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Beyond the Classroom: TAFE NSW redefining education’s landscape through virtual labs

A leading provider of life-long learning, TAFE NSW, takes immense pride in skilling the workforce of the future by providing excellence in education and training. However, with the rapid shift to the online realm caused by the pandemic, TAFE NSW needed to re-evaluate its approach and how it assists students in the digital era.

TAFE NSW has been at the forefront of delivering practical hands-on training for more than 130 years. Educating students from school leaver level to those seeking a career change, TAFE NSW provides an extensive range of qualifications and educational support that meet the teaching needs of each individual student – whether that be online, on campus or on-site.

In its extensive time as an education provider, TAFE NSW has continually improved its delivery methods but when COVID-19 hit the education sector it presented a new challenge to the way courses are delivered; a challenge that required a long-term outlook.

With a commitment to innovation in the digital age, TAFE NSW has consistently demonstrated a dedication to pioneering online learning, empowering students with the knowledge and skills to pursue their desired careers. Nevertheless, a crucial question loomed large: “How can we ensure the availability of accessible and supportive online resources for all our students?”

As TAFE NSW Head Teacher of Information Technology, Dang Le puts it:

“We recognise the importance of constant innovation and adaptability in our training programs and how we deliver them. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we understood the necessity to enhance our training offerings and delivery methods.”

Technology equity was a huge driver in our adaption to these teaching methods. We knew that if we were going to change things up, we wanted to make sure that each and every student would be able to access the various labs used in ICT training from their homes, regardless of the type of computer they have.

Driven by these factors, TAFE NSW embraced the concept of leveraging cloud technologies and launched a pilot program for Microsoft’s Azure Lab Services, initiated by the Director of the Student Experience Group, Irene Ireland and Team Lead, Lisa Townsend. The globally utilised program enables educators to seamlessly provide students with instant or scheduled access to preconfigured virtual computers, mirroring the functionality of campus computers. With a meticulous focus on providing exemplary student experience, the task of implementing the Azure Labs Services for students was approached head-on.

Getting the balance right with Azure Labs

After Irene and her team identified Microsoft’s Azure Lab service as the preferred solution for their vision of digital equity enhancing ICT delivery, they approached Microsoft for support with developing a pilot programme that would provide remote access to hand-on ICT Labs for students enrolled in over 15 campuses across the state where ICT training is delivered.

Swinging into action, TAFE NSW kicked off the pilot program using its game design courses as the testing ground for the trial.

“The implementation of Microsoft Azure Labs for the students was a great learning opportunity for us. We were able to test and learn, and truly understand where different aspects could be improved. For our gaming students, it was also a chance for them to tell us what they would like to see in this software” says Demi Spencer-Hirt, Education Support Officer for game design at TAFE NSW.

Taking into account student and teacher feedback was a crucial catalyst in the process, so Dang and Demi alongside their team, joined forces with the Microsoft team to ensure an exceptional student experience. With their teams’ concerted efforts, the service was successfully launched in 2022 across a range of ICT courses from the Certificate III to the Degree level, which expanded the provision of customised virtual computers to over 1200 students.

“We launched the program and began training teachers and students on how to access their virtual Azure labs. The students embraced the new delivery method and provided fantastic feedback—it just clicked seamlessly for them. What delighted us the most was that every student, even with a very basic low-end computer, could access and work on complex labs in the Azure cloud. This was a crucial factor that drove our initiative,” Dang remarked.

In collaboration with the Microsoft Azure Lab Services team, Dang and his team were able to tailor the virtual computer configurations to the unique needs of each subject. This innovative solution enabled teachers to create a more personalised and engaging educational environment for their students.

The benefits of virtualisation of computer labs

“When we introduced Microsoft Azure Labs at TAFE NSW, students loved the convenience of accessing their computer labs from their homes or other locations as well as TAFE classrooms. They could start a lab exercise or project in class under the guidance of their expert teachers, continue working on them from home, even during the vacation period. Students who missed some classes were also able to take advantage of this feature.”

One of the biggest benefits was that we could supplement the delivery of ICT courses requiring on-campus computer labs with powerful computers that enhance remote online delivery, providing a wider reach and flexibility in ICT delivery.

“Our students and teachers in regional locations like Albury or Coffs Harbour were also able to join in virtually, breaking down the barriers of distance,” Dang added.

Furthermore, leveraging the efficiencies of cloud computing resulted in cost savings for TAFE NSW by reducing the need to purchase and maintain high-end computers. It also helped provide scalability to match fluctuating student enrolment numbers and training demand.

With the widespread success of Azure Labs among students across various regions, TAFE NSW plans to expand its online course offerings, with a particular focus on the cybersecurity field. This expansion will further enhance accessibility and flexibility for learners, ensuring they can pursue their education conveniently and effectively.