Scoping Virtual Laboratory Environments for Community College Technology Courses


The South Central Coast Regional Consortium (SCCRC), a career education consortium of eight California Community Colleges, identified the need for technology innovation, attributed to students being required to attend college technology laboratory courses on campus. This requirement is often caused by higher education institutions having contractual obligations associated with course content, which may only be accessible through computers on campus. SCCRC engaged California Polytechnic State University’s Digital Transformation Hub (Cal Poly DxHub) to explore opportunities for students to have more flexibility in their ability to access their laboratory environments virtually. While approaching this challenge SCCRC needed to remain focused on finding ways to reduce costs while also ensuring students graduated with work-force ready skills. The team used Amazon’s Working Backwards innovation methodology to drive alignment on a solution that would open community college IT provider options, so students wouldn’t be required to use campus computers to attend technology labs. This challenge helped SCCRC better define their project goals and land on a solution that allowed for clarity on how to achieve that vision with virtually accessible software.


Traditionally, students have been required to access software on computer servers housed at a college-based data centers or in college computer labs, which operate using fixed number of workstations, proprietary software and learning content. This proprietary software and content is expensive and typically not cost effective to customize and update as needed to keep up with the fast paced nature of technology change. Additionally, it is expensive for colleges to maintain and upgrade the necessary hardware and software to support these labs. The SCCRC had a need to develop a ‘hands-on’ virtual cybersecurity and other technical lab solutions in order to decommission on-site infrastructure and contractually proprietary content providers. This solution needed to provide relevant and timely educational materials to their students, improve student and faculty accessibility to labs for technology courses, and cut community college costs associated with physical classroom settings and maintenance of aging IT infrastructure. The vision was to leverage a cloud-based solution that would allow for ‘pay as you go’ usage, bundled ‘by the seat’ regional licensing, that had more flexible administrative capabilities for faculty, and remote access for students.

Innovation in Action

During the Innovation Workshop facilitated by the Cal Poly DxHub, the team, which included a SCCRC executive, a consultant, three SCCRC IT team members, and three faculty members, went through Amazon’s Working Backwards process. During this process they identified their primary customers to be students and faculty, whose principal needs were identified as having flexible access to technology labs, ensuring students were workforce ready, and reducing the cost of lab technology (Figure 1 and Figure 2). The team honed the ideas further in a Press Release/Frequently Asked Questions (PR/FAQ) document (Appendix 1). In addition, a storyboard was created to describe the customer experience and how it solves a problem for the student (Appendix 2).


Following the Innovation Workshop, a market evaluation exercise was performed by the SCCRC which indicated that current comprehensive solutions provided varying levels of capability to serve virtual labs to students with the following key functions:

  • the time, place, and device of their choosing
  • instant scalability, reliability, and performance consistency at a regional or statewide level
  • ability for educational institutions to effectively share/pool licensing between one another (an important factor in affordability)
  • capability to easily and affordably create, customize, and share/pool curriculum or content between educational institutions
  • ability to integrate existing Learning Management Systems (LMS) into the solution
  • ability to simulate an on-demand, full virtual network with interchangeable virtualized devices (e.g. routers, switches, internet of things (IoT) devices).

Although no solution comprehensively met all desired functionality, with available time and resource constraints, the SCCRC decided to move their ideas into action by using the PR/FAQ as a vendor selection baseline. One of six existing solutions was selected to pilot rather than considering the development of a new solution.

Value Proposition

The process of documenting SCCRC’s vision in the PR/FAQ allowed them to have clarity in moving forward with a solution that provides students with a flexible virtual lab platform, which also gives faculty the ability to quickly adapt curriculum and content as necessary. A platform that allows faculty to customize labs to train students on industry relevant certifications and rapidly changing technology trends allows students to maximize their employability post-graduation. Additionally, the cost of services would likely drop due to the pay by usage and bundled licensing models, which would divide the costs amongst all eight of the SCCRC community colleges (e.g. no more fixed cost for licenses and hardware that isn’t used as much at one college versus another). Pay as you go and bundled licensing are especially pertinent given the relative unpredictability of economic cycles, student enrollment fluctuations, and education budgets. Finally, moving to a cloud-based platform eliminates the need for specialized computer hardware that limits student and faculty flexibility, is costly to procure, operate, and maintain, and requires classrooms to dedicate to lab space.

Supporting Documents

Amazon’s Working Backwards process results in several artifacts that help inform and guide the end result. Below is a description of each and their purpose in the process

Press Release & Frequently Asked QuestionsDuring the Innovation Workshop, a fictional Press Release and nonfictional
Frequently Asked Questions are drafted. This is a tool that is used to define the solution and why it matters to the customer.
NarrativeA document that describes an overview of the process and solution.
StoryboardA series of frames designed to illustrate the problem and the impact of the solution visually.
Virtual Lab ArticleA more detailed article on the overall aspects of this engagement.
Virtual Labs Regional ProjectBrief project description and budget.
Virtual Labs ROIReturn on investment analysis.

About the DxHub

The Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub) is a strategic relationship with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and is the world’s first cloud innovation center supported by AWS on a University campus. The primary goal of the DxHub is to provide real-world problem-solving experiences to students by immersing them in the application of proven innovation methods in combination with the latest technologies to solve important challenges in the public sector. The challenges being addressed cover a wide variety of topics including homelessness, evidence-based policing, digital literacy, virtual cybersecurity laboratories and many others. The DxHub leverages the deep subject matter expertise of government, education and non-profit organizations to clearly understand the customers affected by public sector challenges and develops solutions that meet the customer needs.