A Cloud in Hybrid/Online’s Future?

Cloud computing is one of the major instructional technology trends in the past 5 years and is likely to remain so.  Vendors, with specific software applications, provide comprehensive solutions to IT departments and colleges that are often cash-strapped and lacking the staff to support new, cutting edge applications.  In the past, colleges typically used a “CPE”  (customer premise equipment) model where new applications were stored on dedicated campus servers maintained by campus technical staff. Along with the application, users’ files were also stored on these servers, and in-house staff supported the users. This is the traditional model, which is undergoing a major change at U.S. colleges and universities.

Cloud-based software is also called “Saas,” or Software as a Service. It “involves purchasing the application as a service from the vendor that delivers it via the ‘Cloud’ where it is accessed over the Internet.” (1) The vendor maintains both the application and needed infrastructure “in the cloud,” namely at their own site. In essence, the user gets the advantages of the new application without the overhead required by on-campus servers, applications and support. The potential may be revolutionary in terms of its impact on campus IT and more narrowly, hybrid/online courses.

The rationale for cloud-based computing is specifically laid out for lecture capture software in an excellent white paper entitled, “Lecture Capture Deployment Models” published by Wainhouse Research. Although I have been skeptical about lecture capture technology in a previous blog post, I am becoming more open to its usefulness in the context of hybrid and online classes. However, regardless of the specifics of lecture capture, the report clearly delineates many advantages of the Saas model for cloud computing. Among the important advantages of cloud-based computing for campus IT departments are:

  • Portability: tremendous flexibility as to where an application can be used and recorded
  • Scalability: can easily be scaled up to meet demand on campus
  • Upgradability: done by vendor when new features become available
  • Management: reduced costs of purchasing, installing and maintaining servers and applications for campus IT centers
  • Bandwidth: campus bandwidth can be spared from heavy use of data/process-intensive apps
  • Fail-safe operations: vendor can employ sophisticated redundancy techniques that provide more fail-safe service and performance
  • User Support: focus can shift from maintaining the software to supporting and piloting its use.

These pluses are very compelling. Each is described in greater detail in the white paper cited above.

What are some potential downsides of cloud computing for a university?

Costs: Many institutions end up saving money by using cloud services rather than trying to run them in-house.  Realize, the vendor specializes in this product and would likely have the technical support and sufficient economies of scale to provide the service at a lower cost than an individual campus could. As the white paper explains, there are various pricing models used by vendors. When these applications are customized to specific college requirements, there is usually significant cost-savings involved, but expenses for these services need to be closely analyzed and monitored.

Legal: Agreements with any software vendor often involve lengthy negotiations between campus and vendor legal teams. What colleges are concerned with includes privacy issues, intellectual property concerns, access to work by third parties, duration of cloud-based materials and other concerns. Given the conservative and cautious nature of campus legal departments, these negotiations may end up with no agreement or may delay implementation for too long to be practical.

Culture: Campus cultures move slowly, unlike some private enterprises. Engaging stakeholders, getting consensus on a vendor or approach, and obtaining the requisite approvals can be a painstaking and frustrating process, especially in a fragmented, siloed and bureaucratic institution.  “While heavy adoption of cloud-based services is well-documented in the corporate world, education has lagged. “ (1)

According to the 2010 Campus Computing Project, “75 percent of all private colleges and universities have or are creating a strategic plan for cloud computing. Across all higher education institutions, this figure is 55%.” (2) Public institutions lag their private counterparts in adopting cloud solutions on their campuses by nearly 2 to 1.

In summary, there are compelling reasons to explore, pilot and adopt cloud-based computing within CUNY. Although this process has been delayed, the momentum is undeniable. I feel it is imperative that individual CUNY campuses attempt to make some inroads into cloud computing services without waiting for CUNY CIS to provide university-wide solutions.

Upcoming Blog Posts: A re-examination: why and how lecture capture may have a place in hybrid/online courses, and why the cloud is relevant to hybrid/online implementation.

Sources:

1. Greenberg, Alan & Nilsen, Andy, (2011), “Lecture Capture Deployment Models: Tracking Costs for Scalability,” Wainhouse Research Whitepaper, Accessed 11/10/11 at http://wainhouse.com/files/papers/wr-lecture-capture-deploy.pdf.

2. Green, Kenneth, (2010), “Campus Computing 2010”,  (Encino, CA, Campus Computing Project), http://www.campuscomputing.net.

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