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South Africa’s Wits University navigates digital learning challenges with AWS Cloud

South Africa’s Wits University navigates digital learning challenges with AWS Cloud

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While the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted on every aspect of life and economy in South Africa, the higher education sector has not been spared with universities prioritising online education to ensure their academic years are not disrupted.

When South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, declared the ‘State of Disaster’ in the country in March 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, universities across the Southern African state were forced to close their gates in a move aimed at containing the spread of the virus.

Although the move was justified under the circumstances, it threw most universities’ academic years into disarray, leading to the institutions to look at remote learning as the way forward. However, it was no easy feat to adjust for most varsities as they were caught off-guard by the Coronavirus.

Digital Transformation has become imperative among institutions of higher learning in their bid to remain relevant and competitive, while, at the same time, trying to navigate the unchartered waters brought about by the pandemic.

South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand, commonly known as Wits University or Wits, is one such institution which had to quickly think out of the box and adjust to the ‘new normal’ as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Founded in 1896 as the South African School of Mines in Kimberley, Wits is the third oldest South African university in continuous operation.

Situated in the northern areas of central Johannesburg, the university has an enrolment of 40 259 students as of 2018, of which approximately 20% live on campus in the university’s 17 residences. Some 63% of the university’s total enrolment is for undergraduate study, with 35% being postgraduate and the remaining 2% being occasional students.

The fundamental role of any university is to promote freedom of enquiry and the search for knowledge and truth. Wits has built a reputation in this role, establishing itself at the industrial and commercial heart of South Africa as a centre for education and research of the highest quality.

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Wits was saddled with legacy IT infrastructure that could not support the strategy of online learning and teaching, something crucial as the country practices social distancing in the wake of the COVID-19.

The legacy IT infrastructure was no longer capable to host the university’s learning management system (LMS) and could not allow scalability.

Dr Stanley Mpofu, CIO, Wits University, said there was an urgent requirement to move Sakai Learning Management System (LMS) from Wits on-premise data centre to the cloud to enhance and facilitate online teaching and learning.

The university then set sights on online learning due to the COVID-19 lockdown as well as ensure availability, security and compliance of its online learning platform.

“There were frequent outages on the locally-hosted Sakai environment at peak demand, hence the exploration of cloud solutions to ensure the availability of our LMS for our students and lecturers,” he said.

Part of the Wits University mission is sustaining globally competitive standards of excellence in learning, teaching and research.

To achieve this goal, the university needed to ensure that students and lecturers could access the LMS at any time. By deploying a highly-available and fault-tolerant environment, Wits can ensure it achieves excellence and a world-class user experience.

Mpofu added that: “Our vision is to build an ICT department that is relevant and agile, deals with issues with urgency with an aim of contributing to a university that is in a ‘digital state, competing internationally’. The COVID-19 lockdown forced us to move swiftly in scaling our capacity to provide students with access to the Learning Management System.”

The legacy IT infrastructure challenge led to Wits selecting Amazon Web Services (AWS) as their cloud service provider. Coincidentally, the move came just after AWS opened a data centre region in South Africa.

With these local data centres, developers, start-ups and enterprises, as well as government, education and non-profit organisations, can run their applications and serve end-users in Africa with lower latency and leverage advanced AWS technologies to drive innovation.

“AWS came at the right time for Wits University in that a perennial problem of the Learning Management System going down during critical times became a thing of the past. The professional set up by AWS of guaranteed availability, security and scaling assured 24 by 7 access from anywhere – giving Wits the Edge. The architecture design was top standard leading to mobile network operators (MNOs) agreeing to zero-rate it after conducting extensive tests to ensure that the design mitigated the issues that MNOs had previously had regarding cloud-hosted solutions,” Mpofu said.

By implementing Sakai LMS using Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), Amazon Relational Database Service (RDS) and Amazon Elastic File System (Amazon EFS) across Multiple Availability Zones (Multi-AZ), the university has achieved a highly available solution, ensuring that Wits students and lecturers have uninterrupted access to the Sakai LMS.

Additionally, thanks to the uninterrupted access to the LMS, as well as the zero-rated of the hosted LMS, Wits now offers an unparalleled student experience. According to Wits, there are several cloud service providers in South Africa, but it had to be smart in selecting a provider that suits its needs. For Wits, AWS became the choice because of the company’s service offering and ability to configure its catalogue according to the university’s needs. By leveraging AWS’ secure and compliant infrastructure and implementing AWS’ best-practice guidelines, Wits has been able to safeguard both the students’ and university’s data.

Data protection is something all organisations that handle personal information of users must prioritise as South Africa’s data privacy law, the Protection of Personal Information Act, came into play on July 1 2020, leaving organisations with a one-year grace period to fully comply with the new legislation.

Thanks to the customer-centric model that AWS uses, Wits is able to reach out to AWS for support. The university managed to deploy AWS in a very constrained period to align with the scheduled opening of the semester to be ready for online teaching and learning. The turnaround time for this project was of paramount importance, as the teams were able to launch the new environment and migrate from the on-premises environment to AWS in just over a month.

By using AWS, Wits can also ensure that its Sakai LMS environment has high availability and fault-tolerant. This means that even at peak demand, students and lecturers can access Sakai, whereas the previous on-premise solution could not handle peak demands.

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