From learning management systems like Blackboard and Canvas to smart classrooms and educational toys, schools are increasingly incorporating technology into their daily practices. In 2020, these efforts reached new heights as schools across the world embraced remote learning to curb the spread of Covid-19.
As schools reopen and students return to in-person learning, remote learning and online classrooms will continue to have numerous use cases such as providing flexible learning options, enhancing student performance, monitoring student activity, and engaging students in new ways with educational IoT.
In spite of the benefits of digital classrooms, many challenges exist in implementing and scaling technology in schools. By bringing serverless computing to the edge, Azion solves these problems with products that are used by our educational clients, such as UniCesumar, one of the largest educational groups in Brazil. This article will explain what digital classrooms are, discuss their challenges, and show how Azion’s Edge Platform can solve common challenges with educational technology.
What Are Digital Classrooms?
The popular teaching website TeachHub defines digital classrooms simply as “a classroom that is fully immersed in technology.” This broad definition encompasses a range of use cases, including:
- remote learning and online courses;
- web-based and multimedia lessons;
- the use of ML/AI to increase student performance;
- online collaboration via learning management systems;
- virtual training and immersive learning with AR/VR and other IoT; and
- smart classrooms with interactive whiteboards and other devices.
Smart devices, Internet-connected classrooms, the growing use of education technology tools, and a shift to a personalized and interactive learning approach are all driving growth in the educational technology market according to a 2019 study conducted by Grandview Research. From K-12 to higher education and professional certifications, educational technology can help individuals with different learning needs, such as individuals with disabilities who require assistive technology to adults with full-time jobs and families who can fit online coursework into their busy schedules.
How Does Azion Support Digital Classrooms?
Azion’s Edge Platform helps in the implementation and scaling of digital classrooms by combining two powerful technologies: edge computing and serverless computing.
Edge computing, as defined by LFE’s Open Glossary of Edge Computing, involves “the delivery of computing capabilities to the logical extremes of a network … shortening the distance between devices and the cloud resources that serve them, and also reducing network hops.” By avoiding lengthy round trips to and from centralized—and often faraway—data centers, edge computing is able to:
- Lower latency
- Improve bandwidth
- Reduce operating costs
- Use resources efficiently
- Minimize exposure to sensitive data
In addition, Azion’s use of serverless computing amplifies the cost and resource efficiency of edge computing. With serverless computing, developers can create event-driven functions that scale automatically, reducing costs by simplifying operations and eliminating waste that results from provisioning resources ahead of time. Azion further improves efficiency and performance by avoiding the use of containers, which have a high runtime cost and can inhibit the performance of serverless functions.
What are the Challenges of Digital Classrooms?
Integrating technology into the education sector presents numerous challenges, which range from the technical complications of deploying and scaling equipment to issues that may arise as students adjust to new technologies and classroom environments.
Common challenges include:
- creating flexible infrastructure and scaling resources;
- delivering real-time video in areas with poor connectivity;
- securing digital classrooms and equipment;
- obtaining timely support for IT tasks; and
- monitoring remote students’ attention.
Serverless computing and edge computing provide solutions to these challenges with benefits such as scalable infrastructure, high availability, low latency, and localized security.
Local emergencies or a global crisis like the pandemic where schools need to scale resources up and down quickly, the efficient resource use and automatic scalability of serverless computing is a necessity to sustain the integrity of the school’s infrastructure. Emergency procedures required many schools to transition to online learning overnight while others had to substantially scale existing digital classrooms to accommodate an influx of students who normally attend classes on campus. In addition, changing regulations and fluctuating infection rates required many schools to alternate between in-person and online learning, necessitating highly elastic infrastructure which could not only scale up quickly, but scale down as needed to avoid wasting resources.
The need for elasticity not only extends to the pandemic, but other educational scenarios as well. Although schools may have relatively little need for intensive networking resources during summer vacation or spring break, events like registration, final exams, and other busy periods may demand high bandwidth to ensure that students can access online platforms in a timely manner. In this case, edge computing provides a key advantage by decentralizing data processing, resulting in less congestion than would occur in a centralized system.
Increasing reliance on connected devices means an increased need for connectivity. Networking issues that prevent teachers from using smart boards for planned presentations or interrupt distance learning classes can turn educational technology into a liability, rather than an asset. As a result, schools must not only have a network that is highly fault tolerant, but one that is capable of addressing any connectivity issues that arise in a timely manner.
Edge computing improves availability by processing data locally, reducing the possibility of network interruptions during lengthy trips to and from the cloud. In addition, because edge computing relies on software-defined networking, edge computing companies like Azion can provide remote IT access, rather than having to address networking issues in person. As noted by a recent blog post in IoT Evolution World, “Being able to do most, if not all, of these tasks remotely is critical not only because of the cost of travelling to these sites but also for minimizing downtime because of delayed response times due to travel.”
For online classes, speed and real-time data is a necessity to enable efficient communication between teachers and students. Communication lags during lectures, question and answer sessions, or group work could leave some students struggling to catch up with their peers or unable to fully participate in their coursework. As a result, such classes must not only have real-time video capabilities, but the ability to deliver those videos to students in geographically disparate areas, with varying bandwidth, network conditions, and connection speeds.
Low latency also enables next-generation applications which can be used to improve student engagement, personalize learning, and bring students interactive experiences. Real-time data processing is needed for AI/ML, which, as noted in a recent Deloitte article, “[allow] learning institutions to create automated processes that track and increase student engagement and involve parents.” In addition, AR and VR IoT can bring students more interactive experiences and gamify learning to make lessons more interactive and drive interest in different subjects.
As Internet traffic increases, the incidents of cybercrime tend to increase as well. Last year’s increase in online education was no exception; at the time this article was written, education was the top target for malware, accounting for 63% of all malware attacks in the past 30 days, according to Microsoft Security Intelligence’s Global Threat Activity. DDoS attacks have also escalated in the education sector, with the online security magazine Dark Reading citing a 550% increase in January 2020 compared to January 2019.
Securing these threats is crucial to ensuring the availability and functionality of educational technology. Not only can edge computing stop threats from reaching schools’ origin infrastructure, ensuring systems stay online in the face of DDoS and other attacks, it enables on-site and local processing of sensitive data to ensure students’ privacy.
By leveraging the benefits of both serverless and edge computing, Azion’s educational clients are able to create innovative solutions to the challenges of digital classrooms. One example of our work in the education sector is UniCesumar, who used Azion’s products to deliver secure, always available, and high-performance video to more than 190,000 students who use its platform daily. Its use cases include:
- Edge Application: to accelerate application performance and provide intelligent and personalized caching without provisioning resources.
- Edge Functions: to implement authentication and authorization for online platforms, preventing leakage of content addressed to enrolled students.
- Edge Firewall: to create security rules that expand access control in real time, maintaining the availability of learning platforms amid complex security events.
As a result of their partnership with Azion, UniCesumar’s platform is now 70% faster and has remained 100% available. In addition, UniCesumar was able to decrease infrastructure resources, reduce costs, and simplify operations in spite of increased online access due to the pandemic.