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Deakin Uni's timely cloud prep helps 62,000 students move online during COVID-19

Online learning never seemed so seamless for the Melbourne-based university.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

When March 1 hit and social distancing was imposed, Deakin University, like many organisations, were forced to rethink how it would help its 10,500 staff and 62,000 students, including some located overseas, work and learn online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fortunately, for the Melbourne-based university, offering online learning to students was not completely alien.

Deakin University has been offering online learning through what it dubs CloudDeakin, a cloud-hosted learning management system, since 1993.

Deakin University chief digital officer Craig Warren told ZDNet that while its cloud campus looks a lot different compared to how it was when it first launched, CloudDeakin is considered as the university's fifth campus, alongside its four physical campuses, where some 27,000 students from 73 different countries are enrolled to study exclusively online.

"Our virtual environment has always been dear and most important to us … and has been our fastest growing campus, experiencing 7% year on year growth over the last five years," he said.

The major concern Warren had, however, was whether the university's infrastructure would be able to handle the unprecedented surge in video streaming and downloads by students, particularly those who were overseas, during the lockdown period where all 62,000 students had to move completely onto CloudDeakin.

Warren said the shift to online resulted in traffic increasing by four-fold.

See also: Online learning sets students back 5 months on potential reading growth (TechRepublic)

But prior work with Akamai Technologies, according to Warren, fortuitously enabled the university to overcome these concerns, particularly when it came to supporting its 1,200 students in China.

"We did a lot of work with Akamai to get our ICP (internet content provider) licence properly established in China such that when COVID hit and travel bans were imposed, we had to turn around and offer 1,200 Chinese students a virtual learning experience where they were predominately seeking an on-premise western education," he said.

"Thankfully, because of the work we had done with Akamai, most of those students accepted our virtual CloudDeakin campus offer."

Redesigning the Deakin University website a few years ago has also paid off, Warren said.

"We felt if we didn't do something to accelerate the cache, the experience was going to be very poor. In fact, students testing the website in places like India was sometimes seeing 20 seconds response time, so when we put that behind Akamai that reduced to under 2 seconds response, and for most parts under 1 second response time," he said. "We just used technology to hide the inefficiency that existed on our website."

Deakin's online learning management system is expected to be further put to the test during the upcoming June exam period where some 240,000 online exams are scheduled to take place.

"On March 1, an instant decision was made to use our learning management system quizzing capability for conducting exams for 62,000 students," Warren said. "I have no doubt the product will stand up and meet our needs."

Earlier this week, Deakin University vice-chancellor Iain Martin outlined that the organisation will be reviewing staff costs to minimise the impact of predictions that Deakin's operating revenue will fall between AU$250 and AU$300 million in 2021.

"As a University, we spend 55% of our total revenue on staff. While we will do everything possible to minimise staff impacts, we must look at our employment costs as well as continuing to minimise other expenditure to adjust to where we need to be," he said.

"In-line with Council's decision, we will now proceed with our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes a new strategic plan, a balanced approach to reducing costs and debt, and a phased approach to staff reductions."

According to the National Tertiary Education Union, some 400 roles are expected to be impacted.

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