Remote Access & the Digital Divide

Could providing remote access to computer labs help level the playing field for students in E-learning?

Mark Lee, CEO of Splashtop
By Mark Lee, Chief Evangelist at Splashtop


Getting an education is pretty challenging right now, with COVID-19 forcing schools to adopt various levels of distance learning. And education is especially difficult for students who lack the technology tools to do their coursework remotely.

One aspect of the distance-learning challenge that is often overlooked is the lack of access to computer lab resources.

I have been surprised by the range of specialized software that has become vital for all kinds of study areas. Computer labs aren’t just for engineering or computer science students anymore.

Courses in areas as diverse as architecture, music, theatre design, chemistry, fine arts, communication studies, fashion design, and biology rely on specialized software such as the Adobe Creative Suite, AutoCAD, Revit, Avid, and much more—software that requires very specific Mac or Windows GPU-capable workstations. In addition, students who can afford only Chromebooks or other inexpensive laptops often depend on these high-performance computer labs for doing homework.

With the pandemic keeping the doors to many computer labs locked, or greatly limiting physical access, schools are looking for creative ways to provide all their students—and instructors—with access to the computing resources they need to complete their coursework or research, fulfill graduation requirements, and progress on their education journey.

Pandemic concerns trigger skyrocketing education demand for remote-access software

Splashtop, maker of remote-access solutions, has been in business since 2007. We’ve seen periodic spurts in sales growth over those years, but nothing like what we experienced in 2020.

In the three months from June to August of this year—the summer months when universities, colleges, and K-12 schools were preparing for the new school year amid continuing pandemic concerns—the number of our customers in the education sector grew eight-fold. Additionally, many existing education customers expanded their purchases.

In talking with our customers, we confirmed that this growth was fueled largely by a desire to provide remote access to computer lab hardware and software. In a very real sense, remote-access software has become an essential lifeline for students and instructors who depend on computer lab resources.

Easing pressure on education IT departments

In today’s digitally dependent schools and universities, the demands on education IT departments were already intense long before COVID-19 hit. Imagine the pressure when not only did IT professionals have to suddenly implement remote learning processes, but helpdesk staff needed to resolve computer issues remotely, as well.

When it comes to remote computer lab access, the VPN approach familiar to IT has serious limitations that make VPNs unsuited to long-term distance learning and remote computer lab access. For instance, due to the way they’re designed, VPNs:

  • Don’t scale well. It’s hard to quickly add all the students who suddenly must access on-campus software from home or dorm rooms. Upgrading VPN hardware is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking.
  • Don’t perform well. VPNs’ need to backhaul network traffic, especially, creates a laggy user experience that makes it hard to be productive.
  • Don’t allow students to use their own computing devices. VPNs require the use of school-issued devices or the installation of end-point security software to prevent compromised computing devices from connecting directly to the school network.
  • Introduce security issues. In large part, this is because VPNs don’t distinguish between the school’s official traffic and users’ personal traffic—and because VPN gateways and software are running 24/7, they are often left unpatched.

Cloud-based, enterprise-class remote-access software is a better alternative, overcoming the performance, scaling, security, and specialized hardware limitations of VPNs.

With modern remote-access solutions, education IT departments can set up and support students’ and instructors’ access to computer lab resources, including single-sign-on (SSO) and scheduling features that enhance the resources’ security and usability. And significantly, remote-access software enables this access from anywhere, at any time, even for those students who depend on inexpensive computing devices.

Working toward a more level playing field in education

Of course, making it easier for students and instructors to gain remote access to computer lab resources can’t solve all the issues of the digital divide. But I still believe it can make a meaningful difference.

Among the advantages we’ve seen:

  • More students at all income levels can be confident that even if their campus can’t allow them physical access to the software they need in computer labs, they can still complete their courses and graduation on time.
  • With 24/7 remote access possible, students can actually spend more time with crucial applications than when they had to gain physical access to the computer labs—and they can avoid the safety issues of crossing campus late at night.
  • That 24/7 remote access also means that IT admins and school administrators can maximize the use of precious computer lab resources.
  • With advanced scheduling features now available in our remote-access software, instructors can plan around having predictable times to hold classes that use computer lab software.
  • Advanced multi-user features enable teachers to assist students remotely without being physically next to the students.

At any time of the day or night, students and faculty can sit at a dining room table, on the living room couch, or in a bedroom and use the on-campus computing resources.

At Splashtop, we are proud and excited to be offering a solution that helps level the playing field of digital access for all students.