29 May 2020 - Supporting enhanced access to online education in China


Logos for ucisa, Jisc, British Council and Universities UK


Supporting enhanced access to online education in China – a briefing on Jisc’s Pilot Project with Alibaba Cloud Network

This is a joint communication between Jisc, ucisa, Universities UK International and the British Council.

We are all well-versed in the value of international students to the UK. International students bring almost £7Bn per year to the UK economy, comprising around 20 per cent of the student population. Of those, 23% are from China - more than the total number of students from all EU countries that are studying in the UK.

There has been a great deal of uncertainty for our students in China with the COVID-19 pandemic becoming a global disruptor. Many returned to the safety of their own country, to  continue their studies, and their examinations and assessments online. Whilst the sector has responded well to this challenge, the focus is now to ensure that we invest in our international students to ensure they receive the best quality and equitable experience for the start of the new term in the autumn, with the inevitability that the first, and potentially the second terms of the academic year will be fully or partially online.

Key to thriving in the new norm is our collaboration with other institutions, sector bodies, businesses and more broadly. This is why Jisc, ucisa, Universities UK International (UUKI) and the British Council have been working together to both listen and respond to our collective members’ needs, through valued, impartial and independent advice. 

What is the problem we are trying to address?

A solution is required to improve the quality and performance of connectivity, and reliable access to course material and VLE systems hosted on Janet or other cloud provider’s networks (e.g. Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas) for global distance learning between the UK and China. This solution is for those international and transnational education students and staff based in China who are not campus based, whether in the short or long term (connectivity directly between UK and China campuses will be through different solutions, please contact international@jisc.ac.uk for further information).

Any solution needs to be affordable for our members, whether for small or much larger cohorts needing to be online at any one time.

What is the solution that the Pilot Project is exploring?

Jisc has been working with Alibaba Cloud on a solution utilising their Cloud Enterprise Network (CEN). The solution allows students in China to access their VLE hosted either on their UK university campus or elsewhere on a third-party provider’s network. Students will need to download an application with an assigned username and password. No network configuration is needed by the institution. Subscriptions are managed at the institutional level through Alibaba’s portal. The institution’s account holder has the capability to monitor and manage bandwidth used on the CEN allow enough bandwidth to meet their specific needs, at any time, critical to managing cost of the solution. Any upgrade or downgrade can be implemented within approximately five minutes of the request.

The Alibaba Cloud Enterprise Network helps establish private low latency networks across the borders of China, navigating the best way for cross-regional network connection while complying with local regulations. This is not an end to end VPN solution, it is a VPN via the client software from the end user in China to the Alibaba cloud in China. Access is through a Smart Access Gateway (SAG) where traffic is routed through the Cloud Enterprise Network to Alibaba’s Virtual Private Cloud in London which then breaks out to the Janet network or other cloud provider networks. As this is a connectivity solution, there is no need to change infrastructure or platforms such as VLEs.

This is a good technical solution (fast and reliable, with guaranteed service availability and low latency and no packet loss), which can be implemented quickly, and ideal for small cohorts of students or ad hoc activities such as examinations.

Alibaba Cloud have offered a no-cost trial period of a month for four UK institutions; the Pilot Project, with Jisc as the coordinator, has been initiated and testing will start in early June. Universities planning to be involved are the University of Southampton, University of York, Queen Mary University of London and King’s College London. As part of the Pilot Project Jisc has carried out due diligence in terms of GDPR, Data Protection and information security compliance to Jisc’s standards. A similar Alibaba CEN solution is already in operation in Australia, supporting over half of Australian Universities. The solution that Jisc are working on with Alibaba Cloud has been tailored specifically for UK universities, and therefore does not use infrastructure in Australia or Hong Kong, but with access being provided through London. During the course of the Pilot we are in regular touch with both CAUDIT and AARNet, the equivalent organisations to ucisa and Jisc respectively in Australia, as well as an Australian university to learn how the Australian solution is working operationally. We are also working closely with UK institutions that have taken up the Australian solution to learn from their experiences in developing a final, optimal solution for our UK members.

Main features 

The solution is:

  • Fast and reliable, with guaranteed service availability and low latency and no packet loss, which can be implemented quickly, and ideal for small cohorts of students or ad hoc activities such as examinations
  • Fully legal and compliant with Chinese government regulations and laws
  • Simple to access for students via the Alibaba Cloud Smart Access Gateway client through an allocated username and password, and requiring no configuration
  • Fully configured, no network configuration is required by the institution and subscriptions are managed at the institutional level through Alibaba’s portal
  • Easy to monitor by the institution’s account holder, with the capability to manage bandwidth used on the CEN to allow enough to meet their specific needs, at any time, which is critical to managing cost of the solution. Any upgrade or downgrade can be implemented within five minutes of the request.

Advantages include: 

  • A stable connection, guaranteed cross-border network connectivity with a 99.95% availability service level agreement (SLA)
  • Significantly improved latency in comparison to standard networking solutions available
  • Short/flexible contract terms with a minimum one month sign up and rolling subscription
  • Flexible subscription and bandwidth increases and decreases can be managed in a timely way via a portal
  • Short lead time so the solution can be implemented within 48 hours
  • Scalable to support more than tens of thousands of end-users

What will the Pilot Project test?

  • Latencies: evidence of improved speed in accessing documents, large file up/downloads in comparison to non-Alibaba solutions
  • Access to applications normally filtered at the China International Gateways, within course material or hosted on platforms such as G-Suite (Google)
  • Authentication: Single Sign On (SSO) with Multi Factor Authentication (MFA) which would be preferable to the UK community. Other Alibaba solutions use a third party but this incurs an extra level of charge
  • Flexibility and management of bandwidth: the solution can be a short term or ad hoc solution (e.g. for examinations) or longer-term implementation, providing consistent high-performance connectivity for delivering UK education to Chinese students; ease of managing bandwidth to reduce costs
  • Scalability and the impact of cost for any larger cohorts requiring simultaneous or prolonged access to be an affordable solution; costs per student in different scenarios
  • Impact of the ‘last mile’ connectivity in different regions and provinces of China

What happens after the Pilot Project is completed?

During the course of and after the completion of the pilot, we will make 'frequently asked questions' available. These will be informed as we go through the testing phase and as a response to ongoing enquiries. This will be available on the international community Microsoft Teams site (find out how to get involved below) and the ucisa website.

Jisc are  working towards having solutions in place for the start of the 2020/21 academic year.

After the testing phase of the pilot phase has started, we will be initiating an OJEU-compliant procurement process to establish a multi-supplier framework. Jisc are working with Alibaba to recommend that short-term contracts could be taken up between your institution and Alibaba Cloud directly until a Jisc framework solution is in place. 

Jisc will also be working with Alibaba to ascertain cost savings for both the short- term scenario and eventual framework solution.  Critical to successfully achieving a high-quality, robust, reliable and affordable solution in China is the ability to aggregate demand from the UK sector. We therefore ask you to fill out this form to register your interest.

In the longer-term, we are looking at a range of solutions to improve the quality of services and digital experience of remote students and staff wherever they are in the world; the pilot project and enhancing access to online education in China is the first example of this work.

As a broader aspiration, interest has been shown in the range of solutions from Alibaba by Canada, the USA, Nordic and European countries. By working collaboratively with its sister Research and Education Networks and other organisations across the world, Jisc will explore the possibilities of a global approach and solution. 

We have also listened to extensive feedback on the Pilot Project from ucisa, UUKI and the British Council, as well as our own members, to ultimately achieve the best possible, high quality and equitable experience for our students and staff based in China. We have especially listened to the concerns ucisa members expressed about cost and are working to address them.

How can you get involved?

We know that you will have many more questions than cannot all be covered here. We have therefore initiated a series of opportunities for you to be engaged with this Pilot Project as well as other Jisc and sector activities focussed both around China and the rest of the world.

On Friday 29 May Jisc will be delivering an Online Briefing International education delivery in ‘the new normal’ covering Jisc’s international offer for its members and other key elements of our strategy in a COVID-world. This briefing will touch on details of the Pilot Project with Alibaba Cloud as well as other activities focussed on China. Details of the briefing and how to sign up can be found here. The briefing will also be recorded if you are unable to attend.

Webpages relating to Jisc’s international support can be found at https://www.jisc.ac.uk/rd/projects/supporting-enhanced-access-to-online-education-in-china. The information and support on the site will be extended over the next few weeks and months and informed by your feedback.

All partners are also keen to hear from you in supporting your international activities, both now and in the future. In addition, Jisc have established an international community Microsoft Teams Site for discussion and sharing best practice and information between members and Jisc staff. For an invitation to the site please contact international@jisc.ac.uk.

In addition to the services, we are also producing both general and country specific advice and guidance, with the priority being China. This has been, to date, a collaborative activity between UK and global institutions and sector bodies. This will be available shortly.

Jisc Collections have also responded quickly to the increased number of students now overseas and their access to content in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, updating guidance to address questions relating to the delivery of remote access to Jisc-licensed content to students based outside of the UK.

Additionally, Jisc and ucisa are working together to deliver a joint panel session for our collective members about the Alibaba Cloud Pilot Project. The panel session will take place on Thursday 25 June from 1pm to 2pm, during the testing phase of the Pilot. Book here. It will be publicised by ucisa with further information available from www.ucisa.ac.uk/Covid19 as well as the normal Jisc channels.

A full Project specific briefing is planned following completion of the testing phase with all of the organisations and institutions involved in this collaborative effort. Both the FAQ and briefing information will be available on the Jisc international community Microsot Teams Site and ucisa website shortly.

Finally, as we have explained, interest in taking up such a solution to support your China activities is critical to its success in achieving a high quality, robust, reliable and affordable solution. An Expression of Interest form is available for you to let us know your interest.

We look forward to hearing your view and thank you in anticipation of your support for this initiative.