Supporting an Ecosystem of Virtual Learners and Educators


    Digital learning is nothing new for Canadian universities, yet prior to the pandemic, it hadn’t caught on in a significant way. As higher education institutions around the globe look for ways to scale up the changes made in response to Covid-19, there’s a new understanding that technology is the way forward for an improved student experience. 

    Ryerson University’s Faculty of Arts has used Geographic Information Systems to offer courses for the past 15 years, but before COVID we always maintained that we could never do our jobs remotely,” says Michael MacDonald, Lead IT Systems/Network Specialist and Lecturer at Ryerson University. “The joke is that overnight we found ourselves doing just that.”

    The Mother of Invention

    Arts may not sound like a technology dependent faculty, but student researchers rely on the more than 200 seats in Ryerson’s physical computer labs. When the pandemic emptied those seats, MacDonald orchestrated the deployment of Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD) to provide hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students with access to GIS and statistics applications. “We had no other choice,” he explains. “Without AVD, many of our courses would have been cancelled.”

    A Permanent Move to Virtual Labs

    MacDonald describes the onboarding experience as the most challenging period in the AVD deployment, but credits Microsoft with providing the service and support for a seamless conversion from on-premises labs to virtual labs. In fact, the transformation has gone so smoothly that the Faculty of Arts is considering upgrading the University’s physical labs with AVD – a move that comes with a range of benefits, including savings related to power usage, space requirements, time moving from one physical location to another, time spent scheduling labs, and the ongoing need for personal protective equipment. 

    From the student perspective, a move to virtual labs is bound to bode well. A recent KPMG poll showed that four out of five students feel the pandemic has changed their expectations of higher education and almost 70 per cent predict that advanced technologies, such as augmented and virtual reality, will become standard classroom tools. The advantages are clear: AVD has been hailed as democratizing education by making it more affordable because students no longer have to purchase devices with specialized equipment. Another enhancement to accessibility is that post-secondary schools are able to use virtual desktops to extend course offerings to remote locations. 

    Seeing is Believing

    With Canadian universities increasingly announcing return-to-normal plans for the 2022 winter semester, MacDonald has seen some anxiety around the possibility of reverting to pre-pandemic methods of course delivery. The reality, however, is that stronger technology infrastructures, such as AVD or Windows Virtual Desktop, are moving universities past a pandemic response and helping them launch their vision for the future.

    “This is not going away,” says MacDonald. “During the initial months of COVID, Arts was the only faculty at Ryerson to deploy AVD, but the other four faculties have been watching to see how it works and are now looking at getting on board. The pandemic has proved the perfect pilot program.”

    Canada’s post-secondary schools are part of a shared community that understands similar use cases, so the successful deployment of AVD at Ryerson and other institutions has resulted in a steady uptick in use at colleges and universities across the country. What MacDonald describes as a pandemic ‘pilot program’ is an important step forward in higher education.

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    Suzanne Robicheau
    Suzanne Robicheau is a communications specialist based in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where working remotely continues to fuel her passion for new mobile technologies -- especially on snowy days.