• December 1, 2021

Advancing Digital Equity with Virtual Desktops

Greg M. Smith
  • by Greg M. Smith

In a webinar hosted by Propeller, formerly eLumin, education innovator, thought leader, and entrepreneur, Lou Pugliese moderates a discussion around virtual desktops in university settings. Engineers from Maryville University join IT professionals from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) to compare their Propeller-powered approaches to implementing and expanding their virtual infrastructures during the 2020 pandemic. Both universities agree that even prior to the world requiring digital equity, it was already becoming a necessity to strategic growth in higher education.

See how institutions are utilizing Propeller to not only support online learning fast, but continue expanding digital equity and availability at scale for the benefit of students, faculty, staff, and the overall university.

  • Achieve cost-efficiency while broadening online platform excellence.
  • Increase access for all students – both online and on-campus – without reducing functionality.
  • Improve user experience while reducing support tickets and device overhead.

Industry Experts Agree, Strategic Growth Starts with Digital Equity

While Maryville University and UMBC differ in when they began their partnership with Propeller, both chose to deploy virtual desktops as a means of increasing access. UMBC did not have a heavy online presence prior to the pandemic. As a 50/50 resident/commuter school, UMBC had some experience offering virtual resources, but not to the degree that students could continue their education completely off campus. Fortunately, they began discussions with Propeller about expanding their virtual infrastructure just months before shelter-in-place orders took effect. David Toothe, Associate Director of Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions at UMBC says, “The driving factor for our virtual environment was to provide that equity for our commuter students. Rather than having to stay here all hours of the evening, or come in on the weekend to access a computer lab or resources, the virtual environment provided that ability – as well as for our students in the residence halls.”

Maryville University on the other hand started implementing online degree programs with Propeller in 2018. Starting with nursing, the university quickly saw the growth potential of virtual education and began adding additional courses, such as cybersecurity and data science. Joshua Tepen, Cloud Engineer at Maryville says, “Our growth went from 3,500 students – which was probably 90% on-ground – to 11,000 students today. And the majority of that growth has been in the online realm.”


"We realize that we can't replicate the campus life at home, but the virtualization experience offers the potential to more accurately emulate an experience – both on the academic and the administrative side – in accessing virtually any campus resource and experience."

Sustaining and Scaling Virtual Resources Within Budget 

Maryville’s rapid success with their initial online programs proved valuable for university growth, but it also presented new challenges. Like any organization introducing new virtual capabilities, the university struggled to sustain their initial pace using legacy on-prem virtual desktop software. Without enough resources in the on-campus data center, the IT team was forced to buy new servers almost every month, which increased costs significantly. Data analytics and data science courses demanded a radically higher compute power to churn billions of lines of code, and on-campus machines presented new security risks as data access requirements evolved. The human effort required to maintain Wi-Fi, networking, server maintenance, and so on exceeded Maryville’s lean IT team of four.

In order to scale online course availability and expand equity without inflating costs beyond ROI, Maryville needed to migrate to the cloud. The university needed a new way to provide the excellent education platform students had come to expect, while enabling online degree growth regardless of the program.  The team chose Amazon Web Services (AWS) as their cloud services platform based on internal experience and elasticity. After trying to build out their virtual desktop internally, Bob Tschopp, Systems and Security Engineer at Maryville University says, “We didn’t have the time or resources, so we shifted to Propeller which was a huge benefit.” As an AWS Standard Consulting Partner, Propeller is a trusted and experienced partner with demonstrated success delivering cloud-based solutions to support universities.

Extending On-Campus Computer Labs Access

One of the driving forces for UMBC to move to a digital environment was the proliferation of departmental computer labs. The university housed several labs that were managed centrally, but other departments had department-specific labs as well. Each lab was supported according to particular security, access, and software controls depending on department requirements. From a financial and maintenance perspective, the labs were becoming cumbersome for both the departments and central IT. From an equity standpoint, the labs put additional strain on students to make sure they were on-campus and could get into these labs when they needed them. During finals and other high demand times, students were literally camping out in labs to guarantee they had access to a computer.

Of course, when the pandemic prevented on-campus access, the motivation to virtualize become urgent. With the help of Propeller, UMBC quickly deployed virtual desktops to ensure student and faculty access to the programs they needed. Not only did UMBC successfully increase equity and availability, but they were able to rescue the UMBC Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program – which previously relied on on-campus machines. Due to the nature of the program and the sensitive personal identifiable information (PII) being exchanged for tax preparation, security was a top concern to continuing the program off-campus. Thankfully, with the Propeller virtual desktops, the program was successfully transitioned and fully operational for the 2021 tax season.

Learn more >> How the UMBC Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program Survived the Pandemic – and Came Back Stronger


Similarly, Maryville University was also able to extend on-campus access to remote machines. Bob explains, “Traditionally we had a CAD lab and a digital design and visual arts studio on-campus. When the pandemic hit we had to work quickly, so we shifted and created Adobe Creative Cloud desktop and a CAD desktop since the students would be at home. It worked out excellent and provided student access.” At the time, they assumed the virtual machines would be shut down when students returned to campus. However, instructors and students alike called for maintaining and expanding the ability to access these services anytime, anywhere. With virtual desktops, students, faculty, and staff are better able to manage their time and alleviate stress. Virtualization continues to permeate change throughout the campus as new buildings are being designed without any computer labs at all.

Virtual Desktop Consistency Improves UX and Adoption


Providing access to virtual desktops is step one, but making sure users engage, adopt, and benefit from the technology is critical to overall success. Both university’s champion Propeller for swift deployments, always-available support, and user experience (UX). David explains that before Propeller, students and faculty had to overcome hurdles related to aging machines and changing interfaces. Computers could be anywhere from five to seven years old, sometimes on active directory, other times professors were creating manual or local student user accounts – which can lead to security issues.

David says, “Now that we’re in a virtual environment, it’s a very uniform presentation to the student. So whether or not the student is going in and working in what would have been an economics lab, or what would have be a physical geography lab, the presentation to the students through AWS and Propeller is uniform. They know exactly what they are doing, what they are seeing, and there’s no changes from course to course or class to class. It allows for a very smooth transition.” Like all technology users, students, faculty, and staff are more apt to engage with, and fully utilize user-friendly platforms with intuitive tooling and dependable capabilities. Maintaining a central look, feel, and functionality regardless of program or department continues to expand access and equity because additional expertise isn’t required for entry and use.

Reducing Support Tickets While Enhancing Digital Capabilities

Prior to Propeller, Maryville struggled to keep up with the support needs of their students. With a lean team, support tickets had to be managed by internal team members who were already spread thin. Now, with Propeller’s sandbox, students have the ability to reset and delete their machines on their own. Students are provided a set of general instructional videos at the beginning of each class. A simple five point assignment asks students to watch the videos so they learn how to access their machine, common use functions, and steps for troubleshooting.

"I'd say we cut support calls down by 85-90% since we've moved off of our traditional on-prem platform to our cloud solution."

UMBC is seeing similar results from student and faculty survey results collected after implementing virtual desktops. Colin Corcoran, Desktop Support Specialist at UMBC says, “The majority of respondents didn’t report having any difficulties using the virtual desktop. This is really surprising because some of them had only been utilizing a computer or AV in a lab, and now they’re able to administer the lab component of a class.” The survey also revealed that most faculty prefer the virtual desktop or hybrid situation as opposed to a physical lab. Faculty support the freedom virtual desktops allow students so they can work from home and during their own time. They like that students don’t have to worry about finding a seat in a crowded computer lab, or manage the cumbersome issues surrounding product licensing. Colin says, “Now they have a device agnostic environment through whatever web browser they’re most comfortable with. They have everything at their fingertips.”

Seamlessly Enable Fast Virtual Desktop Deployments

Both universities and their representatives participating in the webinar championed their partnership with Propeller as a necessity to achieving success. Educational access, availability, and equity is achievable through virtualized environments, but it requires smart deployment with expert advisors and customized support. Discover how Propeller can help you unlock student potential with accessibility. Connect with Propeller to learn more today!

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