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Providing a secure and seamless online student experience has never been more crucial

Edinburgh Napier University

How is @EdinburghNapier University using technology to deliver industry-leading levels of student satisfaction? 

In this article, FE News speaks to Iain Russell, Head of Infrastructure at Edinburgh Napier University, to discuss how the university is using technology to deliver industry-leading levels of student satisfaction.

Technology is playing a huge part in this competitive market, especially around attracting international students. What are the priorities for the university’s IT team?

There’s now more pressure than ever on the IT team to deliver seamless IT experiences. This means giving students continuous and secure access to all the relevant apps and resources they need for their studies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. An always-on experience is vital as university study is not a 9-5 experience, and needs to suit those with families, those working around jobs, and those in different time zones. At Edinburgh Napier University, we have over 19,500 students from over 140 different countries, supported by 1,500 staff, so it’s crucial our IT infrastructure is able to provide for these different needs.

How has working with VMware helped Edinburgh Napier deliver a better student experience?

Students now have multiple devices that they use for their studies such as laptops, tablets and mobiles, which they all expect to have secure access to services 24/7. We’ve been able to achieve this with VMware’s Horizon solutions which has provided virtual desktops and applications through a single virtual desktop infrastructure and application platform. This offers an improved user experience as students can access any application from any device. It also enables students to access the exact same desktop experience as they would on campus, remotely.

We’ve also deployed VMware NSX, which gives us better resilience across our campuses. Thanks to the security VMware NSX inherently brings to the estate, we know all new infrastructure that is spun up through predefined templates is fully compliant for our requirements and is able to, for example, segregate out and protect our different valuable research data sets. This has helped us manage the IT team’s time as we now spend less time testing each new server and can focus instead on creating innovative, new services that are going to further benefit the experience of the students. It has also meant that the IT team can provide very specific bespoke solutions for a variety of individual research projects and to other departments across the university in a quicker time frame.

VMware NSX has also been fundamental in helping the university create security bubbles, services and apps into those bubbles. This allowed us to create a new service for other institutions to host their own services and applications, but in a separate bubble from those we use at Edinburgh Napier. For example, we host a learning environment for Edinburgh College and another for University of St Andrews.. With VMware NSX, we’ve been able to create partnerships with these institutions and create better secure IT systems for them.

We’re experiencing some unpredictable times ahead. How has Edinburgh Napier University managed its IT systems during the pandemic?

We’re pleased to have been ahead of the curve as we’ve had VMware solutions and innovative technologies in place for many years. VMware Horizon in particular, has given us the flexibility to quickly spin-up resources as and when we’ve needed them in the pandemic, to meet the increasing number of students learning remotely. We weren’t scrambling to create new services when lockdown hit, we just had to extend our existing service.

What were the key IT challenges and learnings the pandemic has shown?

Our experience so far has shown that remote learning can be done. Questions previously asked around availability of resources and access, have gone away. Due to government guidelines around social distancing and lockdown measures, this academic year will involve more blended learning. This means a number of students will have both on campus and remote learning timetabled for their course.

Whilst we are already providing a seamless IT experience for students and lecturers, there are some improvements we can make to help our academic colleagues in the way that learning materials are delivered. Many academics have been used to teaching in a particular way, so translating that into virtual environments can be challenging. In the coming weeks, our priority will be continuing to assist lecturers with any difficulties delivering courses online and ensuring the experience is seamless and immersive so students can contribute in the same ways they do with on-campus learning.

What new technologies will Edinburgh Napier be investing in to continue to deliver the best student experience?

We are always keeping an eye on the technology market to see what products and solutions are available for us to invest in. Due to the pandemic, there has been a greater emphasis on online learning and services to make teaching materials more accessible to students remotely. Our current service is running successfully and has given us the foundation to build on.

In the coming years we will continue to take advantage of any solutions that fit our business requirements to extend our services and further improve our user experience. We’re never standing still at Edinburgh Napier, we’re always looking for new opportunities!

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