Using Microsoft Azure Educator Grants at the University of Lincoln



Lincoln School of Computer Science (LSoCS), University of Lincoln, UK

The School of Computer Science is based on the Lincoln campus in high-quality, newly-developed facilities. The School holds a broad range of expertise in Computing Technologies and Information Systems, including specialisms in robotics and autonomous systems, computer vision and image engineering, medical applications of technology, social computing, games computing, cultural computing and business computing.

Derek Foster is a lecturer in the University of Lincoln’s Social Computing (LiSC) research centre where he works in researching social applications in a wide range of contexts, current focus is on behaviour change for sustainability.

Derek’s background is in Computer Science with a strong interest in Human Computer Interaction. With a wide range of CS and HCI skills, Derek designs, builds and evaluates social applications on both mobile and web platforms leading to interesting empirical research and innovation.

Case Study: Cloud Computing in the Lincoln School of Computer Science

With more business code and services than ever running on cloud platforms, the Lincoln School of Computer Science (LSoCS) recognised the importance of teaching students cloud concepts at a time – 2011 - when Azure and other cloud providers were rapidly growing. LSoCS first integrated cloud into its curriculum in 2011 across all its degree programmes, acknowledging that graduates should be equipped with cloud skills, rendered all the more important when global Fortune 500 companies, as well as SME’s, view the cloud as central to their operations.

LSoCS investigated available cloud platforms in terms of their suitability to develop curriculum around. The most important requirements when considering the platforms were: licencing, features available, and support. Microsoft Azure addressed all three of these points by offering free developer events with hands on labs/workshops, free academic licencing (Azure Educator Grant programme), and reach out support to Microsoft’s UK Faculty and Azure team. Students could access their own cloud account very quickly with an Azure Educator Grants, which provided a generous amount of monthly credits to run cloud services from Virtual Machines and high-availability data storage, to Federation Identity services. Essentially, whatever a student was tasked with doing in the context of cloud for their coursework, they always had access to the relevant feature on Azure. As a result of Azure’s accessibility and feature set, LSoCS was able to develop cutting-edge cloud curriculum with deep practical sessions to support cloud computing theory and patterns.

Cloud was first introduced to the LSoCS final year Mobile Computing module, at that time in 2011 the module was focused on Windows Phone, students learned how to develop PaaS REST services for data management in their mobile apps, and later adopted Azure’s Mobile Services feature for authentication and simple table data storage. Students quickly learned the importance of cloud to support and enhance the user experience when developing mobile apps.

As Azure evolved so did the LSoCS modules that utilised it. The Mobile Computing module is now based on native Android development, with students learning how to develop managed (Azure Mobile App Services) and unmanaged (Virtual Machines and python) cloud REST services to support their mobile apps. Additionally, LSoCS introduced a Cloud Computing module for year 2 students, with focus on understanding cloud fundamentals such as virtualisation (compute, networking, storage) and patterns (SaaS, PaaS, IaaS). Practical tasks included automating cloud resources and deployments through Azure Powershell. Essentially the Cloud Computing module armed students with cloud DevOps skills, underpinned with strong theoretical expertise and practical skills in cloud infrastructure and deployment.

With LSoCS second and third year students accessing Azure for Paas and IaaS services, it made sense to introduce first year students to cloud at a more basic level to prepare them for more advanced study in the later years of their programmes. Microsoft’s Dreamspark programme allows access to basic features on Azure including PaaS hosting and relational database access. Students studying web authoring and development modules used Azure Dreamspark access to host their coursework and carry out advanced web coding techniques. This gave students a taste of a real production environment on which to host their web code, in terms of configuration and supporting their understanding of the client-server model.

Overall, each of the student year groups at LSoCS are exposed to cloud using Azure with incrementally challenging cloud-focused work as they progress through from first to third year. Student feedback on cloud modules suggests they enjoy learning the theory and concepts of cloud computing, but their learning really comes alive by having access to a cloud platform to consolidate the theoretical knowledge. This is made possible through access to the Azure Academic Pass programme.

Using Azure on relevant LSoCS modules has been a rewarding process for staff and students alike. With cloud development a challenging skillset for students to become proficient at, it helped hugely to be able to deploy resources to strengthen their understanding of cloud concepts. This helped to engage students with their coursework, which ultimately led to better learning experience and attainment. Additionally, as LSoCS students graduate with cloud skills we are hearing compelling stories of them securing employment through their cloud expertise in a variety of roles including consultancy and development.

I can’t recommend the Azure Educator Grant programme enough to educators involved in the delivery of cloud development modules/courses. Your students and industry will thank you for it!

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