as their goal but with limited resources, university IT administrators need to find a way to create a mobile campus that can deliver educational applications that are consistent, flexible and simple for the user, cost-effective and secure.

Remote application delivery

Cloud computing solves the challenge of the mobile campus because it enables remote application delivery (RAS) to virtual desktops (VDI). By hosting learning resources in a central repository and securely publishing them to users on remote devices, universities can easily create a mobile campus where students can be given access to desktop applications from any device, including mobiles and tablets.

From an IT perspective, a remote publishing solution helps to reduce costs by centralising application management. 

This reduces IT complexity while making it easier to provide a mobile learning experience for students and staff on any device, anywhere. When it comes to security, virtual application delivery puts IT in control, enabling admins to protect student and staff data with encryption protocols and advanced filtering. Applications and data resources that are shared and accessed over a mobile network can be saved in a closed-off central server and by using virtual images, data need never actually leave this server, making it extra secure. When it comes to BYOD, IT can easily enforce a strict separation between school and personal data. By delivering server-based desktops and applications from a central location, it becomes easy for IT to back-up endpoints, deploy and maintain security, and meet compliance regulations. 

Once a remote application delivery solution is in place, with everything safely and easily managed by IT from a central dashboard interface, it becomes easier to secure, scale and maintain the mobile service into the future.

What to look for

A university remote application delivery solution should alleviate technical complexities, with easy configuration and fast installation, so that the focus remains on improving the educational process. Ease of use for both users and IT support is paramount, so look for technology solutions where students and faculty don’t have to navigate a set up before they can access their educational resources and one that has out-of-the-box load balancing technology. If you have these, access for users will be smooth and fast, no matter where they’re connecting from.

When it comes to security, look for a solution that adds extra layers of protection such as multifactor authentication, smart card authentication, advanced encryption protocols and a granular level of filtering. You also don’t want a requirement for third-party add-ons, such as universal printer redirection, resource-based load balancing, and reporting.

Some RAS and VDI solutions can be complex and expensive, requiring a high spend on expensive hardware, licences and software add-ons, but there are alternative high-quality but easy-to-use and cost-effective solutions around, so check the market carefully and don’t assume that the big brands are the best. A solution with a simple licensing package that includes comprehensive services and a clean upgrade path for scalability will help keep costs down. 

Paul Fisher is a technical consultant at Parallels: 

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