BIO: Jason Kinsella is a director at Heropa, formerly Cloud People, an online education company, founded in 2010. Heropa’s Virtual Labs platform provides education institutions with a fast, easy and secure method to create full-featured IT practice labs in the cloud.

The Next Generation of IT Practice Labs

At Cloud People, we have been working with large education institutions now for almost ten years. These include TAFEs, Universities and private RTOs. One challenge that we’ve found that all these institutions have in common, is giving their students access to real IT equipment. This could be for labs, practical assessments or coursework. Students enrolled in IT courses want to roll their sleeves up and get hands-on practice.

The challenge of providing hands-on labs is even greater as education moves from traditional classrooms to an online environment. Online learning is seeing significant growth at the moment. In the past 5 years revenue has grown by on average 14% a year, and the forecast for 2018 is $8.8 billion dollars. However, student engagement levels and completion rates continue to drop with this change.

There are a number of ways that we have seen institutions try to solve this challenge. They either build an in-house solution or, they provide their students access to the software vendors online lab offering. Both of these approaches have their own challenges. In-house solutions are expensive to implement and difficult to manage. The software vendors online lab solutions, while usually provided at no cost to the institution, often suffer from poor performance, are limited in course availability and technical support, but most importantly the institution loses visibility of student activity.

Two years ago at Cloud People, we started to develop a platform to solve those challenges. There were number of key features that it needed to have to really provide value to our customers. The first was that it needed to be cloud hosted and fully supported by our technical staff. This would allow institutions to remain focused on teaching, and not the management of the underlying technology. By hosting it in the cloud, and allowing access from any modern web browser without the need to install additional software, it would provide easy and secure access for both remote and classroom based students. We also considered the needs of course administrators during our two years of development. Our platform would need to provide detailed reporting of student activity to assist in managing engagement levels and completion rates, the creation and publishing of courses needed to intuitive. And lastly, it should become an extension of the institution by custom branding and LMS integration.

The result of these two years of development is Virtual Labs. Virtual Labs is a cloud hosted IT practice labs platform. It is fully integrated with all major learning management systems to provide students seamless access to practical modules of IT courses. Students are given hands-on access to real equipment – servers, desktops, and networking equipment, in their own secure private cloud. They have full administrative access to interact with the equipment and they can carry out their own configurations, or follow lab guides. Course administrators are given access to detailed student metrics that allow tracking student progress and management of engagement levels.

We have seen institutions increase student engagement and completion rates, while reducing the total cost of ownership by implementing Virtual Labs. This has been very encouraging for us. We still consider Virtual Labs to be a young product, and feedback from our customers is invaluable in helping us define the future product roadmap.

We understand that moving online is difficult for traditional education institutions and try to assist in every way possible, including building and running free Virtual Labs trials for all customers.