Five ways cloud is enhancing higher education

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I was inspired to write this post after listening to Bill Thirsk, vice president of information technology and chief information officer (CIO) of Marist College, speak at IBM Pulse 2014. His enthusiasm for using information technology to improve education is contagious. The IBM and Marist partnership, which began in 1978, continues today as Marist embraces cloud computing (learn more by downloading the white paper here). Institutions of higher education are adopting cloud to cope with a variety of problems that are increasing in intensity.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 10.04.16 PMUniversity World News reports that by 2025, “the global demand for higher education will double to approximately 200 million students per year, mostly from emerging economies.” Shrinking budgets, aging facilities and rising costs present sizable challenges, so it is no surprise that many people are looking to use cloud technology as part of the solution. In this post I will suggest five areas where cloud can help.

1. Streamlining operations

Deploying applications that run the business side of higher education—financials, enrollment and housing, for example—is an obvious application of cloud technology. Like many other businesses, colleges and universities have limited funds to deploy and maintain enterprise information technology systems, so they turn to cloud for lower costs and improved efficiency. As a concrete example, in partnership with IBM, Jenzabar provides software for the administration of higher education institutions that runs on the IBM SoftLayer platform.

2. Improving student productivity, conferencing and collaboration

In the article “How Higher Ed Is Using Cloud Computing,” Edudemic reports that by the end of 2014, “4 out of 5 higher education students are expected to take coursework online.” This is not to say that students won’t be learning in the classroom—they will—but teachers and students are integrating technology into learning experience. Consider these statistics from the same article:

• 68 percent of institutions use (or will use) the cloud for conferencing and collaboration
• 65 percent of institutions use (or will use) the cloud for storage
• 65 percent of institutions use (or will use) the cloud for office and productivity suites
• 62 percent of institutions use (or will use) the cloud for messaging

In the past 20 years, there has been significant innovation in terms of how educators blend online and in-person classroom experiences to engage students. The virtual classroom allows students to watch lectures online, but the tools are also being used to augment traditional classrooms with shared cloud storage and social media. The flipped classroom encourages students to learn material on their own, saving class time for discussion and problem solving. Virtual field trips bring a world of experiences to the comfort of a dorm room. All these innovations are just the beginning.

3. Extending the reach of higher education

The New York Times declared that 2012 was “The Year of the MOOC.” These MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are cloud-based educational platforms that have taken the world by storm. The impact of MOOCs is up for debate, but we are learning about the characteristics and behavior of students enrolled in these courses. Recently, Harvard and MIT released data about their first 16 MOOCs, and here are a few excerpts:

• Many students enroll, but the completion rate is very low
• The majority of students are male
• The majority of students already have college degrees

Nevertheless, MOOCs are having an impact on classroom education as well as education policies at the state and federal level. During their relatively short history, MOOCs have been the subject of heated debate, but I think this is healthy because MOOCs are a disruptive force with the potential to positively impact public policy.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding research to explore the potential of MOOCs. EdX, an open-source platform governed by Harvard and MIT, is trying to transform education the way Linux transformed the computing world. Anant Agarwal, EdX CEO, will give a keynote on “Reinventing Education Through Massive Open Online Courses” at LinuxCon and CloudOpen North America in Chicago, August 20–22, 2014. MOOCs are not likely to replace brick and mortar universities soon, but they will influence how we think about education.


4. Enhancing and scaling delivery of course material

Some colleges and universities use high-performance computing (HPC) to support academic research. Many of their workloads can now be supported in the cloud. Several, like Marist, are offering classes in big data and analytics. Talking about the virtual computer lab for advanced analytics during Pulse 2014, Thirsk said that Marist “could not offer this course at scale without the auto provisioning cloud architecture.” Further, they use their data center, which hosts an academic community cloud, as a training site. Their students get direct experience with enterprise-scale architectures, preparing them for jobs in technology.

5. Personalizing education and improving learning outcomes

Marist is also working to improve learning outcomes. They led the Open Academics Analytics Initiative (OAAI) to “develop, deploy and release an open-source ecosystem for academic analytics designed to increase student content mastery, semester-to-semester persistence and degree completion in postsecondary education.” Thus far, they have learned to predict the likelihood of a student’s final grade, with a 2 percent error margin, within the first two weeks of a course. They have given the platform away to five other institutions and are learning to accurately interpret the data so as to implement more successful interventions.

In the 2013 IBM Global Technology Outlook (download available here), the education industry was said to be “at the brink of an IT-enabled transformation.” I’m excited and motivated by all the possibilities that cloud, mobile and social innovations bring to higher education. How about you? Feel free to join my Meetup group or connect with me on Twitter (@allanrtate).

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