How Virtual Computer Labs Are Revolutionising the Way Universities Teach

Colleges and universities provide students with on-campus computer laboratories which they can use for coursework, research and other learning activities. These labs usually house dozens to thousands of computers equipped with software applications for different purposes. 

Computer labs are instrumental in helping students learn, work with software programs, complete assignments and interact with their instructors. Most importantly, these IT labs enable learners to acquire digital skills critical in the modern workplace without having to purchase their own hardware and software. 

With that said, it’s worth noting that physical computer labs are a considerable expense on the part of educational institutions. Additionally, operating, overseeing and maintaining such infrastructure can get complicated and expensive at times.

And even though laptop and computer ownership among students has been on the rise in recent years, this trend has not eliminated the need for campus IT labs. There are many reasons for this: 

  • There’s still a significant lack of computer ownership in some student populations all over the world. 
  • Not a lot of students who own computers have the raw computing power needed to support specialized software applications. 
  • Many specialized software applications are too expensive for students to afford. 

With all of these factors in play, universities must continue to provide students with access to computer labs and, ultimately, prepare them for life after school. 

Fortunately, advances in operating systems and virtual machine technology are improving the way institutions teach today. In this age, colleges and universities can offer students an accessible and productive learning experience through cloud-based computer labs. These are also referred to as “remote labs,” “web labs,” “distributed learning labs,” or “virtual labs.” 

Remote labs allow students to perform their coursework in a virtual learning environment anytime and anywhere, as long as they have a device connected to the Internet. Aside from that, these virtual computer labs also: 

  • Support and accommodate distance learning 
  • Allow learners to easily and quickly assess the educational resources they need 
  • Provide an efficient and cost-effective alternative for schools without the ability or means to build and maintain computer labs 
  • Maximise software licenses and reduce expenses 
  • Help develop digital skills and hone employability skills for all students, including those who prefer to learn remotely or flexibly.  

Cloud-based learning platforms in education enhance the learning processes and help modernize instruction in today’s increasingly digital world. If you are considering implementing a virtual computer lab for your school or university to enjoy these benefits, this in-depth blog is for you.

In the sections below, we cover the following topics to give you more insights on how cloud-based computer labs are changing the way universities teach, and how you can make them work for you: 

  • What is a virtual computer lab? 
  • How the need for cloud-based computer labs emerged
  • A quick comparison of traditional and cloud-based computer labs
  • Advantages of using cloud-based learning platforms in education
  • Best practices for implementing virtual computer labs in universities 

What is a virtual computer lab?

A virtual computer lab is a learning platform hosted on the cloud and made accessible to its users via web browsers. This technology gives students the ability to access software programs and work with them as if the applications were running on their own computers. 

An important thing to note about cloud-based learning platforms in education is that the performance of the platform does not depend on a computer’s processing power. Rather, it relies on the strength of the user’s internet connection. This makes it possible for students with older computers to use specialized software without much struggle.  

Moreover, this feature is critical in helping both students and educators in technical fields adapt to online learning. Technical disciplines such as computer science, information technology, engineering and architecture often require advanced software programs, which then require certain computer specifications. However, thanks to cloud computing and remote access technologies, technical education can now also be supported online.  

How the need for cloud-based computer labs emerged

To have a deeper understanding of the impact of virtual lab solutions on the way universities and learning institutions teach, it helps to look into why the need for these technologies emerged in the first place. 

Historically, it was in 1983 when the Apple II computer began to be used in education. This was the time when personal computers were found to be suited for teaching and learning as well. 

However, it was in 1990 when computers became a more important tool in education. Around this time, students and teachers started using word processors for completing assignments and writing essays. Then, in 1996, administrators started preparing their schools and institutions for the Internet age by rolling out server installations and web page creations.  

Eventually, campuses started building physical computer labs to grant that easy access to technology students couldn’t afford or have at home. Computer laboratories during this time were simple: they were equipped with computers, scanners and printers for completing coursework. Some were designed to help students learn basic coding skills. 

Then, as the 2000s entered, the use and adoption of the Internet became widespread. By then, almost every classroom in the U.S. had computers connected to the Internet. 

However, we seem to be reaching the end of the computer lab era in recent years. With the increasing popularity, personalization and affordability of mobile devices, students carry more computing power in their pockets than ever before. Aside from that, the recent pandemic also disrupted face-to-face learning in 2020 and abruptly implemented remote learning on a larger scale.  

It’s also worth noting that the technology we have today keeps evolving. Today, universities are now able to build cloud-based computer labs in partnership with service providers like CloudSwyft. Institutions can now provide students and educators with all the tools they need for their courses wherever they are. With this, students are no longer bound to a certain location or schedule, but can learn anywhere and anytime they wish. 

Colleges and universities must learn to adapt to this era of personal computer ownership and increasing connectivity. The times we now live in are different, and the way students learn and educators teach have drastically changed over the years. IT departments must find ways to deliver better learning experiences while taking affordability, accessibility and security into consideration. 

A quick comparison between traditional and cloud-based computer labs

If you are planning to implement a virtual learning environment in your institution, another discussion worth looking into is the comparison between traditional and cloud-based computer labs. Other than the flexibility and accessibility that virtual computer labs offer and traditional labs cannot, cloud-based technologies also bring about significant cost savings. 

An EDUCAUSE 2019 panel discussion on computer lab investments highlighted the following: 

  • Physical computer labs are only lightly used throughout the semester; usage peaks at the end of each term. 
  • Research computing requires the latest GPUs and massive amounts of RAM. 
  • Institutions need to deliver required software programs for online courses to a growing number of off-campus students. 

With all of that said, 2019 case studies with Emory University, University of California Irvine, and Ithaca College showed that traditional computer labs do not fully meet the needs of today’s universities. And to address such gaps and find that balance between the learning experience and expenses, institutions are considering moving their computer labs to the cloud. 

The costs involved with traditional computer labs 

Here are some of the costs colleges and universities often work with when it comes to building and maintaining physical computer labs: 

  • Machine and equipment costs 
  • Personnel costs for troubleshooting, maintenance and software installation
  • Repair and upgrade costs 
  • Software licenses, antivirus protection and other core programs
  • Real estate costs 

The costs and components involved with virtual computer labs

In contrast, here are the common components of cloud-based computer labs that learning institutions need to invest in: 

  • Virtual Computing Lab Manager (VCL) – A centralized management console used to oversee all aspects of the cloud-based virtual lab 
  • Virtual Machine (VM) – An emulation of a computer system, a resource that runs programs and deploys apps using software instead of a physical computer 
  • Network Storage – Storage and network resources delivered by a virtual lab solutions provider to accommodate the user’s requirements 
  • Software licenses and other core programs necessary in coursework

Considering this list, implementing computer labs helps reduce machine, equipment and real estate costs. Furthermore, it lightens the load on IT support personnel. 

Other aspects to consider 

Both physical and virtual computer labs are dependent on power and network infrastructure. Consequently, both types of IT labs can be greatly affected by infrastructure failures, although in different ways. 

In traditional computer laboratories, Internet-related issues only compromise Internet-based applications. Students and educators can continue working with local applications like Microsoft Office. On the other hand, Internet-related problems can halt access to a virtual lab. This is an aspect that needs to be considered and prepared for by universities implementing remote labs. 

Another topic to probe into when comparing traditional and virtual computer labs is user training. In the context of schools and universities, we have two users: the student and the educator. 

In a traditional IT lab setup, both users must pay attention to the typical guidelines in perusing the school’s hardware. Should any concern arise, they have IT support on-site to assist them. 

Meanwhile, with virtual labs, teaching instructors must first learn how to access and use the cloud-based learning platforms in education. They often need to undergo a series of training to truly master the remote lab and prepare for technical problems in case they emerge. After this, they must relay their learnings and help students get on the platform as well. 

Some students, particularly non-technical ones, may be overwhelmed with using a virtual computer lab for the first time. To enable these learners to fully assimilate the process, learning institutions may need to dedicate the first few sessions in a semester to demonstrate how to access and use these tools. 

Nevertheless, the use of virtual computer labs in colleges and universities has been met with a positive response. This is especially true for students who are enjoying its various benefits, such as accessibility, usability and affordability. Access and availability are becoming increasingly important to today’s learners, especially since a growing percentage of them work part- or full-time as well. 

Advantages of using cloud-based learning platforms in education

Since the pandemic broke out in 2020, cloud-based learning platforms in education are more important than ever. With that said, they are more than just problem-solvers. Virtual computer labs bring a slew of benefits that revolutionize the way universities teach today. 

Here are some of the most noteworthy advantages of using virtual computer labs: 

Reduced Hardware Expenses 

Learning institutions need to invest in computers, servers, printers, scanners, projectors and internet modems or wireless routers when building physical computer labs. On top of that, they also need to consider the costs of building a room which will house all the equipment along with furniture such as desks and chairs. Finally, they also need to invest in proper ventilation, maintenance and power supply. 

Meanwhile, adopting cloud-based learning platforms in education entails a reduced need for such hardware and infrastructure. On top of that, virtual lab solutions providers like CloudSwyft allow you to easily adjust your lab requirements according to your actual enrollments. As a result, universities get to maximize their investment and deliver an accessible learning experience to their students. 

Improved Accessibility 

As mentioned earlier, cloud-based computer labs can be accessed by simply using Internet browsers. This means that both students and educators do not need to own expensive computers to access their learning resources. 

In the same way, they also do not need to invest in external storage devices. Since all the learning materials and programs they need are in the cloud, there’s no need for USBs and external drives. As long as they are connected to the Internet, they can enjoy access to their academic information anytime, anywhere. 

Finally, this improved accessibility benefits both students and teachers in simple yet impactful ways. For learners, cloud-based computer labs enable them to learn at their own pace and wherever they are. For educators, the technology allows them to grade tests or develop course curricula from the comfort of their home and whenever convenient for them.  

Reduced Carbon Footprint 

If your institution strives to be environmentally friendly in its own ways, then this benefit may resound with your values. 

Using cloud-based technologies for education can greatly reduce your carbon footprint by eliminating the frequent use of paper, copy toner and other paper and wood products. The lower number of server rooms at your campus due to your transition to the cloud can also bring down your institution’s CO2 emissions and energy consumption. 

Access to the Latest Learning Materials 

Truth be told, university-level textbooks and other similar learning materials can be rather expensive. On top of that, they’re also quite challenging to maintain and update regularly. 

Cloud-based learning resources and programs are an effective solution to this problem. First, virtual computer labs and digital content tend to be a lot less costly. This allows lower-income students to easily access high-quality learning materials like others. 

Moreover, it’s worth noting that cloud-based materials are easy to update in real-time. All you need to do is coordinate with your virtual lab provider to make sure your software programs and virtual lab environments are up-to-date. With this, students get to enjoy using and learning from the latest resources and tools. 

Best practices for implementing virtual computer labs in universities 

Now that you have a good understanding of what virtual labs are and the role they play in universities, you may be considering implementing one in your own institution. This endeavour can overwhelm many administrators, but we are here to help you out. 

Here are some of the best practices for using virtual labs that you need to take note of to achieve a smooth transition and overall experience. 

  • Think of what your virtual labs will be for

One of the first things you will need to do before launching remote labs in your university or college is to think about what role it will play. Do you intend to use it in a classroom setup to deliver software programs to students enrolled in a particular course? Or are you thinking of using it in an open-access model for all students to use on-demand? 

This will enable you and your virtual lab provider to work out the best arrangement for you. 

  • Determine how many students will access the virtual computer lab.

Another factor worth considering before using virtual labs is the number of students who will access them. Aside from that, you will also need to look at your traditional computer labs’ peak and non-peak utilization times. These figures will help your provider effectively plan your cloud-based computer labs’ capacity. 

  • Identify the software applications your students’ needs

Different disciplines will require different software applications. With this, make sure to identify the programs you need and want to be hosted on the cloud. You should also take this opportunity to understand the licenses you have for these applications. 

CloudSwyft can deliver virtual lab spaces for applications like Visual Studio, Microsoft Azure Console, UiPath RPA, Adobe Creative Cloud, Autodesk Maya, Mathworks and AutoCAD, among many others. 

If you have any questions, concerns or issues related to the programs you want in your virtual lab, make sure to coordinate with your provider right away. 

Implement Virtual Computer Labs in Your University with CloudSwyft

If your university is yet to adopt cloud-based learning platforms in education, it is high time that you consider making the move. Virtual computer labs not only make learning accessible and flexible but also help your institution maximize your IT lab budget. Implementing them enables you to use every penny to improve the way students learn, enhance the way educators teach and make up-to-date learning resources readily available for everyone. 

When it comes to implementing virtual labs in universities and colleges, CloudSwyft is the provider institutions trust. 

With our virtual lab solutions, we help you build cloud-based computer labs tailored to your specific requirements and enrollments. Most importantly, with our technical expertise and experience, we empower you to deliver your curriculum and get the most out of your online learning platform. 

Want to learn more about our virtual labs? Contact us today or request a demo!