The Cloud in the Classroom

DCU Connected provides distance education to over 1000 students. We aim to provide an education that is a close as possible to that received by physically attending the campus. By using Internet technologies such as video conferencing, we have been able to successfully emulate the traditional classroom environment for presenting material to students.

One area that has been lacking is the provision of laboratory environments where students can get hands on practical experience. In the past, students have had to install software such as web servers, compilers and databases on their personal machines, with little support and the occasional disaster.

Since 2012, we have been offering Linux virtual machines that the student can install on their home computers. These give a more realistic real-world experience to the student and improve their learning outcomes. While mostly positive, our experience of using VMs is that they can raise quite complicated support issues, requiring some sophisticated OS and networking skills that the college IT department is not particularly interesting in providing. Furthermore, as the student’s computers can be quite low powered, the VM image is a lowest common denominator in terms of resources and power, preventing us from investigating projects that might prove too challenging to underpower hardware.

For the last three years we have begun moving from the VM solution hosted on the student’s PC to hosting the VM with cloud providers. So far this has been a mostly positive experience, reducing our support calls, improving the student’s capabilities and allowing us to leverage the resources available in the cloud.

In this presentation I will share our experiences, both good and bad, in our attempts to use the cloud in our virtual classroom.