Cloud and the three pillars of higher education

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The education sector is under increasing pressure to provide a better quality of service while managing the rising costs of operations and shrinking budgets. Key areas are student retention, graduation rates, grant funding, and demands for IT resources for learning and research. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, over 30 percent of students in higher education in developed countries leave without a degree or certificate. Of the 25-64 year-olds with less than an upper secondary qualification, 42 percent are not employed. Cloud computing can help in many ways such as transforming learning processes to be more student-centered, and also reducing costs through shared services.

The activities of a typical higher education establishment (referred to here for convenience as university) can be split into three distinct areas:

  • Administration
  • Education
  • Research

Underlying all of these are the typical infrastructure foundations that any business is based on.

University administration

Administration is not a differentiator for a university. Student registration, HR, payroll, finance, library, and procurement are all basic services that can benefit from standardization on the best system and sharing this on a community cloud, benefiting from reduced costs and increased reliability.

However student relationship management is key. With the rising cost to the student of attending university, institutions need to compete, with one another and also with alternatives, to attract and retain students and funding. By improving the student experience throughout the student lifecycle, and also achieving success in research, the institutions can improve their reputation and so attract the best students. 

From the very start of the relationship between the student and the university, when the student is choosing which university to attend, software such as IBM cloud-based Coremetrics software can be used to track visitors to the university and other websites, identify curriculum areas of interest and provide ongoing tailored advertising. By the time the student joins the university, this information can be part of their profile within IBM SmartCloud for Social Business, which is used to maintain the relationship and provide engaging education. 

IBM Decision Management for Education software-as-a-service solution focuses on student welfare and one higher education institution using it to address student retention issues, and can now predict with 80 percent certainty whether a student will drop out.  It uses all available information within the institution to make real-time informed decisions by using predictive analytical technologies, greatly helping to identify individuals with greatest propensity to succeed and also at-risk students. In this way, teachers can apply resources and interventions most effectively.

Student education

Many students who drop out of university leave in the early stages of their course. Cloud-based social networks and collaboration in those early stages can help students to learn, thrive, and succeed in a way that wasn’t previously possible. In addition to making the learning experience more engaging and accessible, cloud gives an opportunity to reach an entirely new user base, including schools, young offenders, those not in education, employment, or training (NEET), the disabled, stay-at-home mothers, and students in other countries.

IBM together with Birmingham Metropolitan College (BMet) in the UK devised the “Classroom in the Cloud” solution based on IBM SmartCloud for Social Business, and IBM Virtual Desktop for Smart Business. Using the cloud-based social collaboration and networking tools, including file sharing, web conferencing and instant messaging, BMet can deliver on-demand learning to students outside the classroom and on the move.

Learners can access education in a way that suits their lives. Social networks can help initiate the development of communities outside the classroom, encouraging learners to create an individual ecosystem of learning. Teaching staff can collaborate across departments, sharing resources and working together in real time. Staff and students have less need to travel between campus locations, reducing both costs and carbon footprint. 

The emerging trend of social, mobile, and cloud (SoMoClo) allows universities to give what they want, where they want it, how they want it:

  • The learner can benefit from any time, any place, any device, on-demand learning, with social collaboration, aligning with digital lifestyles, and a tailored education experience, globally, Higher participation can be achieved by engaging through any device with a portable immersive seamless web experience, based on the cloud, kept up-to-date, relevant, and accurate.
  • The instructor benefits from a shared knowledge ecosystem, location independent working freedoms, and enhanced tools to engage students and manage success.
  • The university itself benefits from global, exponential scalability, collaboration partners and customers anywhere, richer learner journey, dynamic workforce, and sustainability.

IBM works closely with open and community-source learning management system providers, such as Sakai and Moodle, which can be run on the cloud,  to provide project planning and implementation services, enabling schools and colleges to migrate from proprietary licensed software.

A shared cloud service unites departments and campuses to eliminate information silos and to deliver comprehensive education.

Through the IBM Academic Initiative and the Academic Skills Cloud, IBM expands the resources and experiences offered to students, allowing universities to incorporate technology into their curricula, enabling universities to be more agile and nimble in keeping students current with the latest technologies. London Metropolitan University is the first in the UK to use this solution. Anthony Thomson, Chairman of Metro Bank, said, “Metro Bank hires for attitude and trains for skill, but can only recruit among the select number of graduates with strong aptitude for IT. Academic initiatives, such as the one set up by IBM and London Metropolitan University, are extremely useful in helping to build a level of graduates who have the suitable skills set that is required by employers.”


There are many areas where cloud can help people doing research in universities, obtaining funding, and selling the results. Researchers can use on-demand processing power and elastic storage, for example from IBM development and test cloud, IBM SmartCloud Enterprise. “Rational Collaborative Lifecycle Management on the cloud” can be used to manage the development process. For platform as a service, IBM has IBM SmartCloud Application Services. The accounting mechanisms of IBM SmartCloud Enterprise can be used to track costs of particular projects so that costs can be recharged within the user organization.

IBM developed The Academic Research Collaboration and Analytics system with the University of Rhode Island. The system uses cloud-based analytics and social networking tools to help researchers more easily find funding opportunities, identify collaborators around the world; and locate the latest published research findings in their fields. This solution helps academic researchers quickly find the resources they need to plan, manage, and measure the progress of their research projects.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is establishing a high performance computing as service (HPCaaS) cloud to enable the various colleges, schools, and departments to do research and support industries. Explaining the benefit of cloud, Dr. Lu, NTU School of Material Sciences and Engineering says “Our graduate students pay a lot of money in 5 years to be a scientist [to solve world problems] not to become an IT specialist [to configure the systems].”

Carnegie Mellon University transformed its research cloud to a regional cloud – a platform for collaboration between research, education, and industry offering dynamic provisioning of Apache Hadoop parallel computing environments.

The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Clinical Research Computing Unit developed a cloud infrastructure to support secure virtual desktop and computing needs for internal and external investigators. This infrastructure gives a cost-effective standard virtual desktop environment, securing access to research data.

In my next blog post I will discuss the benefits of using cloud for the infrastructure optimisation to underpin the three pillars.

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