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Remote learning technology emerges as top ed market focus

MSPs and consultants say customers in the education vertical are ramping up distance learning systems as they prepare for the new school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Remote learning technology has quickly become a top requirement in the education vertical, and schools have been reaching out to partners for help.

Onica, a cloud consultancy and MSP, got the call at 8:30 a.m. on March 13. Its customer, Humber College, an educational institution based in Toronto, was planning to shut its doors in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The school's 400-plus academic applications, however, were housed in school facilities, so student work involving those apps would be soon grinding to a halt. Humber College's enrollment includes 33,000 full-time students and 23,000 part-time and continuing education students.

Wendell Ying, director of cloud adoption programs at Onica, fielded the call with his colleague, Onica's Humber College account executive.

"We found out … that Humber was planning on closing all of the campuses here in Toronto," he said. "It was a huge issue because a lot of the academic applications students would normally access were on on-campus, physical Windows workstations."

Onica, a Rackspace company based in Santa Monica, Calif., delivered a proposal, including a target architecture, to Humber College by the end of that day. The company's approach: use Amazon AppStream 2.0, AWS' application streaming service, to deploy the Windows applications to the AWS cloud. Work on project began Monday, March 16, and the infrastructure was ready to begin rolling out applications 10 days later. Ying said all of Onica's AWS deployments, including the Humber College example, are done using infrastructure as code, an automated approach he said accelerates time-to-value for customers.

Wendell YingWendell Ying

"This project would not be possible without that type of automation," he said.

Stepping up to remote learning technology

Institutions like Humber College are driving adoption of remote learning technology. Global Market Insights, a market research firm, expects the e-learning market to grow from $200 billion in 2019 to $375 billion in 2026, expanding at an 8% compound annual growth rate during that period. The market numbers take into account academic institutions, as well as corporations that provide e-learning to employees. Global Market Insights cited technologies such as cloud computing and AI -- along with the COVID-19 pandemic -- as factors propelling e-learning growth around the world.

Humber College taps Onica, AWS for remote learning

When Humber College needed help fielding a remote learning system, it didn't have far to look for assistance.

The Toronto college was already working with Onica on an ERP migration project, which involves moving Ellucian's Banner software, an education vertical ERP offering, to the AWS cloud. "It is always helpful to have a preexisting relationship with a customer," Onica's Ying said.

Onica teamed with AWS on Humber College's remote learning project, which transferred some 400 academic applications from in-house workstations to the cloud. Specifically, Onica tapped Amazon AppStream 2.0 to deploy the school's Windows applications to AWS. Use of AppStream compelled the college to spin up a virtual private cloud in AWS' U.S. East region, because the application streaming service is not available in Canada. This approach required Humber College to make an exception to its data residency requirements, which was possible because the remote learning deployment didn't involve highly sensitive data, Ying explained.

The remote learning technology project also involves Amazon FSx for Windows File Server, a file storage offering. Ying said using FSx for Windows File Server was more efficient than alternatives such as configuring a Microsoft OneDrive for each AppStream user. Students working on projects use FSx to save their progress.

Ying attributed the rapid rollout of the remote learning system to its partnership with AWS, which he said goes back to the Humber College's original request for proposal for the ERP migration project. Onica collaborated with AWS' sales and marketing, solutions architect, and professional services teams -- and does so on other projects, regardless of type, he said.

"It is a multidimensional relationship," Ying said.

The current level of interest runs counter to the education vertical's often tepid response to remote learning.

"I think the whole learning industry was dragging its feet for a while," said David Linthicum, chief cloud strategy officer at Deloitte Consulting. He said organizations weren't sold on remote learning and video streaming, noting even those schools using remote capabilities weren't convinced of their effectiveness.

The pandemic has changed prevailing attitudes on remote learning technology adoption. "I think there is really no choice now," he said.

David LinthicumDavid Linthicum

Partners will likely find education vertical customers with varying needs for assistance. The organizations that have previously deployed cloud-based student information systems or adopted some remote learning technology to augment on-premises instruction have a leg up when it comes to ramping up systems to deal with the current crisis, Linthicum said.

"Schools that don't have those capabilities are essentially scrambling to figure out how to make that happen," he noted.

"A lot of folks are spending energy and effort and trying to get themselves prepared for remote learning," said Mike Kulinski, senior business development manager at SADA Systems, a business and technology consultancy based in Los Angeles.

At the college and university level, about half of the schools are planning for an in-person reopening, while half plan for an online or a hybrid reopening with a mix of remote learning and on-site classes, according to reopening research conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education. K-12 school districts are also weighing online versus in-person instruction.

Adoption and maturation in the education vertical

Schools pursuing remote learning technology might find they have a bit of a head start. For instance, educational institutions using Google's G Suite productivity and collaboration tools can access the premium features of Google Meet free of charge for a limited time. Those features let schools gather up to 250 people on a Meet call and provide live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers within a school's domain, according to Google. The free offer for G Suite for Education and G Suite Enterprise for Education users is available through Sept. 30.

Mike KulinskiMike Kulinski

Google has "turned on some features of the enterprise product that typically aren't free," Kulinski said. SADA, he added, is getting its education customers up to speed on the Google tools now at their disposal for distance learning.

"There has definitely been an increase, with the outbreak, around how to maximize tools [clients] already have in place," Kulinski said. "We have seen an uptick in training activity for faculty and staff."

The newness of large-scale remote learning means many schools are building initial systems through "trial and error," Linthicum said. Although some schools will excel, others will stumble. But best practices will emerge, and schools will eventually replace stop-gap efforts with more permanent deployments, he noted. A similar pattern has emerged among corporations harnessing unified communications for remote workers.

Schools' digital learning initiatives will see a lot of change between now and the next three to five years, he predicted.

"They will be digitally enabled to get through things like this pandemic" or other disruptive events such as hurricanes, Linthicum said.

Education vertical trends -- beyond remote learning

Although remote learning is a key theme in the education vertical, it isn't the only story. Here are a few more developments to track:

  • 5G technologies. The arrival of 5G and its greater bandwidth will change remote learning, Deloitte's Linthicum said. But it must first become more widely available, he added, noting the reality of "broadband deserts." He said the implementation of 5G will need to accelerate alongside the rollout of digital education.
  • Research in the cloud. University researchers are also making the transition to remote work. "They want to access the same systems they had previously," SADA's Kulinski said. "They are looking to leverage the cloud anyway they can to continue the work they are doing."
  • Digital education guides. Linthicum said the education vertical is showing interest in machine learning-based digital concierge technology, which aims to help students navigate the learning experience, whether digital, on site or hybrid.

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