The Remote Desktop Technician Behind Distance Learning

The head of IT at a European vocational school explains how technology keeps teachers and students on track during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Calvin Hennick

By Calvin Hennick June 4, 2020

Working from home to support teachers and students with distance learning technologies during the coronavirus crisis, René Bigler stumbled upon a meme on social media.

“Who is leading digital transformation for your organization?” the graphic asked. The first option: CEO. Nope. Next up: CTO. Uh-uh. The third and final choice was circled in dark red pen: COVID-19.

Bigler is head of information technology for Berufsbildungszentrum IDM, a public vocational school for 16- to 22-year-olds who come to learn skills for industry, services and fashion design. There are about 300 employees and 3500 students spread over five different campus locations near Bern, Switzerland.

Under normal circumstances, students are on campus for one or two days each week, while spending the rest of their time receiving on-the-job training as car mechanics, construction engineers, carpenters, and a number of other professions. But as much of the country was shut down due to COVID-19, students and teachers huddled in their homes, doing their best to continue instruction while relying completely on tech solutions.

We’re learning a lot about what is working, and also about what is lacking. As a result of this experience, we’ll have the opportunity to improve our systems.

Bigler is head of information technology for Berufsbildungszentrum IDM near Bern, Switzerland

Berufsbildungszentrum IDM implemented their first Nutanix cluster in 2014. Today, it’s running 15 nodes powered by Nutanix AHV (hypervisor) in two data centers, which host the complete workloads for backend systems like infrastructure services, as well as the Citrix workloads to provide virtual workspaces to our end users. To manage ever-increasing storage requirements, the team uses Nutanix Files as the primary enterprise storage service.

“In a sense, our systems are facing a really important test under real-world conditions right now,” said Bigler in March, when the coronavirus was spreading across Europe.

“We’re learning a lot about what is working, and also about what is lacking. As a result of this experience, we’ll have the opportunity to improve our systems.”

Simplicity and Standardization Are Key

In the classroom, the teacher gets the lesson started and is available to answer any questions students might have. But in a remote learning model, students must join video conferencing sessions themselves and need to be able to easily access any other required learning tools. Students can email teachers with questions in a pinch, but tools must be simple enough that teachers aren’t spending half of their days just helping students log in.

Much of the remote learning at Berufsbildungszentrum IDM is happening through the collaboration suite Microsoft Teams. The solution features a number of different tools, including chat, video meetings, and file storage. As a result, students receive a consistent experience across their different classes and can focus on their learning instead of fumbling with the technology.

“Every user has a Microsoft user account, and that allows us to provide a single sign-on,” Bigler notes. “If every teacher were using a different platform, that would create confusion. We want to make it easier for students by just having one main tool.”

Access Remains a Challenge

Although the majority of students have access to computers and high-speed internet, Bigler said that a handful are relying on their smartphones and LTE connections. That’s getting them by for now.

“The main goal is to stay in touch with students, and not lose them along the way,” Bigler said.

But the coronavirus is highlighting the digital divide and illustrating how important it is for schools to continue to work to close the gap.

Patience (Not Perfection) Is a Virtue

Educators at Berufsbildungszentrum IDM were fortunate that the school already had tools like Microsoft Teams in place to support remote learning. But that doesn’t mean they’re not struggling to adapt to a new normal and scrambling to figure out how to best translate their classroom methods to a digital format.

“For a lot of teachers, it’s a hard job,” Bigler said. “Especially if you’re not that savvy with how to work with all the tools, it takes time to prepare your lessons.”

Some teachers are giving live lessons over video, while others are assigning problems from workbooks and supporting students over email or chat. Many teachers, of course, have their own children at home with them, and are trying to support their learning, manage their households, and stay on top of their own work. Something has to give, and at the moment, that thing is grading. The school has told teachers to focus on teaching and learning for now and not to worry about grading student work.

It’s A Good Time to Test New Tools

For now, Bigler wants teachers primarily working on tools with which they’re familiar. But the school is also using this time as an opportunity to explore how new solutions might help teachers to better deliver remote instruction in the future.

How Schools Use Virtual Desktops and Apps

Ruben Spruijt, Senior Technologist for Nutanix Frame, interviews Rene Bigler of Berufsbildungszentrum IDM at .NEXT in Copenhagen 2019.

Several teachers have suggested that the school should adopt a learning management system (LMS). Bigler and other officials don’t want to create chaos by rolling out a new platform across the entire school during a time of great change, but they are allowing interested teachers to test out an LMS. Their findings will help decide whether the school adopts the tool permanently.

“We said, ‘It might not be the best time to introduce a learning management system, but we’re happy if you want to do some testing, collect feedback from your students, and we will evaluate the solution,’” Bigler says. 

A Crisis Is a Valuable Opportunity for Improvement

For Bigler, the sudden shift to remote learning has uncovered a number of small but startling revelations about the school’s IT systems. For instance, many students initially had trouble logging into their user accounts from home.

“One of the biggest challenges during the first days in onboarding students from home was that many of them hadn’t enrolled in our multi-factor authentication system,” Bigler said. “They’re not required to use it when they’re on campus, but if you want to access the systems from home, or reset your password, you have to be enrolled in multi-factor authentication.”

The school quickly got students up-to-speed through their help desk, and officials are now considering ways to boost enrollment in multi-factor authentication (perhaps by requiring students to use the tool at least once per month on campus). Educators are also contributing to a “lessons learned” site on the school’s intranet, bringing together a collection of tools that they discover while teaching remotely.

Intuitive Infrastructure Is Essential

In a crisis, datacenter infrastructure is a bit like the refereeing in a sports match: The less you notice it, the better. Berufsbildungszentrum IDM relies on Nutanix hyperconverged infrastructure, running 15 nodes across two datacenters. 

“It’s helped us from the standpoint that it’s really running stable at the moment,” Bigler says.

In the future, Bigler says, the school may expand its Nutanix environment by investing in Nutanix Frame, a desktop-as-a-service (DaaS) solution that lets users access their applications from the cloud using any device, from any location.

“That would allow us to rapidly scale up and scale down when needed,” Bigler notes. “We could have it on standby for events like this, and if there were an increase in demand, it would be really easy to get additional compute power from the cloud through Nutanix Frame.”

By investing in trustworthy infrastructure, Bigler notes, schools can keep their focus on supporting teaching and learning – even in an unprecedented crisis.

“We don’t have to worry about our servers running in the datacenter,” he said. “We have a lot of other tasks on our plate, and we don’t have time to deal with infrastructure issues right now. So it’s incredibly helpful to have systems that are reliable and intuitive.”

Try Nutanix Frame Desktop-as-a-Service free for 30 days.

Calvin Hennick is a contributing writer. His work appears in BizTech, Engineering Inc., The Boston Globe Magazine and elsewhere. He is also the author of Once More to the Rodeo: A Memoir. Follow him on Twitter @CalvinHennick.

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