The Covid-19 outbreak brought an unprecedented crisis on all sectors and especially to the education sector in the UAE. The preventive and precautionary measures issued by the Ministry of Education to contain the spread of the coronavirus included shutting schools and higher education institutions across the UAE, starting 8 March 2020 until the end of the academic year, and converting to distance learning.
Ankabut – the Emirates Advanced National Research and Education Network – jointly funded by Khalifa University (KU) and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) through the ICT Fund, sought to ensure continuity of distant learning capabilities and smooth running of all network services related to education at KU and member universities and institutions.
Online learning ecosystem at Khalifa University
Ankabut Swung into action to develop a hosted solution for meeting the requirements of delivering virtual classes online. The Ankabut IT team created an online learning ecosystem, comprised of four interconnecting layers. These layers included of the Community of users, the Learning Management System (LMS), the Virtual Classrooms and the tools for Content Development and Management.
Recognizing that the University faculty have different needs and preferences according to required learning outcomes, the Ankabut team set up three different virtual classroom platforms, including Big Blue Button, Microsoft Teams and Black Board Collaborate which the Faculty could use as per their preference.
The BigBlueButton, which is an open source solution for teleconferencing, was installed with four redundant servers to make sure that high availability was maintained. Features like load balancing and TURN were implemented to make sure that the solution was reliable. This solution was integrated with the LMS. Ample storage was provisioned to make sure that the virtual classes could be recorded and linked to the LMS.
Ankabut also negotiated a contract with Blackboard LMS. Blackboard Collaborate was integrated with the LMS and launched quickly to offer a third choice for delivery of virtual classes.
The core of the solution still remained the LMS, which needed to be resized to cater for the increased load. The system was transformed with load balanced front end servers and a clustered database to meet the new demands.
Ankabut also had to ensure that the systems would not throttle due to bandwidth limitations. The local service providers responded quickly to Ankabut’s request and 2 GB of internet bandwidth was provisioned within a few days.
Another aspect to managing the solutions was the ability to measure and report. Ankabut’s SOC was utilized to make sure that the solutions and the network was monitored round-the-clock to monitor, report and take corrective actions.
Faculty training was also an integral part of the preparations. In collaboration with the CTL, extensive training sessions were arranged for all the platforms offered.
Other members subscribing to Ankabut services
The primary focus was to achieve reliability of services and quick resolution of any issue. External identified solutions were quickly integrated with the AD and solutions to provide seamless access for member users.
Clients that used Ankabut’s co-location services had to have complete visibility on the status of their systems and the availability of dashboards helped enhance the user confidence.
Securing access to enterpriser applications hosted within the datacenter was another important aspect that needed to be set up. VPN accounts for all faculty and staff were setup with role based access. In order to ensure security, Azure MFA was setup and rolled out to users accessing VPN.
Support levels were maintained despite the higher number of cases during the initial rollout. Although, in many cases the support involved isolating issues at the user network, the team was able to resolve cases and ensure that learning was not hindered.
Extending Support to Faculty, Staff and Students
The Ankabut Reach platform is being used by all member institutions to raise support tickets and track progress. The support staff was trained quickly on the new solutions which ensured handling the tickets in a timely manner. Overall, Ankabut was able make sure that there were very few SLA violations and the Mean Time for resolution was within the acceptable limits.