Published on 2015/11/19
The EvoLLLution | Sightings and Illusions: Looking Toward the Cloud
With all the conversation around whether to phase out legacy systems in favor of newer, cloud-hosted platforms, institutional leaders need to ensure they are balancing the expectations of their new student demographics against the needs of internal stakeholders and the pace of change.

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides/ from up and down and still somehow

The question of cloud-hosted applications still clearly continues to torment the stewards of technology in higher education. Breakout sessions at IT conferences are riddled with topics related to how, when, which and why. Many of the questions relate to long-term consequences and making good choices. Certainly, the evidence related to cost seems compelling for the number of features, the mobility of devices, the third-party leveraging of scale, and the appeal of a constant stream of new technologies and feature updates not possible or dreamed of within a small IT shop.

Faculty also return from their own conferences laden with stories, brochures and business cards. They ask why a peer’s university now has software that provides tools, reports, functions and features not possible at home. They ask why our small, aging, Python-poor team cannot provide the social, mobile, intuitive and engagement-driven options seen elsewhere.

It’s cloud illusions I recall/ I really don’t know clouds at all

It is hard not to give up, give in, just throw in the towel regarding the ancient, homegrown, high-maintenance, much-maligned systems that have served our campuses for so many years. One by one, CIOs cave with gratitude and under some pressure when handing over their resource-intensive HR administrative systems. If we could achieve a more stable, secure system with a better and more intuitive user experience (UX), for less money than the resources needed to maintain aging homegrown systems, why would a CIO say no? As a previous boss once told me, “Higher education is about knowledge creation, not payroll. Content vs context. We dump the context and have more time for doing what we do best.”

So, IT quickly (and without too many regrets, bumps or lumps) surrendered payroll, HR, email and calendaring to the cloud. It was a decision of stewardship driven by cost, security, features and function. It was context shaped and defined for a digital age.

But overnight, clouds moved in on new fronts, bringing elusive promises of more, faster and better in the spaces of our content—teaching, learning and the classroom. This is a space where change has always happened slowly and often learning still looks much as it has looked since the opening of the first American universities 300-plus years ago. Faculty pressure us from both sides. Do we surrender academic technologies—a space uniquely our own—to commercial vendors who offer bright shiny objects on tiny devices?

Like weather sweeping in from the sea, technology startles us with the pace of change it brings. Consider the new LMS: social, collaborative, offering public representations of work, synchronous connections, shared meaning and 24/7 opportunities to make a contribution. Wikis and blogs and chat, oh my! Not only can homegrown systems not keep up, most universities cannot recruit the size or talent that would bring new-world technologies into a meaningful course experience. We must consider the possibility that vendors with great suits, expensive haircuts and shiny demos really know as much (or more) about our bread and butter operations. Context AND content to the cloud where 24/7 applications—mobile, social, nimble—creates more engaged students and more personalized learning paths.

This begs a new question: Is there a line we should not cross? Is there technology we should not adopt or give away to young software designers trained in enhancing UX, but lacking in training or commitment to the eyes forward, butt in seat, notebooks in hand student experience that creates shared experience and learning outcomes across the curriculum?

So many things I would have done/ but clouds got in my way

The questions then become not related to the value of the cloud, but the changes to the core experience of teaching and learning that 24/7, multi-media-enhanced, mobile, peer, and personalized learning provides. What is gained, what is lost and how best are our students served? Certainly Sherry Turkle, in her latest book (Reclaiming Conversation) makes a compelling case for stepping away from our devices and embracing slow conversation.

However a focus on this approach—still the standard on most campuses—favors students of old: those “good students,” polite and passive, who do well in listening mode. The new traditionals (older, working, first generation, minorities, economically struggling) increasingly seek the cloud. At the University of Washington Tacoma, our online courses fill within the first few hours and days of enrollment, but they are still only 10 percent of our enrollments. Are we doing our job if we continue to favor a minority elite, rather than meeting a need? And how does an IT professional balance traditional issues that have been in her domain (security, cost, stability) with issues of technology advocacy and leadership in a changing digital age for higher education?

If Turkle is right, the IT question becomes not whether to retire legacy systems and move to the vendor-owned cloud, but how to balance the classroom, the pace of change, and the needs of a new, diverse nation going to college.




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Readers Comments

Howard Barnes 2015/11/19 at 9:58 am

It’s good to see some more balanced discussion about the cloud rather than just that it’s the future and everyone had better get on board. There are a lot of questions to ask that don’t really have anything to do with specific cloud offerings or providers.

Cheryl Kelly 2015/11/19 at 1:34 pm

It’s a hard question, just to use the online education bit as an example, to try to balance new modalities and emerging technologies with the actual numbers. Online might be only 10 percent of your enrollment now, but what if that grows exponentially over the next five years? Or what if access to certain cloud services would improve on-campus learning such that it boosted enrollments in that arena? Of course, things can also go the other way.

    Colleen Carmean 2015/11/19 at 4:20 pm

    Sticky questions that keep us up at night. I think we’re all scrambling through digital age, predicting what our institutions will look like based on technology that doesn’t exist yet. Note: I’m sure that enrollment WILL be much higher than 10% in online courses here – IF students have a say. But what those courses look like will partly depend on what cloud software appears between now and…when? Tomorrow, next week, next month.

Jeffery Copeland 2015/11/19 at 4:09 pm

The pace of change itself is also an interesting point. Who are you going to be able to serve when your legacy system becomes completely obsolete and basically inoperable, even if until that point the legacy system was the best option? Balance really is the key here.

    Colleen Carmean 2015/11/19 at 4:25 pm

    I think you’re right regarding pace of change, and how we handle it. AZ State U switched to cloud-based Blackboard services a few years ago, after hosting same on their own servers for years. A few mistakes were made, load balancing misjudged, the new LMS was down most of the first month of school. Cloud/Legacy…regardless, be nimble.

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