Moving classes online during the quick pivot to remote instruction due to COVID-19 in March of 2020 had its challenges and hurdles. Most were handled by posting course content and resources into Webcourses@UCF. But what about software needed for courses that is only available on UCF campus lab computers? How did students gain access to vital resources needed for research?
Fourth-year students in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department were met with this challenge in spring and summer 2020. As a requirement, all seniors in the program take a two-semester Capstone course (Senior Design) instructed by Kurt Stresau. This project-based, team-based learning effort is intended to bridge students from academic learners to career-ready graduates. During their projects, they are typically required to use advanced software hosted on computers in campus labs for engineering analysis.
Over the summer, a task force consisting of Dr. Wendy Howard from the Center for Distributed Learning; JP Peters and Robert Connors from UCF IT; Pedro Cordero, an IT representative from the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences; and George Loubimov, a senior Ph.D. student and Project Advisor for the program initiated an effort to provide a virtual computing capability allowing students to access this software from their respective homes. Professor Mark Steiner and Dr. Manoj Chopra were also instrumental in seeking a solution for providing access.
This solution involved cloud-based computing resources accessing the UCF owned software licenses. This virtual-machine (VM) implementation allowed students to use UCF Apps to access this higher-performance software and not be limited to lesser performing student versions. The cloud based VM will also overcome hardware processing limitations since it is not running the software on the student machines.
The technology for this solution had been rejected in the past by faculty prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but with safety precautions and social distancing in place, there was no other choice but to move to this type of lab. To better understand what was needed, UCF IT met with instructors to determine the challenges of a virtual lab environment. With classes being remote, a closer partnership was formed to tackle any issues and obstacles before them.
One of the current obstacles is cost. The Citrix Cloud version of UCF Apps was used along with Micosoft Azure for storage, but this computation comes with an ongoing “bill of use” much like an electric bill. “You pay for what you use,” which means it is important to understand when and how students will use the virtual lab to optimize costs. Moving forward with this near-term, administrative support will be needed for funding and financial guidance to cover the costs.
This support is not solely in place for the College of Engineering. In fact, UCF IT has developed a model that has worked for all types of use cases using UCF Apps and Microsoft Azure. If students are having trouble accessing and using specialized software for your course, you can consult with UCF IT to learn more about how they can help. If you want to explore what is currently available, please visit https://it.ucf.edu/ucf-apps.
Additionally, the Center for Distributed Learning and UCF IT have partnered to create a Canvas Commons Quick Start Module to help students and faculty work successfully with UCF Apps. If you have any questions and would like more information, please email iLab@ucf.edu.