Students need the right tools to prepare for their lives after graduation. Most students and schools had these tools when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. early in 2020, thanks to ubiquitous broadband and teleconferencing apps. But one group posed a unique challenge: career and technical education (CTE) students, whose classes use advanced software and high-powered workstations in on-campus computer labs.
Packages like AutoCAD can help students learn product design, while Revit introduces them to architecture and construction design. For decades, these software suites required so much CPU, RAM and network bandwidth that they were largely impractical for remote work.
That’s not true anymore, as one Texas school district demonstrated in its quest to serve its CTE students. The district did it by matching cloud technology with a forward-looking vision that makes it easier to adapt to sudden disruptions in the future. Their story is instructive for anybody dealing with the challenges of working remotely with high-end software packages.
Serving Students Across Large Suburban School District
Klein Independent School District serves more than 50,000 students in an 87.5-square-mile region north of Houston, Texas. About 600 of them take CTE courses.
The school district’s CTE students expect to enter the workforce after they graduate. College is not in the cards for many of them. CTE classes provide an abundance of practical skills that can lead to good-paying careers, a point that Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame has been making for years. Despite tireless efforts of adults devoted to CTE, the students tend to be few and far between at schools across the U.S.
Still, they cannot be forgotten, especially when a pandemic threatens millions of livelihoods. How do schools get heavy-duty software like AutoCAD into the hands of CTE students when remote learning is mandatory?
Klein Independent’s experience is instructive. Chris Cummings, the school district’s director of IT, was charged with developing a plan for reimagining the classroom to support CTE students in the early days of the pandemic.
“We realized the need was now,” Cummings said, adding that, “we were trying to get ahead of the curve.”
Like so many IT people running enterprise-scale technologies, Cummings and his team knew the future lies in virtualization, using software to emulate hardware like servers and network switches. Cloud technologies make it extremely economical to create clusters of virtual machines that are far easier to acquire, configure and maintain than their hard-wired counterparts. Deployment happens in hours or days rather than weeks or months.
Cummings’ team also understood the potential of cloud-enabled technologies like desktop-as-a-service (DaaS) and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to help their CTE students. These tools run compute, storage and networking in the cloud and use streaming-data protocols to paint the screen of a browser window.
The user’s device can be a tablet, smartphone or desktop computer. Anybody with a reliable high-bandwidth network connection can run some of the most processor-heavy programs anywhere, anytime. It cannot fully match a desktop workstation’s speed and performance, but it’s close enough for many remote workers, including CTE students.
Improving Access and Outcomes Across the District
Thanks to technology forethought and savvy procurement decisions, Klein Independent had a DaaS solution up and running within weeks.
Speed was crucial because Cummings’ district has been “one-to-one” for more than a decade, providing 37,000 computing devices to secondary-level students every year. The pandemic meant everybody needed a high-bandwidth connection as soon as possible. DaaS gave mobility to their CTE students, but that was only the beginning.
“We have about 1,000-1,200 that didn’t have ready access to quality broadband,” Cummings said. “We were able to deploy to those students and bridge the gap.”
The district had more than 2020 on its mind. Cloud-based technologies make it possible for school districts to stretch out the lives of their device fleets.
“That computer we replace every four to five years now can go six or seven years because we’re leveraging the data center’s resources,” Cummings said.
The district chose a DaaS application called Nutanix Xi Frame because it allowed a fast-and-easy deployment that served students and teachers alike.
“We were able to bring a solution before they even knew they needed a solution,” Cummings said. “The feedback has been very, very positive.”
Looking Ahead when Deploying DaaS and VDI
Technologies like DaaS and VDI use automation and machine learning to streamline complex technology processes and make setup fast, easy and intuitive. But in an age of speed, school districts and other large organizations still need to make room for time-intensive challenges like stakeholder buy-in, training, budgeting and procurement.
“We worked with the stakeholders, the folks that run the CTE programs, to scale the project appropriately upfront,” Cummings recalled. “We took all the classes into consideration and how many students may be working on a class at any given time. We were able to build out a solution that would meet those needs.”
Klein Independent gave a core group of teachers several weeks to test the software and make sure they understood how it worked. Those teachers, in turn, trained their colleagues.
“Once we saw this was going to be successful, we built training documentation and grew it on the feedback from the testers,” Cummings said.
No two districts will make the same decisions about deploying virtualization and other cloud technologies. Schools with limited budgets may have better luck running DaaS apps in the public cloud, he said. By contrast, those with plenty of capital, such as from a bond issue, might be better off buying more hardware and hosting VDI applications on-premises.
“It's the dollar that drives that decision,” Cummings said.
Shifting Perspective on Virtualization in Schools
It's not enough for schools to procure cloud technologies, Cummings cautioned. They have to evolve. “To realize the benefits, especially from a cost perspective, it's a complete mind and culture shift in your IT space,” he said.
VDI and DaaS can help CTE students learn in ways that used to be unthinkable. A classroom is anywhere a student can connect a computing device to a high-bandwidth network.
In a career that has included corporations and the U.S. military, Cummings has grown accustomed to technologies that crop up overnight – shaking up everybody’s notions of what’s possible. Schools are no exception.
“It’s amazing how quickly we can pivot,” he said. That realization informs his gratitude for the software that provides mobility to CTE students and the rest of Klein Independent’s student body.
“We couldn’t have made it through these instructional challenging times without a platform like this,” he concluded. “It brings equity across the district, not only to our students that may be economically disadvantaged but also to the students working both at home or on campus.”
Tom Mangan is a contributing writer. He is a veteran B2B technology writer and editor, specializing in cloud computing and digital transformation. Contact him on his website or LinkedIn.
© 2021 Nutanix, Inc. All rights reserved. For additional legal information, please go here.