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Education
Contributor: Darren Baguley
Higher education at the leading edge of tech

Higher education institutions have always been at the cutting-edge of technology and EduTech 2016 showed this has never been more the case.

The rise of technology, such as massive open and online courses (MOOCs), global research collaboration and virtual environments, is driving a computing power and infrastructure revolution in modern universities.

Supporting the power-intensive activities of students and staff of the future presents IT staff with a variety of exciting challenges. That's why a lively panel discussion on 'The challenge of scale and globalisation – how will established universities accommodate technical changes and new demands over the next 20 years?' came into play at EduTech 2016, an event recently sponsored by Lenovo. 

Pleased to MOOC you

According to University of Adelaide chief information officer Mark Gregory, running MOOCs requires a whole shift in mindset in a number of areas. “We started our first MOOC in November 2014 and a year-and-a-half later, we’ve got 250,000 new customers. We’re also finding that 20 per cent of those customers want to take a subsequent course with us. That means that 50,000 people – twice the number of students we have on our campus – want to buy our product.

“So, suddenly you have to start thinking of how you manage student data. We put in a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system for our campus to use around the same time we started the MOOCs but now we’re trying to mine that data to figure out what a potential student wants and how to interface that into our recruitment programs.”

In February, the University of Adelaide switched on Phoenix, a high-performance computing (HPC) system underpinned by Lenovo’s x86 NeXtScale tech  powered by Intel® Xeon® processor, which provides more than 4300 of its researchers with the computing power they need to analyse large data sets. Impressively, it will be among the top 500 fastest supercomputers in the world.

Gregory also noted that not only does the university’s IT infrastructure need to be bulletproof from a reliability perspective, “The quality of the platforms that you’re communicating with these students on has to be first class because you [often] don’t have the chance to deal with them in person. We can’t really get them to stop by the office because they’re nowhere near the office. It really is a shift in mindset.”

Virtual labs heating up

According to Queensland Brain Institute’s senior information technology manager Jake Carroll, it’s what happens after the MOOC that's more interesting. “There is a growing heat inside the virtual laboratory as a consequence of the MOOC and the interest that it’s created,” he said.

“So, we need to find a way to scale in the background when people do become interested in it and we get 800 or 80,000 people rocking up and saying we want a virtual online course on project management. For us, it’s become a research-intensive scenario where we know we have to scale at cloud level and we have to consider the storage, the network and the files behind all that.”

The Queensland Brain Institute is also building a 3D map of the human brain, which creates 30 gigabytes of data per second. The project requires high levels of GPU power and acceleration, and leverages Lenovo hardware to support its researchers in this area. 

Workload diversity an issue

While being able to scale is definitely a challenge for today’s higher education institutions, Intel technical manager Graham Tucker said the real challenge is diversity of workloads. “[Whether it’s virtual reality], machine learning, high-performance computing [or just day-to-day running a university], you need different hardware infrastructure to scale across those loads. I think that is the challenge for universities. How do you get that diverse range of hardware out there that's usable for students and staff?”

Consistent user experience vital

While scale was a popular theme at EduTech 2016's Higher Education session, Jake Carroll said it’s important to also consider consistency of deployment to the desk.

“Gone are the days where a researcher or student should be happy or content with logging into a shell or terminal session," he said. "They want a quick touch with a tablet or smartphone. We’re in the age of instant gratification, although I don’t say that in a negative way. People expect to be able to pick up a smartphone or tablet and have access to a rich experience which needs to be crafted with good software engineering, good development and full stack capabilities.”

HPC data caching

While speaking of scaling powerful IT infrastructure, the topic of high-performance computing (HPC) naturally came up, and Carroll highlighted a key issue that higher education universities have to face.

“One of the core problems we have with HPC is data locality and we’re solving that with a mix of technologies that are not necessarily off the shelf. We call it metropolic and area data caching, and we have created effectively a data-caching fabric for the entire area. We’re taking data locality and moving things close to the computer autonomously so the researcher doesn’t need to worry about where the data sits.”

Mark Gregory, however, played down discussions about scale because he believed many universities are already at scale with robust high-performance infrastructure. For him, it’s about the user. “[The key thing is to] build a system that’s so obvious, you’ll know how to use it regardless of whether you’re a researcher or a first-year student.”

 

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