By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Thirty laptops. Thirty different configurations. Thirty students downloading software so they can start an assignment.
It was a technology conundrum.
“That’s very time-consuming when you’re installing a piece of software,” said Dr. Heather Monthie, Associate Dean of Technology in Grand Canyon University’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology.
It could take days, even weeks, before every student in an information technology, cybersecurity or other technology course might have everything they need to get going in their class.
So why not allay all those constraints?
It’s exactly what the Technology Department did when it partnered with Grand Canyon Education’s Information Technology Department and launched LopesCloud, an application that connects students to cloud-based virtual machine environments.
Think of LopesCloud as a virtual computer living in “the cloud” that GCU’s technology students can access. Instead of them having to download software – and fill up space on their computer – they can tap into whatever they need in the virtual environments created for them on this GCU-specific, cloud-based virtual computer.
It’s like Google Docs: Instead of users installing word processing software on their computer, they can access Google’s server (its cloud) and its word processing program from anywhere on any device and save the work they’ve created in that program – their essays, resumes and recipes – in the cloud rather than on their own computer.
LopesCloud operates in much the same way.
Not only can students connect to whatever virtual environment they need in the cloud, but they can run programs their computers might not normally have the power to run.
“If their computer only has 4 gigs of RAM, it’s not going to run anything that might be needed for the course,” said Leo Quintero, Cloud Support Coordinator/Specialist and a GCU alumnus. “But given that this is a resource that’s on the cloud, we can give that computer enough processing for it to run the applications that are needed.”
Students also can share their work with their professors in a more efficient way.
If they’re having trouble with an assignment, for example, instead of calling or emailing their professor, setting up a time to talk and sending a screen shot of the problem they’re having, the professor now can log into LopesCloud, pull up a student’s work and see what the student is seeing.
Essentially, “we’re delivering a whole work station to students,” Quintero said.
This technology tool has been a game-changer for CSET’s Technology Department and proved to be a lifesaver when the pandemic hit, making the transition from ground to distance learning seamless.
Before LopesCloud, the department was using a different cloud-based learning platform owned by a company outside GCU.
“It would go down, and we would file a ticket with them and we wouldn’t hear anything back for four or five days. Students were having issues on the weekends, and there was zero weekend support and homework assignments are due on Sundays. … I was like, 'OK, we need to have something,'” Monthie said.
The department decided, instead of partnering with an outside company, it would create its own cloud-based platform, so talks started in fall 2017 to do just that. GCE’s IT team, which funded the development of LopesCloud, brought in a development group in spring 2018 to do back-end work. Then the Technology Department added Quintero, who coordinates projects between GCE IT and the Technology Department faculty.
Ground students started using the system in fall 2019 and then online students soon afterward.
For the University to create its own cloud-based system was no small potatoes. Monthie said she doesn’t know of anything at other educational institutions quite like LopesCloud.
“It’s really just, ‘Here’s your lab. Click here. Type this.’ It’s very instructional, very rote learning, whereas this (LopesCloud) is like you’re given a computer and you’re building from scratch,” Monthie said. “It would be like if you’re learning paint-by-numbers and you’re told, 'Use this color here. Use that color.' You’re not using any creative thought to come up with a design versus just being given a blank canvas and some paints and the instructor is helping you use those tools to build something.”
It’s in LopesCloud where students can do everything from practicing hacking to developing software.
“This was a major undertaking,” said Al Kelly, CSET’s program lead in cybersecurity. He has tested LopesCloud since faculty started using the system about 18 months ago.
He estimates that up to two dozen technology classes use LopesCloud, which is built on Amazon Web Services’ Elastic Compute Cloud and allows students to interact with everything from Windows to Linux and other operating systems.
“What that (virtual) environment looks like depends on the class,” Kelly said. “It might be a server environment for one class or a desktop environment for another. Even in the same class, each assignment may be different – so a different environment for each assignment.”
Being able to build those environments, unique to each class, even unique to each assignment, has been invaluable.
“We can actually control what we want,” Kelly said. “From a faculty standpoint, we have substantial input on what the environment needs to do – and that’s different from having another company do it for us. We might say we want this; they might say, ‘Well, we can’t do that, but we can do this.’ We have substantial input on what we need … which is really beneficial. That way, our students are getting exactly what we want them to learn.”
Deborah Haralson, IT program lead, said students have told her they love that LopesCloud allows them to access and work on assignments from any device.
“As for my part, I like being able to access student labs from my own computer,” she said, “They like it, too, because they can watch what I do and be able to better duplicate actions in order to produce results.”
Quintero, who graduated from GCU in spring 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in IT with an Emphasis in Cybersecurity, sees the benefits of LopesCloud as the Cloud Support Coordinator/Specialist. But he saw it, too, as a student.
“(Before LopesCloud) we had to install virtual machines on our computers. We had to download different operating systems to exploit and hack them,” he said. “The first whole month of class was usually spent installing and setting up virtual machines.”
Now it's different for technology students. “On Day 1, they can just click in,” Quintero said.
And that takes away some of the frustration, Kelly said, of students having to download so many programs before they can even tackle an assignment.
“We give them a great tool to utilize that makes their lives easier. It also makes the professor’s life easier,” Kelly said. “It allows the student to focus on the important part of their course.”
Monthie added, “It allows for better collaboration between the student and the faculty, and then even the students among themselves.”
An unexpected benefit of LopesCloud came when the pandemic hit.
Ground students who were finishing up the last few weeks of class from home simply clicked into the LopesCloud app and had everything they needed to continue the work they were doing.
“This really helped when we had this transition to remote learning,” Monthie said. “It was practically a seamless transition for us.”
Kelly said, “Dr. Monthie points out that of all the different colleges, Technology was in the best position to take advantage of all this – take advantage of Zoom, take advantage of LopesCloud and all the other tools that we had been utilizing already. To us, it wasn’t a big change. Our students appreciated that a lot more.”
While LopesCloud continues to be rolled out to more classes in CSET – it’s a solid presence in various introductory and database classes – Monthie sees it as a future resource for GCU’s other colleges, too.
“GCU is really dedicated to making sure the students have the best tools possible,” Kelly said, “and that’s what LopesCloud brings.”
Follow GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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