Victoria University builds work-ready graduates, streamlines learning with Azure Lab Services

When Victoria University (VU) became the first Australian institution to pioneer the Block Model of teaching and learning its goal was to enhance learning outcomes, boost retention rates and course completions, and prepare students with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the modern workplace.

Instead of students studying four units in parallel per semester, the VU Block Model sees them study units one at a time in four-week blocks – completing each one before moving onto the next. Offering both vocational and higher education courses, VU serves more than 42,000 students and runs more than 150 computer labs across its ten campuses.

In a more traditional university setting, computer labs are often set up during the semester break. Since there are no students during the break, it doesn’t matter that a lab might take a fortnight to configure.

The VU Block Model, however, means that as one block’s lab finishes on a Friday, the next one needs to be up and ready first thing Monday. The Model’s inherent flexibility also means that the student cohort that finished a block on Friday won’t be the same as the one that starts on the Monday – so different students will need access to the labs.

Azure Lab Services has been deployed for its agility, scalability and the rapid response that VU needs. It allows teaching staff to configure their virtual machines themselves, and load up the labs with state-of-the-art software so that students gain real world experience and are fully prepared for the workforce.

According to Patrick O’Neill, information, digital media and technology program lead at VU’s vocational teaching arm VU Polytechnic, it’s a game-changer. “This is a very fluid and easy user interface, for me it’s brilliant and most importantly [it enhances] the student experience – they really like it.

“The real gap for students in the past was they didn’t get to have as much practical experience with system admin tools which could, in turn, make entering the workforce a bit daunting for them,” says O’Neill.

Azure Lab Services allows different labs to be stood up rapidly, for teachers to populate them with state-of-the-art software appropriate to the unit being taught, and then make that available to enrolled students when and where they need it. “It has a huge impact on their confidence, they know what to expect and can hit the ground running,” says O’Neill.

At the same time he says that it has been a time saver for teaching staff, giving back hours once spent on designing labs that they can now invest in lesson preparation and meeting student needs.

Improved student outcomes

In the first year of the Block Model’s introduction, first year pass rates jumped to over 80 per cent and the number of students securing distinctions and high distinctions rose to 40 per cent.

Zoran Sugarevski, Executive Director of VU Information Technology Services says; “The Model is working and results demonstrate that this approach to learning is producing better outcomes for students.”

Access to the right learning environment and computer labs is fundamental to that success. The VU Block Model does away with large lecture theatres, and instead has small classes tackling one unit of learning at a time.

“Because we run on a four-week cycle, Azure Lab Services has been critical for us to be responsive to the Block Model strategy,” says Sugarevski. “We don’t have time to spend a couple of weeks building infrastructure and capability. From the moment the block finishes on a Friday our infrastructure has to be ready for the Monday.”

Azure Labs ticked the boxes regarding speed to deploy, agility, flexibility, scale and trust. It also provides a safe environment where students can experiment using state-of-the-art tools without fear that they might inadvertently create a problem for other users.

“Azure Lab Services provided that mechanism. We want students to learn, to challenge, identify resolutions to problems. Azure Lab Services gives us that flexibility, so that they are job ready and innovative graduates that challenge traditional thinking,” he adds.

Erwin Manuel, a Cloud Infrastructure Engineer at VU, adds that using the cloud-based solution has streamlined the workload of the university’s IT Services team. Previously computer labs had been set up using an on-premise VMware farm which had to be maintained in-house, and every lab had to be created using specialised scripts. Setting up a single lab could easily take a week or two.

Manuel explains that VU initially trialled a preview of Azure Lab Services with one teacher who was impressed with how simple it was to set up and use. VU has now deployed Azure Lab Services across two of its colleges and continues to add new classes.

And those classes and labs are provisioned and configured by the teachers rather than VU’s IT professionals. The teachers can configure the lab how they wish and enrol the students participating in the block. If a new piece of software needs to be featured in the course the teacher can add that into the lab; if more compute power is required to teach a specific part of the block curriculum then more virtual machines can be spun up on demand – and by the same token reduced when required.

Teachers can also control students’ out-of-hours access to computer labs and create their own reusable VM templates for the labs they want to run.

Then at the end of the academic year VU’s access to Azure Lab Services is suspended – so the University doesn’t pay for labs that aren’t being used.

According to Sugarevski; “If you can create a more connected group of students working on real-world practical problems, that accelerates their learning, produces better outcomes for the students and creates a more skilled workforce that can be highly employable.”


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