In a survey posed to Higher Ed IT leaders across North America, we asked about how COVID-19 has affected software delivery priorities, outcomes, and criteria for implementing new tech.

Generally, trends in results have shown that COVID-19 has had a real impact on university IT's immediate priorities, creating an appetite for flexibility in app deployment. The most sought after solutions provide a seamless, relevant experience for students whether working on a managed device in a campus computer lab, or from their own device off campus and at home 

The vast majority of respondents reported that their next/upcoming academic year would be either entirely remote/online, or a hybrid/blended learning model. And so it stands to reason that the next solutions to be implemented and the method of deploying them are able to effectively satisfy these use cases.

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Which technologies did HEIT (Higher Ed IT) use before COVID?

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, did your university use any of the following technologies?

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Of the surveyed respondents, 69.9% used SCCM and/or imaging tools to image campus lab machines to deliver software prior to COVID-19. Given that imaging creates a local install on a physical machine, the usual convenience of imaging is defeated by situations like COVID-19 that prevent students from accessing physical locations and machines. This results in disruption to service and all of the associated drawbacks. Imaging still has a place in modern Higher Ed software delivery, but at AppsAnywhere we recommend it be reserved for the 'essentials'; apps that need to be accessible on every single machine, such as web browsers, PDF readers, and even Microsoft office should be included in a single master/golden image. These types of apps are also almost always available either as a free download or web app for students using BYO devices.

59.69% of participants utilized a VDI solution. VDI is a powerful but expensive solution, necessary to solve a number of use cases:

  • Cross-platform delivery
  • Delivery to ultra-thin clients, zero clients and machines which don't accept local installs of software
  • Off-site delivery of software with license agreements that stipulate the application may only be executed and run on-premise

VDI is more capable of providing a long-term solution for these use cases than the likes of RDP. While RDP is technically capable, it requires a physical machine for each user to remote into and access applications. These machines can't be used physically while being remoted into. RDP can also provide a compromised user experience and users can often run into unexpected errors, particularly when using RDP cross-platform. In contrast, VDI is not without its own downfalls. VDI requires a huge investment in hardware, specialist staff, maintenance, VDI licenses, Client Access Licenses, etc. These can be viewed as the hidden costs of VDI...

63.78% of survey participants responded that they used RDP to grant students remote access to desktops and, by extension, all of the software those desktops can access. RDP can be very useful for accessing software during lab or campus closures. Otherwise, it can be viewed as a less expensive version of VDI where, instead of remotely accessing a virtual machine running on a server, users are accessing physical machines. The drawbacks of this are that RDP can not be used to access machines that are physically being used and that the university must provide a physical machine per RDP user, which can get expensive.

Hosted desktops or app streaming products such as Windows Virtual Desktop and Amazon AppStream were used by 35.20% of survey participants. We only expect to see this number grows as new pricing models allow these products to charge based on use, they are easier to install and switch on and off and they solve many of the problems of legacy VDI and more traditional delivery methods. A drawback of hosted solutions is that universities are placing complete reliance on their network connection. With hosted solutions, an interruption in internet connection will result in software delivery downtime. This is still the case should the failure be on the part of ISPs or damage to local subterranean network cables. On top of this, if a university has made a large investment in legacy VDI, that investment might be considered wasted with a switch to SaaS model VDIs.

How did HEIT respond to COVID?

In response to COVID-19, did you implement any of the following new technologies or solutions?

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34.69% of survey participants responded that they implemented some sort of VDI solution in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 and closure of campuses across North America. This allowed students to continue to work and study by providing BYOD access to virtual machines.

VDI is an expensive and laborious solution to implement and manage; we expect to see universities proceed in one of two main ways:

  1. They might look to make their current VDI estates following COVID more scalable and sustainable long-term through careful provisioning and reallocating of resources/budget.
  2. They might seek out alternatives such as cloud-hosted desktops or app streaming products which, while they can still be expensive during heavy use, are more scalable and affordable at all ends of the spectrum.

Nearly half of the responding universities implemented an RDP/remote access technology (48.47%) to provide software access to quarantined and isolating students. It is to be expected that RDP technologies were the most common response to campus closures as they are quicker and easier to implement than traditional VDI. RDP also allows university IT to leverage already-owned physical hardware in order to deliver software.

Hosted desktops or app streaming technologies were implemented by 35.71% of survey respondents. These technologies are starting to gain traction in universities and are quickly becoming a contender for legacy VDI. Hosted desktops and app streaming technologies can be a good solution for universities who are looking to replace large VDI estates and generally simplify their software delivery stack. It can be, however, difficult to implement these solutions in place of other elements of a delivery estate while avoiding downtime and disruption.

How will courses be delivered in 2021?

What best describes the new academic year at your university?

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Almost three quarters (70.26%) of those surveyed responded that the next academic year of their university could be described as Hybrid/Blended learning, meaning both on and off-campus study.

This means that BYOD and off-site access to software will need to be consistent, versatile, organized and viable in the long term.

22.05% responded that their next academic year would be entirely off-campus, which only increases the need for reliable and affordable 'anywhere, any device' delivery technologies.

A very small minority of 5.13% of respondents reported that their next academic year would be on-campus and in person. While IT departments of these universities will likely experience an easier and simpler year when it comes to software delivery, they will also likely experience the most disruption to service, as COVID-19 shows either a decline or resurgence. The only way to mitigate disruption for these organizations is to adhere to proper PPE and social distancing guidelines.

Of the 2.56% of participants who responded 'Other' for this question, every single response commented that either they were an online learning organization already or that their next academic year would be comprised of 'all of the above'. From this, we can summize that the latter portion of 'other' respondents are aiming toward a Hybrid/Blended learning academic year.

What are university IT's current priorities?

What’s your university’s biggest priority right now?

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Student enrollment and retention (25.64%), Student success and experience (28.72%) and Supporting online or hybrid learning initiatives (26.67%) all shared a nigh-on equal number of respondents reporting them to be their university's main priority at current. The first two options share quite a deep inherent link and have a mutual effect on each other.

Those who reported prioritizing student retention and enrollment (25.64%) are looking forward to future years and hoping to counteract any potential detriments caused to current and future student numbers by COVID. They might be looking to achieve this by ensuring that their courses and resources continue to offer equal value and opportunity as they did pre-COVID. Student success and experience feed heavily into retention and enrollment.

The 28.72% of survey participants who are prioritizing Student success and experience will similarly look to maintain the value and opportunity offered by courses and resources, but will also be looking to provide all kinds of support to students with limited or no access to their campus. The ideal outcome is that COVID has zero effect on student grades and experience. While this is tough to measure, in coming years we will be able to understand what kind of effect the disruption of COVID causes to key metrics in this context.

26.67% of responding universities seek to address the two previously mentioned priorities by supporting online/hybrid learning for their students. This identification of a specific route to maintaining enrollment and retention/success and experience might be the result of a slightly more granular approach or universities who are further along the process of responding to COVID-19 disruptions.

13.33% of participants reported that their priority is getting students safely back on campus. This segment may be comprised of universities whose courses aren't possible to deliver remotely. It is worth noting that those who seek to return students to campus in place of evolving their software delivery estate are prone to more disruption to service should there be a resurgence in COVID, a different pandemic or other events that prevent students from accessing physical locations.

What are university IT's future priorities?

Are you looking to solve any of the below IT challenges in the next 6-12 months?

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13.92% would like to enable student BYOD in the next 6-12 months.

This is a key strategic goal for many higher education IT departments across North America, often considered to be a pinnacle of software delivery. It also helps to solve complications introduced by COVID and limited access to university resources. It is logical that universities might be working harder than ever toward this goal. An exception to this might be where universities deem the process of enabling BYOD to be too long to go without an alternative solution to manage COVID disruption in the mean time.

13.92% aim to create open-access learning areas. this helps to offer another solution to COVID disruption by alleviating limitations on which areas and physical machines on campus can be used to access general and specialist software. This is particularly important for universities who are beginning to welcome students back on to campus as, with social distancing measures in place, the number of concurrently usable devices effectively halves.

44.85% seek to make university resources available off-campus in general. While the intention might be for this off campus access to be temporary, many foresee programs like this sticking, much alike how working from home is becoming a new normal for many businesses.

74.23% of respondents are working toward online learning initiatives. This is a similar concept to the previous of making university resources available off-campus but also encompasses the acts of delivering seminars and lectures. An online learning initiative should result in students technically being able to complete their course entirely remotely.

Reducing IT spend and costs is an aim of 42.78% of survey respondents in North America. This is something of a double-edge sword and can be viewed in a couple of ways. Firstly, this may have taken a back seat to other priorities in the wake of COVID-19, with universities placing greater urgency on enabling remote learning and access top the detriment of conserving budget. Conversely, response to COVID and disruption to service and revenue could well have caused an urgent need to reduce costs across the board and recoup costs by spending less.

Falling in line with many universities' priority of student success and experience, 54.12% would like to improve the IT service they deliver to students in the next 6-12 months. Many of the other items in this survey question help contribute to this and it is no surprise that this is still a high priority of university IT; many universities are seeking to mitigate any hits to student IT service as a result of COVID to help students achieve the grades they're capable of, disruption notwithstanding. Many prospective students have become reticent to enroll in university for fear of their experience being disrupted, and so delivering a better IT service seeks to address their concerns and remove them as obstacles to enrollment.

Enabling virtual PC labs, similar to BYOD is a big topic in HEIT at current. It is seen as a way to make university spaces more versatile and less disruptive when not accessible. It is also similar in execution to BYOD and will require many of the same technologies. 28.87% of survey respondents aim to enable virtual PC labs in the next 6-12 months.

How would HEIT prefer to deploy new technologies?

When looking for a new technology or ITsolution for your university, which of the following deployment options would you prefer?

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A large majority of respondents (50.88%) stated that, in new IT solutions, they would actively seek out and consider “hosted, cloud or SaaS solutions”. As software delivery and virtualization is our expertise and given the context of the rest of the survey, we'll evaluate this through the lens of software delivery.

There are many benefits to hosted solutions over on-premise solutions. They are often more scalable in general, but can also offer some cost absorption. An example of such cost absorption is Windows Virtual Desktop not requiring Client Access Licenses to be paid for separate to WVD licenses themselves. Staff and maintenance costs are also reduced and, during disruptive events such as COVID, university IT can operate with more confidence that their software delivery services will continue to run during campus closures, whereas there is obviously no access to on premise, ‘bricks and mortar’ based hardware during full closures.

A major drawback is that hosted solutions can often reduce IT tools/services to a single point of failure; that being the university's network connection. If internet goes down, so does software access. Universities might already have invested a significant portion of budget into server hardware, VDI licenses and ultra-thin clients on which to run them. Another drawback is that it can be difficult to implement hosted desktops or streaming solutions without duplicating certain costs and while avoiding downtime.

A very low proportion of participants (4.39%) would consider on-premise deployment for new IT solutions. In the context of software delivery and virtualization, this is not to say that many universities won’t continue to use legacy, on-premise VDI. The majority of higher ed organizations already using such technologies are heavily invested in server infrastructure, specialized staff and more. It is more likely that this 4.39% is reflective when considering implementing new solutions. That being said, many universities are looking for methods to begin the transfer of using on-premise solutions to deliver software, to using cloud/hosted solutions.

37.72% are most interested in hybrid models. Such models help to manage the limitations of both fully Cloud and on-premise solutions, using the benefits of one to mitigate the detriments of the other. Hybrid solutions can also be an effective way to future-proof software delivery technologies by gradually making the switch from legacy onpremise solutions to Cloud/hosted/streaming products.

In the context of software delivery and virtualization, there are not many hybrid solutions. Most technologies full commit to one extreme or the other. For example Windows Virtual Desktop cannot be hosted anywhere but Azure and for legacy VDI such as Citrix Virtual Desktops and VMware, it is usually prohibitively expensive to host anywhere but on-premise in university-owned server infrastructure.

AppsAnywhere, which itself can be hosted wherever the university’s preference is (e.g. in their own data center, whether on-premise or in their own Cloud), brings together solutions that are either on-premise, in the Cloud, or both. With AppsAnywhere, Higher Ed can realize the benefits of hosted desktop solutions such as WVD, alongside on-premise solutions (such as our application virtualization technology) that help to bring costs down and maintain a campus-wide level of scalability, by taking advantage of local hardware and the end-users’ computing resources.

The best thing about this is it gives Higher Ed full flexibility. You can choose which solutions best fit your university’s strategy or use cases, and provide access to software in a consistent way for all students, on and off campus.

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