Curro adopts hybrid approach to enhanced learning

Issue 2 2021 Education (Industry)

Future educators are today grappling with how to deliver education solutions that support the changing demands of learners. Leveraging the power of technology, the independent school group, Curro Holdings, has partnered with VMware to transform its technology infrastructure, enabling it to deliver a truly digital education experience across geographies, endpoints, learners, parents and educators.

Established in 1998, Curro is South Africa’s largest independent education provider, with over 178 schools across 70 sites. It develops, acquires and manages independent schools for learners from 3 months old to Grade 12 and seeks to empower every person with the opportunity to achieve their potential as individuals and members of society.

Creating future-based education solutions

According to Riaan Vlok, head of IT at Curro Holdings, the real test on educators is using technology to bring the curriculum to life in a digitally centred world. Curro pioneered the use of digital textbooks or ‘ink behind glass’ in South Africa early on. The digital transformation journey that Curro embraced now requires a media- and content-rich educational experience that teachers, learners and parents are now used to in other areas of digital life. The Curro infrastructure had to adapt to this requirement where augmented reality, asynchronous and synchronous learning blend seamlessly with the physical classrooms.

“In Africa, many are battling with the transition from traditional learning methods to a digital learning experience due to their limited exposure to the digital world. Digitalised education is changing the way learning is delivered to learners across the world mainly because of the high Digital Intelligence Quotient (DIQ) that exists in developed markets. At Curro, we want to deliver education centred around the learner, and all our systems must support this insight-driven educational experience that enables learners to absorb learning better wherever they are,” he says.

Curro’s technology landscape is made up of a centralised data centre, on-site data centres, and an intricate network fabric that needs to cater for over 70 000 endpoints and supports over 11 terabytes of traffic every day.

“Unlike other school (K-12) technology ecosystems, ours is run as a centralised network that integrates all our business and educational systems. Our centralised enterprise network is a key differentiator in our approach to the digital transformation journey, as most other school networks or districts run their own systems and only integrate the information between them. In our business, everything, from cybersecurity, educational platforms and business systems is centralised.”

It is this very setup that Vlok said formed its decision to pair with VMware. “It required a data centre solution that could help it execute on a hybrid cloud strategy, and still support and leverage current hardware investments. The movement of educators, learners and digital resources within the school system required a re-evaluation of the network ecosystem,” Vlok said. “It required a solution that would let it leverage the benefits of a cloud-first strategy without devaluing the investments made in the existing infrastructure. Practically, the solution has to allow for sharing, movement and collaboration between schools of teachers, learners and learning resources.”

As it started to scale, Curro identified issues within its data centre strategy, particularly with disaster recovery and redundancy. Its hardware assets were reaching end-of-service life, but instead of ripping and replacing these assets, Vlok and his team wanted a technology solution that would use these assets as a storage, processing and memory pool for the next seven to eight years.

This would then help it transition, on its terms, between a full on-premise and full cloud solution, without having to write off the hardware investments made.

Education that is always on

After extensive investigations, Curro partnered with First Technology Western Cape, a VMware reseller and systems integrator, to help the company deploy a virtual data centre. The solution included VMware vSAN, VMware vSphere, and all the sub-services within vSAN.

“Investment into digital transformation gets stuck at the point of technology execution because of infrastructure costs. Our virtualised VMware data centre lets us marry our physical assets to the physical application and centrally manage them while adding a cloud fabric where it makes sense. In short, we can digitally transform and leverage the benefits of the cloud without expecting users to change the way they work,” says Vlok.

With VSAN, the company is less hardware-dependent and turned its traditional, often idle infrastructure, into a high availability data centre using a vSAN stretched cluster – enabling it to perform disaster recovery more effectively. Vlok says he is now able to significantly improve the management of the demand-driven technology requirement by ‘bursting and shrinking’ cloud capacity from his cloud service providers.

“Our core product is education which is available at all times – in the classroom or remotely. In Africa, we still face bandwidth challenges, so our new infrastructure lessens the reliance on bandwidth by delivering a robust multi-cloud and on-premise offering, stretching across both.”

In speaking to Hi-Tech Security Solutions, Vlok added the schools also make use of Wi-Fi to distribute data locally, but that fibre connections are still vital beyond the school walls. The group therefore supports Wi-Fi installations over a cumulative area of 700 000 m2 for its schools, as well as fibre connectivity to data centres and online services. (As an aside, Vlok notes that the terabytes of data currently being consumed excludes surveillance footage, connections to fingerprint readers, alarms and other IoT device communications.)

Bridging the digital education divide

Vlok says the environment now supports its desire to provide reliable education anywhere, and learners working remotely now have access to the same platforms they would have had at schools, bridging the gap between traditional schooling and the various forms of remote schooling.

By virtualising a large proportion of its services, it is more agile and can write applications in containers. An active-active recovery environment versus a traditional active-passive one means fewer capacity issues, particularly around ‘reporting and marking’ season, when the system undergoes immense pressure three times a year, as educators need to upload, crosscheck and share information regularly.

“We have seen a massive increase in our ability to scale and prioritise workloads, right down to a code and development level. We are planning to introduce artificial intelligence (AI) with our VMware solution to help us dynamically allocate infrastructure and resources. Looking ahead we want to use behavioural AI to help prioritise IT services as well as map our responses to events,” he says.

“Ultimately, we can now incubate innovative technical solutions and if we fail, we can fail quickly with minimal consequences. This allows us to deploy innovative solutions faster than ever.”

Security built-in

Vlok explained to Hi-Tech Security Solutions that security is obviously a critical factor in the education process, making sure that communications of all types are safe. Curro therefore has the ‘usual’ security measures such as antivirus and firewalls, etc., both at a school and data centre level, but it goes further.

Bring your own device (BYOD) is a critical aspect of the education process today, as is allowing parents to have access to school resources (such as teachers) at the same time as students. The educator tried to lock down devices with strict rules in the past, but this proved a difficult and often futile task. Today Curro focuses on other areas, such as teaching parents how to be good digital citizens.

It also relies on network segmentations, creating VLANs and SDWANs (segmenting the wide-area network) according to its local and national needs. At the data centre level, it also segments networks into ‘red’ and ‘green’ levels.

Cyber Threat Intelligence (CTI) is another differentiator. Curro keeps tabs on the dark web via a third party in order to immediately find out if it has been breached and if sensitive information is ‘out there’, allowing it to take action immediately. It also uses real-time CTI to monitor the devices on its network to enable it to pick up the latest threats or risks that traditional security solutions may not be able to detect yet. The proactive CTI approach is proving very effective at securing Curro’s massive digital environment than the traditional cyber-defence mechanisms of the past would be on their own.

This approach will stand it in good stead as it looks to the future in which the group will consume (and protect) more services from the cloud.

“Curro is an excellent example of a learning institution that understands the modern learners’ needs,” said Gerhard Horn, data centre architect at First Technology, Western Cape. “The organisation’s approach to innovation and the way in which its IT teams have embraced the agility afforded to them with a VMware Software Defined Data Centre (SDDC) highlights how they are not just trying to stay ahead of modern education, but setting the standard today.”

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