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Diving Digitally into the PC Pool

Students are able to use subject-specific software which was only available on campus computers at home

Freiburg, May 04, 2020

Diving Digitally into the PC Pool

Photo: Jürgen Gocke

During the summer semester of 2020, programs that could only be used on site will now be digitized and available for remote use. This includes the University of Freiburg's computer labs, or PC pools. During the last six weeks, a team at IT Services (RZ) has developed a way to allow students to log into the pool computers virtually. Known as "bwLehrpool Remote," the system improves distance teaching by making subject-specific software available off campus. These programs often have costly licenses, which is why they could only be used in on campus PC pool rooms until now.

Previously, students had to be on site, but now they can log on to the computers in the university's PC pools from home. Photo: Jürgen Gocke 

"Please enter your RZ user name and password," demands the computer. The screen looks the same, with the university logo on the left, the yellow-gray bwLehrpool emblem at the top, and the log-in template in the middle.
But there is something different. The pool computer boots up in a browser window on a home computer. The RZ has expanded their "bwLehrpool" system to allow students to access the computers virtually.

The coronavirus has meant the PC pools will remain closed for the foreseeable future. That's a challenge for teachers, because subject-specific software, in particular, has only been centrally available to students in computer rooms on campus. The applications are licensed and expensive. That's why they can't be made available to all users for installation on their own PCs.

Flexible use

Up to now, students could use any bwLehrpool PC to access a subject-specific learning environment and the programs that go with it. "The basic idea is to use the pool rooms flexibly," explains Simon Rettberg of IT Services at the University of Freiburg. "Before, each chair had a PC room where students could use subject-specific applications. By using bwLehrpool, this learning environment is no longer tied to a PC room. Instead, it's flexibly accessible."

However, up to now, the students had to be on site at some point, meaning they needed to be in a PC room at the university. Now, this problem has been solved. "'With 'bwLehrpool Remote,' we've developed a way students can use their web browser to log onto a PC in a pool room," explains Christian Rößler of the bwLehrpool team at the University of Freiburg's RZ.

Students use a link to log in via their web browser. They then are offered the same user interface as in the pool room and can use the applications and programs as they have in the past. This will also give them access to documents that at the moment are only located on university servers. When using the system digitally, students may work in exactly the same way as they did in the pool room. That means that here, too, documents must be saved in the home directory and not on the desktop.

Sufficient capacity

After logging in, students are assigned a computer located in one of the closed pool rooms. There are several hundred computers located there. "There will be enough computers in any case," says Rößler, "and when the system is reaching its limits, it won't be a problem to double the number of computers. For example, on the modern models in the PC pool in Werthmannstraße it would certainly be possible to run two parallel sessions simultaneously, he says.

The "bwLehrpool Remote" runs via the Internet. "That's why the speed of the display is dependent on the internet connection at home," explains Rößler. "But a virtual computer has the same computing capacity as a computer in the pool room," he continues. That makes the system an option for students whose own laptops don't have the required computing capacity.  

The system is in a test phase right now. The RZ is looking for instructors who would like to try out "bwLehrpool Remote" and give feedback about whether the system meets their needs. Rößler says, "Some bugs you only find when you use the program, but it's usually small stuff."

New ideas for group work

At the same time, continues Rößler, the team is working on new functions. "For example, we'd like to have two users working with the same computer and user interface simultaneously. That's helpful for group assignments." And that's just one of the ideas they have for bwLehrpool. "Beyond that, we're working on making online courses possible. That means when they log in, students and instructors will have a selection of rooms to work in virtually," says Rößler.

The university will continue to benefit from the system in the long term. For teachers, it offers an opportunity to test the course environment at home. What is more, by using video recording, they can hold the entire course online. And for students, there’s even another advantage – unlike the off-line option, the online offering is available all the time.

Lara Wehler


Log-in for "bwLehrpool Remote"