CIO50 2020 #26-50 Michael Grant, Murdoch University
COVID-19 certainly threw the education sector into disarray, with students especially disadvantaged by the dual challenges of maintaining their learning and degree progress, whilst often enduring significant financial hardship. And with students under strain, the risk of dropouts creates real financial risk for learning institutions.
Director of IT services with Murdoch University, Michael Grant, and his team quickly mobilised to create virtual computing labs (VCL) - providing access to virtual desktop computers that “served” the lab software typically found on campus.
“With students unable to attend campus for learning activities, delivering lab-based units was particularly challenging,” says Grant.
“These units are traditionally taught in on-campus “labs” equipped with PCs that are especially built to run specialist software for these classes. Without another way of delivering these units, a majority of our students would not have been able to complete their full set of classes for the semester, impacting the degree plans.”
Accessed through a web browser, the VCL enables students to use a low-specification PC, laptop or tablet to complete labs online.
The environment scaled to cater for the fast-growing number of students using it, while also reaping around $1.2 million in annual savings by not having to maintain physical labs.
Grant explains that the university had been discussing VCLs for 2-3 years, but that COVID-19 provided the impetus to act.
“With the standard governance barriers removed - another long-term “win” if we learn from that as well - and a clear understanding that this was top of the list in terms of priorities, the ITS team completed this ready for use in a fortnight, with most of the work completed within a week.”
Previously, the time estimated to complete this work was several months.
The VCL was delivered via Azure Lab Services and Azure Active Directory Premium platforms. Grant and the team then deployed over 35 software applications to support 40 teaching units servicing over 3,700 students.
For comparison, the university would generally utilise 1100+ lab desktops in 42 computing labs across campus for this purpose.
“The COVID-19 crisis has certainly forced us to think and work differently, and this will be an ongoing benefit to our organisation,” Grant notes.
“The response has been extremely positive from both students and academics, and there is an intent to scale this as an ongoing offering.”
The second major challenge facing students was financial hardship. And Murdoch University responded quickly, offering an $8.5 million relief package.
“Given the urgency, systems and processes required development and implementation in approximately one week so that students could receive this assistance as soon as possible,” Grant recalls.
Once the “business rules” of this offer were established, it was over to IT to deliver.
“Fortunately, our strategy to invest in enterprise Platforms, namely the identity platform (Azure Active Directory Premium), the integration platform (Azure Integration), Office 365 and Sitefinity as our enterprise content management system, made this possible,” Grant notes.
The whole platform was up and running in just five days.
As a member of the senior leadership group at Murdoch, Grant enjoys significant influence within the management structure of the university. Yet he understands the importance of clearly making the case for greater investment and utilisation of technology.
“At a macro level, the common thread to leverage is explaining how the need or initiative aligns to the strategic objectives of the university,” Grant explains.
“On a micro level, it’s about developing trusted relationships, delivering to agreed commitments and ensuring the 'what’s in it for them' question can be answered.”