COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges to the online learning environment, making it imperative for schools and colleges in Hong Kong to accelerate their adoption of digital communication and video conferencing services. One such challenge lies in the access to campus labs, whose virtual doors had remained closed to students until the introduction of Azure Lab Services (ALS) to Hong Kong.
In a first initiative of its kind for Hong Kong and the Asia Pacific region, the College of Professional and Continuing Education (CPCE) of PolyU is working hand in hand with Microsoft Hong Kong to address this challenge through the deployment of the ALS which enables students to access virtual labs anytime, anywhere.
Taking the in-person lab experience virtual with Azure Lab Services
A recent study by Microsoft and The Economist Intelligence Unit discovered that only 22% of students in the US, UK, Australia, and Germany were very satisfied with their schools’ adoption of tech and digital tools since the outbreak of COVID-19. A quarter said their schools were not equipped at all when it came to interactive simulations and games.[i]
The same problem also existed in Hong Kong and the Asia Pacific region. Without specialized software at home, students in a range of disciplines including engineering, programming, and design at PolyU CPCE were not able to complete assignments or take exams, not to mention attending lab classes in person – before the introduction of ALS.
The ALS takes the lab experience virtual at PolyU CPCE, meaning that students can access the virtual labs anytime and anywhere from the cloud. Just like their physical counterparts, the virtual labs provide a complementary experience for students who can use the same software and resources from home. With ALS, students can learn from hands-on experience, through trial and error, rectifying their own mistakes before they are graded.
Serena Cheung, Director, Public Sector Group, Microsoft Hong Kong, said “Azure Lab Services provide limitless learning between online and offline learning environments. It allows faculty members to focus on preparing the right lab experience for their students with automatic management of Azure infrastructure, meaning it is easy to scale the lab to hundreds of virtual machines. Anyone who is invited to the lab will have immediate access to the resources inside, without needing an Azure subscription. One of the key benefits of the virtual lab is the ability to track time spent inside and set usage limits.”
Discovering ALS’s broader application in online language exams
The deployment of the ALS at PolyU CPCE began before the start of the last semester. With its user-friendly interface for teachers and students and low setup cost, the ALS reached 8000+ virtual machines in the first 2 weeks.
Azure Lab Services provides easy, immediate access to VMs for invited users with its user-friendly interface
PolyU CPCE has created virtual lab classes for as many as 19 subject areas, from IT, programming, engineering, to design and languages, serving approximately 2,000 students. Yet it has found an even broader application in online language examinations – with around 5,100 students logging in to use the service.
Dr Jason Chan, JP, Head of Information Technology of PolyU CPCE, said “Azure Lab Services provides more flexibility in classes and allows the faculty to engage better with students. We spoke to students and found they enjoyed their freedom to access hands-on practical experiences more frequently, and they value the time they save by not needing to visit the campus to test or finish their homework. Overall, our students and faculty members are happy with this seamless transition between the physical and virtual learning environments provided by Azure Lab Services.”
Expanding learning possibilities in hybrid mode
Looking ahead, PolyU CPCE has committed to expanding the implementation of the ALS to a broader range of regular classes, especially as the demand for virtual IT labs expands over time. There are also plans to assess the feasibility of complementing physical classes with online ones in hybrid mode supported by Azure Lab Services to allow for greater flexibility in the learning experience.
Dr Chan added, “We are looking ahead to a future of the lab learning environment that is a hybrid of two worlds, where the best teaching and learning can happen no matter where or when. We are excited to be able to provide ubiquitous access to different applications and unified user experiences anytime, anywhere for our students with Microsoft’s continued support. By turning this crisis into an opportunity, we can empower our students to continue their lab classes anywhere under the new normal.”
Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) enables digital transformation for the era of an intelligent cloud and an intelligent edge. Its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.
College of Professional and Continuing Education (CPCE) was founded in 2002 as a self-financed college of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). CPCE oversees the day-to-day operation and development of its two educational units, namely Hong Kong Community College (HKCC) and School of Professional Education and Executive Development (SPEED). CPCE aims at fostering synergy between the two units in the provision of quality education. CPCE’s vision is to be a leading self-financing tertiary education institution in Hong Kong. With a mission to offer high quality tertiary education to learners at different stages of their studies/ career, CPCE offers education pathways with multiple entries and exits.
For more information about CPCE, please visit: www.cpce-polyu.edu.hk.
[i] Bridging the Digital Divide to Engage Students in Higher Education