Enabling Innovation with a Virtual Research Environment at HU

About Hogeschool University

HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht (HU) is one of the largest further education colleges in the Netherlands and is funded by the government. It has over 35,000 students and more than 300 researchers and professors. The HU values improvement and flexibility and is focused on continuously adapting to the changing global environment. They are associated with recognizable institutes, knowledge centers, and service providers with a focus on stimulating talent, entrepreneurship, and craftsmanship.

The Challenge

Developing and maintaining research projects brings multitude of benefits to the university, faculty, students, and it also contributes to knowledge growth in a field of study. Research is vital for professors, but in order to do that, they need to have access to the right tools, training, and support from their IT departments.

Education has historically lagged behind when it comes to embracing innovative and open source technology. What is more, professors without computer science background that still need to analyze large quantities of data have been compelled to use traditional programming tools, run experiments on their own limited devices, or only use restricted and pre-approved software. Those were some of the challenges we set forth to overcome.

The Approach

Together with key stakeholders, we organized several workshops and brainstorming sessions to understand the challenges researchers were facing, collect all necessary requirements, and come up with an elegant solution that can help accelerate their work in a seamless way.

In the end, we designed a Virtual Research Environment that was able to, using existing infrastructure, automatically create cloud-based and secure environments upon request for each faculty member. We included modern tools, such as RStudio, JupyterHub, Python, and more. Environments are preconfigured and Github was introduced to help researchers maintain data, version their code, collaborate, and store it in the correct repositories.

The Results

Within 3 months, the whole Virtual Research Environment was designed and put into use. It was set up in such a way as to solve all the challenges professors and researchers face in the most efficient way possible. The solution is secure, cloud-native, preconfigured for people that don’t have computer science backgrounds, and easily scalable to include newer tools when necessary.

Onboarding of new members was made as easy as possible and every user has their own server environment and is able to work on their project from anywhere. Another positive side effect of this solution is that both professors and their students were able to continue their research during the pandemic remotely. Training sessions were set up to teach stakeholders how to operate and support the environment with minimal assistance.