Educational Institutions Finally Embrace DevOps
May 10, 2021

Valerie Silverthorne

Education has a reputation for being slow to adopt technology, especially when it comes to DevOps, but that trend is beginning to reverse as early adopters see great success in both academic use and institutional administration.

Institution-Wide Adoption

Departments across educational institutions are seeing the benefits of DevOps. According to GitLab’s Education Survey of more than 800 of its education community members, adoption extends well beyond typical computer science departments (23 departments responded) into many academic disciplines and colleges, including engineering, natural and social sciences, medical fields, and library science. DevOps is no longer just a tool only for developers building code and deep tech.

"DevOps has been transformational in teaching, learning, and research for early adopters across institutions," said Dr. Christina Hupy, a former professor, and current senior education program manager. "As DevOps tools evolve to support the entire DevOps lifecycle in one open platform, it’s become tremendously easier to teach DevOps culture and methodology."

The survey also found that DevOps is used for more than one purpose on campus. The top four use cases were learning (28%), teaching (22%), research (20%), and information technology/professional (administrative) use (19%). Other uses included open-source software development, maintaining supercomputers, maintaining networks, and support of research activities. Nearly a quarter of respondents indicated they use DevOps in more than one way on campus.

Educational organizations are widely using all stages of the DevOps lifecycle. The most common use reported was source control management (55%), followed by continuous integration (36%), and issue tracking and labels (30%). Many adopters are just beginning their DevOps journey and plan to expand their use to other stages over time. Monitor (31%) and configure (30%) were the stages most respondents were planning to use.

DevOps in the Classroom

The Education Survey found that for university faculty, the ability to teach operations competencies (57%) and the ability to teach with an end-to-end tool for learning DevOps competencies (51%) were the biggest benefits of bringing DevOps into their curriculum.

According to one survey respondent: "We have multiple project-oriented courses where we expect students to make full use of all the CI/CD offered to them, including making sure that what they deploy ... is at least not already known to be broken (SAST, code quality, etc.). Even bigger and more advanced pipelines are used for our own (partly open source) software that we develop and host [ ….]" .

Not only are faculty teaching DevOps itself, but they are seeing great benefits in applying DevOps workflows to classroom tasks, such as code management, grading, feedback, and course assessment. CI/CD pipelines are used in a variety of ways, including grading code, conducting the assessment, and preventing plagiarism.

Many universities are building custom, open-source tools for managing classrooms and research, on top of existing open core solutions. The ability to extend and build additional functionality was also mentioned as a major benefit by survey respondents. The University of Manchester in England published a peer-reviewed article on how they used DevOps to "find patterns and evaluation metrics that can be used to improve the course content and reflect on the most common issues the students are facing."

Additionally, DevOps tools are used to encourage students to work collaboratively. For example, Heriot-Watt University in Scotland has developed tools for peer testing, an approach to base peer feedback on software testing. The peer-reviewed results suggest that by testing each other’s code, students gain a deeper understanding of software testing.

Building the Next Generation of the DevOps Workforce

By learning DevOps earlier on, students can drastically shorten the typical 6+ year timeline to becoming a DevOps professional. Of the student respondents in the survey, 40% answered that DevOps is critical for workforce readiness and 45% viewed the ability to build a portfolio and record of contributions as a top benefit of using DevOps while in school.

In the new remote world, digital fluency and adopting a DevOps mindset are critical skill factors.

Advancing Scientific Research

Researchers have found new and innovative ways to bring the DevOps lifecycle to the scientific research process.

According to Dr. Hupy, "Program members are innovating on how research is done and speeding up the entire cycle from data to publication via collaboration tools, CI/CD, and containerization."

By storing data and scientific models in central, public repositories linked to Docker containers, researchers can conduct reproducible tests, provide feedback, and collaborate in ways that are not possible without a single open DevOps platform.

The Key Takeaways

While early adopters are seeing great success, there is still a gap in awareness of DevOps and its utility in education. The most commonly mentioned factor when asked about challenges to adoption was a lack of awareness of DevOps by faculty and staff. Bringing the successes of early adopters to the forefront will undoubtedly decrease this awareness gap.

"Despite these early successes, increased awareness, professional development for faculty, and more resources for teaching are needed to continue to spread the benefits of DevOps across the academy," Dr. Hupy shared.

The Education Survey demonstrates that DevOps has immense benefits and potential in education. We should expect more adoption and innovative uses as more educational resources become available.

Valerie Silverthorne is Senior Content Editor at GitLab
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