K–12 school leaders say virtualization creates value for students, teachers and IT teams alike.
Most students who attend the Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas aren’t typically allowed to stream movies during their classes. However, some get close with a “Netflix-like” tool that they use for their career and technical education classes.
When Fort Worth’s career and technical education students need to access applications like AutoCAD, SolidWorks or Adobe Illustrator, they don’t need powerful devices. Instead, they can stream these apps from itopia on any browser-equipped device.
“They just click on the itopia icon, and — bing, bang, boom — they have a virtual desktop,” says Jenni Washington, a CTE coordinator for the district.
Like many career and technical education programs, Fort Worth’s is extremely popular. Close to 23,000 of the district’s 72,000 students are enrolled in CTE pathways ranging from hospitality and tourism to architecture and construction. Most CTE students have the opportunity to earn industry certifications for their chosen program of study. Some also pursue associate degrees along with their high school diplomas.
The district first considered virtualization for its CTE program prior to the pandemic. Equipment in many of the department’s aging Windows-based computer labs was nearly out of warranty, and instructors often struggled with reimaging and installing compatible software. Washington, who held a different position at the time, says district leaders everywhere are likely familiar with the challenge Fort Worth faced. “We just didn’t have the resources to support getting new labs for those teachers,” she explains.
When COVID-19 hit and the district moved to remote learning, the CTE department followed suit and began a trial of virtual desktop infrastructure solutions, Washington says. They cycled through several before deciding that itopia provided the best fit.
“The teachers just love how easy it is and that it doesn’t take anything to get started,” she explains.
With VDI, desktops are hosted on remote servers and can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection. In 2022, Fort Worth ISD had switched student devices in its one-to-one program, and that led to compatibility issues in CTE courses. Testing for some industry certifications required that the students use specific operating systems.
With virtualization, the district is no longer chained to particular devices or OSs. “With itopia, the back-end stuff is taken care of,” Washington says. “The device that you use doesn’t matter.”
Virtualization Provides an Efficient Solution for Multiple Use Cases
While VDI has been around for decades, interest in its ability to provide students with remote access to apps obviously spiked with the pandemic. Now, with schools back to in-person learning, the need for virtualization isn’t the same, but many districts still see a place for the technology within their overall digital transformation strategies.
At Fort Worth ISD, modern virtualization solutions offer students online access to high-end industry tools that schools previously had to host on local machines.
“We’re seeing a lot more application-based virtualization right now than full desktop virtualization,” says Melissa Tebbenkamp, an IT leadership consultant and technology director at the Consortium for School Networking.
At the school system in Missouri where Tebbenkamp recently served as CIO, IT staff turned to virtualization in select cases to avoid having to purchase high-powered devices. Students in the district use Chromebooks and Windows laptops, Tebbenkamp says, and those who need it rely on Amazon Web Services for virtualized app delivery.
For “really big” products — including advanced Adobe tools and software for science, technology, engineering and math programs such as Project Lead the Way — “virtualization makes it so your student-issued device doesn’t have to be so robust,” Tebbenkamp explains.
Washington points to the efficiency gains that also come with virtualization. To launch the Fort Worth VDI platform, for example, all a student or instructor needs to do is log in through the district’s ClassLink single sign-on solution. Similarly, the district’s IT department no longer has to spend hours on application installations and configurations, and teachers don’t need to worry about licensing or updating programs to ensure they’re always ready to run.
“Most teachers don’t have an IT background and don’t want to spend valuable time dealing with technological complications,” Washington says. “What they want is for their software to work, and they want it to work now.”
Virtual Desktops Give Users the Same Experience on Different Devices
Two hours down the road from Washington’s office, another district leader says he hears the same thing from the teachers and staff he supports.
“They depend on these applications for their labs,” says Joseph Jacks, CTO at Tyler Independent School District. “They need them, and they expect them to be reliable.”
The 18,000-student East Texas school system has used VMware for virtualization since 2009. Today, the district’s solution is powered by VMware vSphere running on Hewlett Packard Enterprise servers in its main data center.
“All of our staff are on virtual desktops, and all of our labs use VDI as well,” Jacks says. Students can also access virtual desktops on the Chromebooks they get through the district’s one-to-one program.
Jacks touts the security, mobility and device-agnostic benefits of virtualization, and he estimates that his district has saved “multimillions” in hardware and personnel costs by using the technology.
“We’re able to buy thin clients or zero clients rather than full-blown PCs, and instead of having technicians running around installing software, one person can handle the deployment remotely, hit a button and everyone’s got it,” he says.
Daryl Kisosondi, network security engineer and VDI architect at Tyler ISD, explains, “It’s a job that can take days in nonvirtualized districts with large computer labs, but we can do it in a matter of hours.”
With VDI, they simply install the application on the master image, and it’s immediately applied to everybody.
Like Fort Worth ISD, Tyler ISD is home to a CTE center with programs of study in disciplines such as law enforcement, business management and digital communications. Without virtualization, Jacks and Kisosondi say, students studying graphic design might have trouble accessing the 3D modeling and animation tools that are critical to success in their courses. A student with plans for a career in video production could find it difficult to train without Adobe Premier Pro.
On the flip side, with VDI, students in any technology-heavy class can access what they need anywhere they need it.
“That’s probably the biggest advantage of virtualization,” Jacks says. “In the computer lab, you’ll get your program on a big screen, and if you’re remote, you’ll get it on your Chromebook or whatever device you have. It doesn’t matter if you’re halfway around the world — you’re going to get the same experience.”