One of my favorite Citrix use cases for higher education (and even K-12) is the concept of a virtual computing lab. I’ve presented on this topic to large groups of educators, but it is especially relevant now given the current state we’re in, where students have been sent home and expected to continue course work. Many schools haven’t yet reached this capability of providing lab sourced applications and resources to students (regardless of the student’s location), and that was OK, if not ideal, given that we had an on campus lab readily available. Now, however, that’s not the case. The doors to campus labs are locked and the essential service they provide isn’t available. So now, let’s revisit the virtual lab, why we need it more now than ever before, and how to get it up and running quickly (without the need for additional hardware expense).
First, let’s examine the traditional computing lab environment: Then, we’ll compare that to what we can do virtually.
CAMPUS COMPUTING LAB: a physical building with 4 walls in which there’s a certain number of workstations containing application installs related to student coursework
This model has served students well for quite some time. I worked as a student within, and as an employee for, a campus lab (Roll Tide) almost two decades ago (yikes).
The ADVANTAGES OF A CAMPUS LAB are much the same as they were 20 years ago:
- All productivity and course related software is usable from a centralized location on campus
- Complex software packages – sometimes with complex licensing requirements ($$$) – are installed within a controlled environment. This is preferable to paying for and supporting installs on either student owned or institutional provided workstations (reliability, stability and performing updates are the advantages here).
- Higher end ($$$) workstations are available for CAD/Modeling instruction.
- Students have “equal access” to computing resources. If a student doesn’t own their own computer, they can make use of the school lab to complete their coursework, surf the web, send email, etc. This is a less common scenario in the year 2020 but was especially relevant when many students didn’t own their own laptop/tablet/phone.
- Students can collaborate on team projects within a lab environment (assuming resources are available for their sized group).
Times have changed and technology has evolved, but the computing lab is still a fixture on most campuses. With virtualization, we can extend a lab to any location, on campus or off, and offer the same advantages to students a traditional lab provides.
This is especially relevant during the historic period we are in today (note: of course I am referring to COVID-19. If you’re reading this in 2025, I hope that’s a distant memory). I am willing to bet that, as of the time of this writing, your on campus lab is not available for use. Your students are no longer on campus and are (trying) to work from home. What’s that lab equipment doing in the meantime, and wouldn’t it be awesome if it were available for students to use remotely in a simple fashion?
Citrix can make that happen. No, we’re not a VPN to your lab. That won’t work well at all for several reasons I won’t get into.
What we can offer is to “pool” together all of your lab workstations, and provide them to your students just as if they were there in person, from _whatever device_ they have available from within their home. Yes, any device. Windows laptop. Mac. Chromebook. iPad. Inexpensive Android tablet. These devices need not be capable of running the applications on your lab workstations. That is because the lab workstations will continue running the applications, and your students will be delivered that experience virtually. All the computing resources occur on the lab workstations. Your students simply see the result of that computing, and can interact with the applications as if they were running from the device they’re using at home. This even includes the aforementioned high end CAD and modeling applications!
Sound too good to be true? It’s not. I’ve run through how to set it up using Citrix technology in an accompanying article. If you’d rather leave the tech details to your IT staff, please feel free to reach out to me now and provide me an introduction. Let’s get this in place immediately, because time truly is of the essence. We’re sequestered, but we don’t have to be isolated, and instruction/learning can continue.
Finally, please keep in mind, this model is extendable long past the crisis we’re in today, allowing you to truly mobilize your campus technology resources, as has been proven in multiple instances (i.e. I’ve got references):