Moving to cloud computing during the pandemic

By Steve Rich. Posted

With learners being remote, and no chance of hands-on physical computing happening, Steve Rich turned to the cloud to generate practical evidence for his 16+ students

Where I teach, practical, hands-on assessment has been crucial for producing the evidence that our learners need for their BTEC Computing qualification, especially for the ‘Networked systems security’ and ‘Computer networking’ units. Clearly, with learners at home and our ability to support them remotely limited, we needed another option.

For us, that option was Amazon Web Services (AWS). This has allowed our learners to carry out their practical computing tasks in the cloud, completely free of charge. They connected to their self-configured virtual machines (VMs), containers, and databases via SSH, and of course, they could do this from anywhere they had an internet connection.

The free-tier minefield 

Pre-pandemic, I’d experimented with Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and AWS to host and run VMs and databases, so I knew that this could be an option once I’d negotiated the difficulties of registering to use their free-tier services. 

For security reasons, you almost always need a credit card to sign up, even for the free tier. As I did this, it made me a little nervous — what happens if I accidentally generate a huge bill because of an infinite loop? As I did more investigating, I found the Microsoft Azure student offering — it didn’t require a credit card and was suitable for UK learners aged 16+. Then I read about AWS Educate, which specifically caters for learners aged 14+ and has plenty of free credits (US$) available. 

Once registered as a teacher, AWS Educate allows you to create a classroom and invite your learners to join and receive their own free credits up to $100. This was my next worry. Would that be enough for the learners to complete all their practicals? I didn’t have to worry. In three months, my learners only used $20 of their credit. The free-tier credits are more than enough if you are careful to close down any instances when you aren’t using them. Even when I mistakenly left a VM running for a few weeks, it only burned through an additional $10 of credit. 

Through the Educate classroom, you can monitor student activity and assist them when needed — for example, if a student has a configuration issue, you can log in and see their view of the AWS dashboard and make changes or suggestions. You can also assign templates as a starting point, and learners can also earn AWS digital badges — Cloud Explorer, Cloud Inventor, and Cloud Builder, which are fantastic experiences for them and great for their CVs. 

Our experience with AWS Educate 

From our point of view, learners were able to set up their required practical sessions in the cloud, install and configure software, then tweak and test security settings. Overall, nearly 100 Year 12 and 13 students successfully used it for their practical computing tasks. As long as they had a device to access the internet, they could complete the required tasks. There was little strain on the device they were using to access it, as it was all happening in the cloud, so that helped with equipment accessibility. There was also no chance of the cloud being lost or misplaced, so the learners could always access what they needed, when they needed it.

The pandemic forced my college to investigate cloud learning options much more quickly than we otherwise would have done. As we now return to a more traditional classroom setting, we’ll inevitably revert to physical computing for many of our activities, but I will certainly continue to incorporate some elements of cloud computing. As enterprise IT continues to migrate nearly all services to the cloud, it makes sense to equip our learners with the right practical skills needed to flourish in the new normal

What can you do?

Below are some suggestions of the educational practical activities and experiences that you can run in the cloud for free:

  • Set up and host your own dynamic website

  • Run your own VPN server

  • Practise your command line skills

  • Host a web app

  • Access remote desktop Linux applications

  • Host an SQL (or NoSQL) database

  • Machine learning


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