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Putting the Classroom in the Cloud with Virtual Desktops and Bring-Your-Own-Device

By Shawn Mills / April 2014

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From TI-83+ calculators to the venerable overhead projector, technology has always been a valuable instruction tool. As typewriters gave way to computers, education institutions adopted IT departments dedicated to the management and evaluation of new technologies. In the meantime, students grew accustomed to instant information, multimedia, and social sharing.

Today's education IT must take advantage of new technologies to engage modern students while balancing operational expenses. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is a rapidly growing technology that makes it easier for students and teachers to take advantage of educational software at school and on their own devices, simultaneously saving the school IT department time, money, and security challenges.

Students and teachers are already using their devices in the classroom. A recent survey found that 85 percent of education institutions allow students, faculty, and staff to use personal devices on their school network [1]. Another 2012 survey discovered that 31 percent of those ages 14-17 own a smartphone [2]. By designing a BYOD (bring your own device) policy and assigning logins to virtual desktops, administrators can put mobile technology to work.

With fewer than 50 percent of schools requiring an antivirus tool to be installed before accessing the network [3], virtual desktops create an easy to maintain system that enables universal software and applications in a secure manner. Virtual desktops can actually decrease the total cost of ownership for hardware, and make in-school computing easier to administrate. In other words, VDI doesn't only help manage mobile devices, it also brings benefits to traditional computer labs and IT management, especially in large-scale environments like entire districts or universities.

What's a Virtual Desktop, Anyway?

VDI allows users to access a virtual computer using an Internet browser or local software installed on any computer. These virtual computers come with pre-installed productivity software, antivirus tools, collaboration abilities, and more. The beauty of VDI is desktops and their applications can be accessed anywhere. Students and educators can access educational technology tools whether in the computer lab or on the move with a laptop or tablet.

VDI is a cloud technology, but it is not a cloud application like Google Docs. A virtual desktop simply provides a digital version of a complete Windows computer for the user. The "client" machine—whether it is a desktop, mobile device, or even a "zero-client," which is essentially a monitor that can connect to the network—is like a computer monitor. Instead of the computer sitting on a desk with a screen and keyboard, the actual resources are in a data center, and the user inputs through a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. When logged into a virtual machine, even with an iPhone, a student sees a regular Windows desktop.

Virtual desktops can come preinstalled with educational and productivity tools like Microsoft Office 365 and Mathematica, and help organize and deliver on goals like Common Core, the program recently adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C. to encourage evidence based writing, fractions, and other educational standards. A student or teacher can log into their virtual desktop, see their assignments from a single portal, fire up an application, and get to work.

With some software like Microsoft SharePoint, users can log into a single location to collaborate and share files. A group working on a science project, for example, could log into their SharePoint group and edit the same file at the same time, or see who made the last edits. They could post directly to a classroom group to continue the conversation after school is out, or to reply to a homework query. Teachers can post updates or PDF excerpts of textbooks. They can even collect homework in the cloud. When logged into a virtual desktop, none of the information leaves the school data center, so students and teachers don't need to fill up their hard drives or worry about the cloud eating their homework.

The Tradeoffs of Virtual Desktops

A traditional model of education IT has a single in-house data center, or a shared one for a district or system. There might be several computer labs per location, and devices in each classroom. Some institutions have shared laptop or mobile device programs. The school owns all of this equipment and it must be replaced periodically. Meanwhile, each machine must be updated with operating system patches and software updates individually. VDI simplifies much of this IT model and can lead to cost savings, but it is not without its own downsides.

The network infrastructure required by virtual desktop systems is usually already in place, though the strain placed on a school network from many devices using VDI simultaneously is a legitimate concern. This is especially problematic during "boot storms" or "update storms," when many users log in at once or multiple desktops update a piece of software. The existing networks at most schools should be capable of handling dozens of VDI users at a given time, but network monitoring should be a primary concern of administrators. In some cases a network upgrade might be necessary, cancelling some of the cost savings realized from operational and capital expense reduction.

A BYOD policy backed by VDI can benefit a school environment through standardization, integration of webmail, and sharing. Every student who logs into their virtual desktop will have the same experience—no more switching between operating systems, platforms, and software versions. This also makes troubleshooting simpler for administrators.

Students can jump right into educational tools using familiar devices, with virtual desktops making it easy to work anytime, anywhere. Parents and teachers don't need to buy their own copies of software with VDI. If families can't afford to buy a computer or mobile device, schools can offer shared devices to borrow at a much lower cost than equipping full computer labs every few years.

Tablets and laptops are a better option than phones for virtual desktop as they allow a full desktop experience and easier user input. Clearly, writing a long paper or assembling a science project would be much more difficult on a small screen. Phones are best used to access files or school resources, like subscription services that aren't available outside campus, rather than for intensive work.

This does bring up the topic of device envy, or the "digital divide." Every family can't afford to buy a device for their child. If a virtual desktop is required to succeed in the classroom, the student must have access to a device. VDI still brings benefits to computer lab environments, and some schools offer shared pools or rolling carts of mobile devices for other uses. In the end, the computer lab functions in much the same way for the end user, while the mobile devices that are creeping into the classroom can be better managed and used for educational software and collaboration.

For teachers, VDI helps provide data insight and organization. Web-based applications can be used in the classroom for polling, tests, or multimedia teaching via podcasts or video. Teachers can also access school software including reporting and grading tools from home or public wireless.

For teachers and administrators concerned about the additional distraction of mobile devices in the classroom, network settings can be customized to limit access to non-educational websites. When a student or teacher is logged in to a virtual desktop, they only have access to the applications and information linked to their account, so games and other distractions are only a concern if the student is not logged in.

The most difficult part of the process is adoption. Getting students, teachers, and parents on board with virtual desktops is definitely a process that requires a clear set of instructions as well as a detailed behind the scenes mobile device management (MDM) strategy.

Alleviating IT Administration Headaches

IT managers and administrators enjoy lower equipment and licensing costs through VDI. Students and teachers can share single software licenses from a pool. Meanwhile, the school owned terminals and shared devices for students who cannot buy their own are also cheaper to procure because VDI software has low system requirements, meaning a "thin client" with minimal resources can be used in place of powerful brand-new desktops. Inexpensive computers or "zero-client monitors," which do not have any compute power of their own, can save a school thousands of dollars on hardware and energy costs. One VMware case study found estimated annual savings of $50,000 due to energy costs alone [4].

Further cost savings come from desktop management, which is simple through "linked clones" and a single management portal. Linked clones are copies of a master virtual desktop, meaning every change made to the master can be copied to every other desktop easily. With linked clones, each user is simultaneously kept up-to-date with software and security tools. SysAdmins no longer have to update every terminal in the school individually, and mobile devices on the network are automatically secured or else denied access. While operating systems could be updated in bulk with older tools like Windows Update Services, a linked clone updates settings and software on every computer: OS, applications, antivirus tools, network settings, and so on.

A case study from Cisco and NetApp reported a 13-month payback, 166 percent ROI, and IT capital and operational savings of $1.27 million over three years [5]. These savings came from a combination of hardware procurement, space, energy, and administrative efficiency. The technology coordinator for the school district reported a desktop update would have previously taken five or six employees four days to complete, but took one person only six hours with VDI. This increase in efficiency is largely thanks to the rapid cloning abilities mentioned above.

Software licensing can be a tricky beast with VDI, because every user has to be licensed for Windows and each application. This is not necessarily more complex than licensing for 150-plus computers in a computer lab, but it does require research, planning, and budgeting. Most software providers now offer licensing based on number of users rather than actual copies of software, allowing multiple devices and users on a single contract.

Virtual desktops are compatible with Mac or Windows and can even run on Android or iOS mobile operating systems, meaning almost any smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop can access them. Each user can sync files across the network, so if a teacher logs out from the computer lab, their work is waiting when they log in at home.

A virtual desktop deployment is a large undertaking that should only happen after careful consideration and cost-benefit analysis. Savings from lower operational expenses and procurement costs, as well as the portability and scalability of remote desktop, make VDI a plausible approach for school computing. These savings depend on each organization, and may require initial investment as well as staff training. Even if VDI isn't the best solution for every organization, the evaluation process will help discover inefficiencies and foster the use of technology in flexible and innovative ways.


[1] The Impact of BYOD in Education. Bradford Networks. White Paper. 2013.

[2] Lenhart, A. Teens, Smartphones and Texting. Pew Research. Mar. 19, 2012.

[3] Daly, J. These 14 BYOD Statistics Tell a Story of Opportunity and Danger. Ed Tech. June 5, 2013.

[4] Aledo ISD Controls Expansion Costs, Delivers, High-Quality Education through Desktop, Datacenter Virtualization. VMware Inc. Case Study. 2011.

[5] Oak Hills Does the Math: VDI on Cisco UCS, VMWare, and NetApp + Champion Solutions Group = $1.27M Savings. NetApp Inc. Case Study. 2013.

About the Author

Shawn Mills is a technology entrepreneur, founder and president of Green House Data, a data center services company focused on sustainability. You can find him on Twitter at @tshawnmills.

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