Head of IT quickly adapts and prioritizes powerful tools and infrastructure for remote learning environment.
GUEST COLUMN | by Bernard Gucake
Academic institutions around the world have grappled with new ways of learning over the past 18 months. For some institutions, this involved transitioning to virtual classrooms, seminars, online platforms, workshops, Zoom calls or online libraries.
For specialist schools like ours, it’s been a different story. Vancouver Film School (VFS) is one of the most distinguished entertainment arts schools in the world, offering year-long programs for around 1,500 students across eight campuses. Students enter at different points in their careers, many mid-career, to hone new skills, further their professional development and learn to create high-quality, content-like animation, films, games and commercials. They rely on physical lab equipment to handle data- and graphic-intensive workflows.
Our school wasn’t initially built for online learning — like so many institutions, it was in our five-year plan – but transitioning in a week and a half was not. We had to adapt quickly and prioritize powerful tools and infrastructure to foster a remote learning environment.
‘Our school wasn’t initially built for online learning — like so many institutions, it was in our five-year plan – but transitioning in a week and a half was not.’
Luckily, we had just kitted out our 20+ digital labs in Vancouver with 900 Dell workstations and displays at the beginning of 2020. We also began to work with Dell Technologies and our technology partners Powerland, and Teradici to create a virtual setup that would be accessible to all students and staff members, including those who were in Canada, out-of-state or abroad, with minimal disruption.
The Quick Pivot: How We Did It
Our students’ projects reflect their work in the field today or in the future, which means we produce massive quantities of data. The systems we use need impressive processing power, graphics capabilities and storage to keep up. Furthermore, our classes run from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day, with many starting every two months and lasting up to a year. Because there are few breaks in instruction, my IT team had to work quickly to ensure students had the necessary technology access both remotely and from home.
These made our task significant. In this process, we identified three critical components: Students needed access to the technology capable of handling extreme compute demand, and creating content in 3D, 2D, 4K, AR and VR. They needed technology that could perform in remote environments, and they needed tools to facilitate this quickly.
Taking a page from the playbooks of leading global and local production studios, we leveraged the 900 Dell Precision workstations and displays—the same ones we were deploying for on-campus teaching labs in Vancouver—to support the graphics-intensive curriculum. By week two, we combined the workstations with Teradici CAS remote workstation solutions to give students virtual access to their curriculum. We also distributed and shipped over 300 loaner PCs to students who lacked the necessary technology at home, and created a file sharing program to mimic Google Drive and allow file sharing from anywhere around the world.
The Dell Precision 5820 workstations and displays in our teaching labs have cut rendering times by 60% and allow our students to easily, and remotely, apply special effect techniques prevalent in games, animations, and movies today. Using the AI built into the Dell Optimizer for Precision software, we monitor performance for potential bottlenecks to ensure a smooth virtual learning experience.
Key Learnings and Looking to the Future
If we have learned anything from the last year, it is that fostering an environment that supports an open dialog between departments, faculty and staff is critical to enabling valuable online learning experiences. We have worked closely with each of our departments to identify ways technology and software could improve efficacy while addressing each of their unique needs.
We also closely monitored incoming IT tickets and regularly connected with students and faculty to better understand the issues they were having and ways we could improve their experiences. Throughout my career, I have found that criticism and tough conversations with users about areas of IT improvement can be a powerful stepping stone for evolution.
‘Throughout my career, I have found that criticism and tough conversations with users about areas of IT improvement can be a powerful stepping stone for evolution.’
It also important to be aware of the latest industry trends and technologies other institutions, and in our case, studios, are offering. Technology is your friend and taking an ‘out of the box’ approach to IT can often provide many advantages in creating better experiences. Educators must be ready to adopt innovative technologies to provide the cutting-edge experiences students need to thrive.
With the combination of clear IT strategy setting, strong communication and integrated technology solutions, we’ve made great strides with virtual learning and are prepared to continue to improve online experiences as the new semester approaches.
Bernard Gucake is Head of Information Technology at Vancouver Film School, Canada’s premier post-secondary entertainment arts institution, offering 15 production-oriented programs in film, animation, video game production, VR/AR development, motion and interactive design, programming, art/production foundation, and more. In one year or less, VFS students get more direct experience producing, designing, and writing content than through most four-year degrees, and VFS alumni are consistently credited on the most successful products in the entertainment economies. Connect with Bernard through LinkedIn.