• March 11, 2024

Webinar Recap: Exploring the Benefits of Virtual Desktops

Greg M. Smith
  • by Greg M. Smith

We recently hosted an Educause Industry Insights webinar, Access Granted: Practical Examples of Virtual Desktop Solutions in Higher Education, and it was a great success.

More than half of the participants currently use virtual desktops on their campuses, so it was a rousing and honest discussion about:

  • How they implemented virtual desktops
  • Insights about how they work in practice
  • Tips to make using them even easier

We want to extend our thanks to David Yaskin for his excellent work moderating the event and panelists Natalie Montañez and Tim Rager for sharing their insights and experiences.

If you’d like to see the webinar in its entirety, feel free to watch the full replay here.

The Basics: What Are Virtual Desktops?

Virtual Desktops give students access to all the software and applications they need, from any device.

Or, as Tim described it, “your computer, anytime, anywhere, anyhow.”

Natalie agreed, “That’s a good description. They’re kind of just all the software you could possibly need, on demand, wherever you are and with whatever devices you happen to be using that day.”

The two panelists went on to describe the benefits of virtual desktops for students and faculty.

“There’s a high ease of use benefit,” Natalie said, pointing out that students often forget their laptops at home but still need to access software to do their assignments.

“They can log into their virtual machine and all the software they need for their class is right there, ready for them.”

Moreover, students don’t need to download or install extra software –– they’re able to log in directly from the learning management system.

Tim broke down the benefits of the technology for faculty and administrators. “It allows them to be flexible, mobile, and to access computing power on demand,” he said.

Bringing Virtual Desktops to Campus

For Natalie and UC Berkeley, it all started with an earthquake. One of the campus’ most popular, in-person, instructional computer labs had to shut down due to “various seismic reasons.”

There weren’t plans in place for a natural disaster that closed the lab. The department turned to Natalie’s instructional technology team for help.

They needed solutions to give students access to the software required in a lab setting, but without the physical lab.

“We didn’t want to force students to have to purchase the software,” she explained.

“It was maybe 10 years ago, we got our department started in the virtual lab sphere at the time, which was hosted on Citrix. It was through a platform that was specifically designed for researchers.”

With a few tweaks and some hand holding to help get it up and running, the solution was usable.

“But then the pandemic hit, and we realized that there’s a higher demand for virtual computing resources.”

That’s where Propeller came in. “It’s a little bit easier to scale for our classes. And it’s easier to just manage overall on the admin side.”

The solution made it simpler for students to add or drop classes and gain access to their machines. It streamlined the process, which was all manual before.

Virtual Desktop Solutions Provide Access Anywhere

Tim was working as the technology director at a community college when the pandemic shone a light on “the digital divide” and illuminated the need for a virtual desktop.

“When we shut down at our college,” he explained, “We were lucky enough to procure a bunch of inexpensive Chromebooks. We chose those because it allowed us to buy a lot of them and distribute them to students.”

Tim’s college was able to give students access to software, such as Solidworks, right from their Chromebooks.

“It was a huge opportunity for us to provide access because the campus was closed,” he explained.

But virtual desktops gave students access to the high-powered software applications they needed to continue their work.

At a different school, Tim used virtual desktops to overcome technology constraints on campus as he raced against time to upgrade computers before Windows 10 end-of-life.

Examining the Benefits of Propeller Virtual Desktop Solutions

Both Natalie and Tim have been using Propeller at their respective schools and they were happy to describe the benefits.

“All your software is going to work and launch the same. I think it’s a pretty clean user experience for students. They know how to use their software, so they’re pretty much set. There’s no additional learning curve to get in and get access.” – Natalie Montañez

Natalie described Propeller as a “turnkey solution” for instructors.  “All they really do is let me know what software they need and when their classes are, and I let Propeller know. Then, it’s ready to go for them when classes start.”

Propeller also makes it easy to update software, so “there’s much less back-end admin work on us. Which is wonderful,” she shared.

What’s nice about Propeller is the expertise is there. What was taking us months to do on our own, [Propeller] did in weeks. For us, the speed and expertise was helpful.” -Tim Rager

Tim said that they worked through use cases at his schools when figuring out how to roll out and use virtual desktops.

“We had a faculty person who wanted to use Solidworks, which is a complicated app.” They asked the faculty member to share how students were using the software class.

“Working through those use cases, one-on-one with the instructor was really helpful. It allowed us to understand how they’re using the application, so we could configure it the right way.”

Who’s Using Virtual Desktops?

David pointed out that UC Berkeley is a big, diverse school. He wanted to know which departments jumped on using virtual desktops and how those departments are using them.

Natalie described it as a “melting pot of different groups that are making use of virtual desktops,” such as:

  • Education department, which uses mostly STATA software and MATLAB
  • College of Chemistry, which uses Aspen and Console
  • Public Health class which uses ArcGIS Pro
  • Bioengineering class that uses SolidWorks and a plugin app, QV Scribe.

Then, most programs also want what Natalie called the “default, baseline software,” like Word, Excel, Adobe Suite.

At community colleges, there was demand for Microsoft programs, but also applications like SolidWorks and 3D Experience, which students wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford or access.

Getting Faculty Buy-In

David turned the topic to faculty, noting that many may be resistant to change. Natalie had some tips for getting them on board.

Demos made a difference, she said, noting that Propeller met with some instructors in the early stages to demo the desktop.

Having access to that expertise made a difference, “that was very welcome,” she noted.

Students were also pivotal in getting faculty on-board, Natalie added.

“A student was taking a course that was using Propeller, and they had another course that was using software, so they told their instructor about the virtual machines in use in the other course and asked the instructor to install it, too”

“That instructor got in touch with me, and we ended up setting up a Propeller install for their course as well.”

Virtual Desktops Make Sense for the Budget

Many higher education institutions struggle with budget constraints, so David turned the conversation to the topic of cost.

Natalie started off by describing the cost savings of virtual machines. She doesn’t have to update her schools’ computer labs with all new equipment every few years. “It’s all through AWS, so that gave us a lot of transparency.”

Tim shared some hard numbers: At one of his colleges, the hardware replacement budget was $700,000 per year. With the switch to a virtual desktop, the cost is now tens of thousands per year.

“For us, it was kind of a no brainer to look at this, because it was a huge cost savings for us.”

Looking for cost savings specific to your campus? Stop by ROI Estimator the to see exactly what virtual desktop solutions can mean for your budget.

If you’d like to see the full webinar, watch the full replay here.


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