Colleges expand VPN capacity, conferencing to answer COVID-19

Colleges that moved from on-campus classrooms to remote learning due to COVID-19 had to quickly upgrade networks to support new VPN connections for remote access. Fortunately, many online learning platforms rely on cloud-based applications that don’t put additional strain on campus networks.

For example, The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., added extra VPN user licenses for students and staff now working from home. It also ramped up its VPN-server capacity, according to Dr. Ellen J. Keohane, the college’s CIO. “We’re definitely seeing higher demand on that.”

To accommodate remote learning, the school is using cloud-based services including Google Meet, Panapto (for video recording), and Zoom for videoconferencing. The college bought an upgrade to Zoom Enterprise, which adds classroom features such as breakouts and “raise hand”. It also integrates with Google email and calendars, Keohane said.

She said technology companies have been helpful. “I’m very happy to see some of the technology vendors stepping up to offer free services, such as Google adding Meet Premium to G Suite for Education customers, which allows recording of Google Meet conferencing sessions,” said Keohane. “I suppose it’s in their interest long-term, but not having to spend the extra money for the services at this time is really helpful.”

A larger challenge is working with students to get them Chromebooks or other computers. The school is also scrambling to get enough wireless hot-spot devices that use WAN services such as 4G for Internet access. They can be used to connect students who don’t have broadband internet access at home.

Students who do have home broadband may still have trouble connecting to two-way video and classroom services that require high bandwidth. “Families may need to coordinate who is working online and for what content, giving priority to synchronous school work,” said Keohane.

A recent upgrade helps USC

The IT staff at the University of Southern California found itself in luck when students were sent home to finish off the semester. “The complete re-architecting and replacement of our network that finished in January were capable of supporting the increased demand,” said Douglas Shook, the CIO at USC. “We are fortunate that we invested in our networks prior to COVID-19.”

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