educationtechnologyinsights

Cloud Strategy in Higher Education

By Chris Harrison, CTO, Nova Southeastern University

Chris Harrison, CTO, Nova Southeastern University

Traditionally IT (Information Technology) organizations within the Education industry, and in particular in Higher Education, have been focused on hosting all educational platforms on-premises. This has been a traditional trend consistent with the nature of the educational industry.

"Leveraging the cloud as a repository for the bulk of an institution’s application portfolio can certainly alleviate resources and capital"

Not until recently, colleges and universities believed in the notion that by having physical control of the solutions and platforms within their institutions it would provide their academic stakeholders (students, faculty and staff) with an advantage. With increased financial pressure on all sectors of Higher-Ed (private/public and for profit/ non-profit) to either reduce or maintain the cost of education through tuition and others, we’ve seen a direct and greater impact on IT and P&L by forcing the conversation of not only doing more with less, but how to position IT strategically within the institutions so as to become competitive and sustainable.

One area that more and more colleges and universities are beginning to embrace and plan, is leveraging the Cloud and it services; thus freeing up resources and capital to be focused on more value-added and strategic initiatives aimed directly at improving the student’s entire lifecycle experience from lead to graduation and at every touchpoint of their academic experience. The reality is that by having all platforms within the institutions data centers provides no value-added. There are enormous amounts of cloud and world-class providers that provide a higher quality, availability and, at times, lower cost than an internal IT organization.

In today’s world, the large majority of the software educational providers in the core areas of Student Information Systems, Learning Management Systems, Student Acquisition Systems and a slew of other areas including quality, proctoring, examination, research and analysis tools within the academic software umbrella have begun to provide cloud solutions to institutions. These are either SaaS (Software-as-a-Service), PaaS (Platform-as-a-Service) or IaaS (Infrastructure-as-a-Service) models. In addition to these three basic models, there are a few “hybrid” models offered as well.

With the availability of Cloud offerings, universities and colleges are being pressured to take advantage of these “commoditized” solutions by migrating them from on-premises and into the cloud; hence releasing resources and capital that can then be leveraged more strategically. The larger software educational providers and business solutions, do already provide their customers with migration plans to ensure a smooth transition.

One key challenging area is the “custom-build” solutions that are either legacy or have not been built with the cloud mindset. For these a proper migration plan and architecture (including API – Application Programming Interface) would be critical in the success and migration into the cloud. Ensuring standardization of architectures and a sound-proof blueprint moving forward would be one of the key elements to success. Another challenge is the integration of all of these platforms in the cloud, which is another area to consider.

By allowing the entire portfolio of academic solutions to be on the cloud, secured and highly available, it provides the opportunity for IT organizations to focus more on some key strategic areas, student-centric initiatives and forward thinking, such as:

• Implementing a “Mobile” solution for students. More and more students are using their digital devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) for accessing content, classes and other academic tasks through their mobile device and tablet.

• Student experience is another area that has traditionally been left behind in particular by some of the larger academic solution providers. They haven’t focused on delivering a simple, minimalistic and great user experience through the “User Interface” that should be consistent across the student life-cycle from acquisition until alumni.

• Providing accurate and simple Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s ) through the use of a “Dashboard” to the academic community and the university’s administrators in order to better understand the overall health of the institution. This can range from financials, enrollment, retention, graduation, placement, academic quality and other key data points.

• Enabling the various academic and student servicing groups with powerful and accurate “Predictive Analytics” that can help determine a student’s potential future behavior and prevent them from either leaving their college or university or helping them improve their academic performance.

• Providing students with the “Network Infrastructure” speed and redundancy for fast internet and Wi-Fi throughout their campuses (for brick-and-mortar students) in a consistent manner. Students today walk around with an average of three devices (laptop, tablet and mobile phone). This should include the ability to students to have seamless access to the university’s resources consistently and transparently as they move within campuses (in and out of buildings) from any of their mobile devices through Wi-Fi and cell carriers.

• For universities and colleges that are highly research oriented, putting together a “High-Performance” computing environment strategy and plan that is elastic in nature (cloud) and conducive to exchanging and collaborating research work, analytics and computing power among the various disciplines within the institutions as well as with other universities and colleges through “high-speed” interconnected networks.

The cloud is not the solution to all of the challenges to technology in higher education as each platform needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Leveraging the cloud as a repository for the bulk of an institution’s application portfolio can certainly alleviate resources and capital, which can then be focused on other strategic, value-added and student-centric initiatives that should eventually yield the best student education experience. At the end of the day, we are here for one primary reason, and that is to provide students with the best quality education possible and prepare them for the work-place and their future.