Creating New Web-Based Virtual Lab Platform to Enhance Remote Learning

The Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub) powered by Amazon Web Services launched a prototype of a virtual lab tool in the Fall of 2020 that provides students with an easy-to-use website that allows them to ‘spin up’ new virtual computer systems from their personal computers. They can do this from any computer connected to the internet at a fraction of the cost of a traditional lab setting. Students can modify the operating systems of these virtual computers per their class curriculum. If they ‘break’ them, they can shut the virtual computers off and start over again in less than three minutes—a fraction of the time for traditional systems. 

In the past, the technology required students to do this lab work in person on separate, physical machines, which incurred a timely reimaging process if a student incorrectly modified the operating system. With the onset of COVID-19 and the restrictions on in-person classes, faculty members needed a better way to administer the ‘Introduction to Operating Systems’ lab. 

At the request of Professor Kurt Voelker, Cal Poly Computer Science professor, the Cal Poly DxHub team built a cloud-based tool that lets students use a web interface to provision virtual computers as specified by the curriculum. Students can learn by doing, building an operating system kernel and adding system-level features to it. Developing and refining these skills can be tricky. If a student tinkers with the system and it has a problem, it may compromise the operating system beyond repair. Normally, it takes hours to reinstall an operating system, but now the virtual system takes just two to three minutes by leveraging these cloud-based “computers.” The student terminates the corrupted virtual computer and provisions a new one to begin the assignment over again.

“The AWS Solution provided exactly what I was looking for,” said Professor Kurt Voelker, Cal Poly Computer Science faculty. “Plus it’s a fantastic opportunity for the students. Creating and developing new services in the cloud is what’s in demand in the industry right now. It’s the platform that our economy is running on, so this gives our students a perspective into what is going on and makes our graduates job-ready.”

A serverless web application was built using a few fundamental AWS services. A simple web interface using the React framework is hosted on Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3). Once students are authenticated with Amazon Cognito, the application leverages AWS Lambda to provision individual virtual machines as needed. Because AWS Lambda is a cloud service that lets the end user run code without provisioning or managing servers, faculty simply specify the requirements for the virtual computers. This solution allows faculty to control exactly what virtual computers and settings the students have access to through the back-end administration. The application prevents students from running more than one virtual machine at a time, which helps control cloud computing costs. Based on a pilot of the solution in the Fall 2020 quarter, the cost incurred was $26 per student for the quarter.

The Cal Poly Computer Science & Software Engineering Department plans to continue using the cloud-based solution after classes resume in person.

Supporting Documents

The DxHub innovation process based on Amazon’s Working Backwards methodology results in several artifacts that help inform and guide the result. Below is a description of each and their purpose in the process.

StoryboardA series of frames are designed to illustrate the problem and the impact of the solution visually.
Architecture DiagramA diagram that describes the technical components needed to implement the solution.
Source CodeAll of the code and assets developed during the course of creating the prototype.

About the DxHub

Cal Poly’s Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub) was one of the earliest collaborations between Amazon Web Services (AWS) and an educational institution focused on innovation and digital transformation. While providing students with real-world learning experiences, the DxHub applies proven innovation methodologies in combination with the deep subject matter expertise of the public sector and the technical expertise of AWS to solve challenging problems in ways not contemplated before. For more information, visit dxhub.calpoly.edu.