Creating a campus in the cloud

When International Horizons College set up operations in Dubai, it wanted to keep its systems simple yet enable powerful collaboration between students and staff. It turned to du, to develop an extensive managed services package, including networks, hardware and education applications in the cloud

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Creating a campus in the cloud Dr Michael Dobe, Ph.D, president and CEO of International Horizon’s College, a new American Honours College in Dubai. (ITP Images)
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By  Mark Sutton Published  August 15, 2013

When International Horizons College set up operations in Dubai, it wanted to keep its systems simple yet enable powerful collaboration between students and staff. It turned to du, to develop an extensive managed services package, including networks, hardware and education applications in the cloud.

Getting up green field operations can be an expensive and time consuming business for any organisation, but for the education sector, where expenditure ideally is focused on learning rather than support structures, it is even more important that every dollar is spent wisely. With the education sector increasingly moving towards connected classrooms and a much greater degree of technology in teaching however, delivering the modern systems and infrastructure to enable state-of-the-art learning while keeping IT investment under control is a difficult proposition. For International Horizons College (IHC), a new American Honours College, based in Dubai, the solution to how to deliver a 21st century learning experience without major investment, was to turn to the cloud.

Dr Michael Dobe, President and CEO of IHC, said that the college, which offers two-year Associate of Arts degrees, aims to take a global, collaborative approach to learning, and to give its high-performing students an advanced and open learning environment, to prepare them for study in leading US academic institutions. The college teaches the American curriculum, and has a partnership with another two year college in the US, to provide pathways into the prestigious University of California system. IHC was accredited by UAE authorities in December, and took on a small group of students in January. The college will have a full launch in Autumn, with the aim of taking on 50 students.

As a ‘start-up’ operation, with no existing infrastructure, IHC could be flexible in terms of IT, but it was very much committed to putting technology, such as videoconferencing at the heart of teaching, Dobe explained. Solutions such as high-definition video are a vital part of IHC’s vision of a Global Classroom, which enables face-to-face collaboration between students and faculty in Dubai, and with their counterparts at the partner college in the US. The aim is to expose students to US teaching methods, and foster collaboration, rather than to create a distance learning program.

“We don’t use it as a distance education platform, we use it as a face-to-face virtual enhancement. We are all about the global classroom, the physical facilities are critical to us,” Dobe said. “We really value face-to-face, whether it is physical or virtual, we value the interaction between students and faculty, and we share the skepticism about the quality issues of fully online distance programs. Our model is face-to-face, where the quality of instruction and interaction between the faculty and students is at the heart of the experience — you can’t replace that with a blog.”

The solution to putting in high end solutions, without the attendant costs, support requirements, time to deploy and complexity, was to look to managed services. Dobe has previous experience with managed services, both in the region and the US and Europe, and has even worked as a managed service CIO. IHC turned to UAE telco du, to see what could be developed in terms of managed services. Using his past experience with managed solutions, Dobe worked with du to develop a wide-ranging deal, which involves du providing connectivity to the campus, hosting applications, and providing the hardware and software systems such as video conferencing cameras, all delivered in a hosted model.

“We have a unique relationship with du, they are a very agile company, they have been very co-operative and very flexible,” Dobe said. “We are getting solutions from du — we don’t focus on the equipment, we focus on what we need the functionality to be. du is able to meet our needs in a way that blends networking, hardware and software, so that it is transparent to us which components we are actually getting from them. The equipment in the classrooms, no one has ever gotten that as part of a bundle [before], we developed that with du as a complete end-to-end solution.”

IHC is a ‘campus in the cloud’ both physically, as well as technological. Located on the forty-second floor of the U-Bora Tower in Dubai’s Business Bay, the college benefits from being in a brand new building, with good IT infrastructure and connectivity. With all of the college’s systems in the cloud, a stable, resilient network connection was required, and du provides a two fibre run to IHC to ensure constant availability and no single point of failure.

In terms of applications, IHC has committed to an all Software-as-a-Service model, with no in-house coding and no servers on the premises, now or in future.

The student information management system is sourced from a cloud provider in the US, and because the UAE Ministry of Education has based its best practice approaches on US accreditation bodies, maintenance of course materials and so on, this meant that the system could be used out-of-the-box, costing 10-20% of what an on-premise system would have cost.

For the learning and collaboration applications, IHC selected Google Apps for Education, Dobe explained: “We use a number of different systems that are cloud-based that enable collaboration with faculty and students. The baseline that we established was Google apps, we thought the email was a great fit, but it is more than just email. Google Apps for Education includes docs, spreadsheets, videos, groupware, you can have a common discussion group etc.

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