Migrating IT Services to the Cloud Benefits Students
Students and faculty typically don’t think about the intricacies of their university’s computer network as long as it simply works. Behind the scenes though, the IT departments that manage the networks—and nearly everything else at a university these days—have an opportunity to play an important role in improving the student experience and optimizing learning resources.
Technology leaders at University of Maryland University College, which has been a pioneer in distance education since 1947 and has an enrollment today of about 85,000 students worldwide, recognized in 2011 an opportunity to disrupt traditional IT in higher education. Ever since, they have transformed their department from an order-taker that maintains servers, storage, accounts and commoditized technology, to an innovator and strategic partner with other university departments.
In many ways, traditional IT—the business of maintaining servers, networks, hardware and software—has been commoditized and made irrelevant by modern technology, such as cloud computing and the software as a service (SaaS) distribution model. Our senior VP of analytics, planning and technology, Pete Young, made the decision four years ago to transition his team from administering expensive data centers and developing custom applications to engineering innovative solutions.
“We’ve disrupted technology in higher ed by shifting our focus toward innovation and sealing our role as a strategic provider,” Young told me. “Now utility services cost less and can be deployed faster, creating a more agile and effective institution that provides high-quality education for a reasonable cost.”
In 2014, UMUC executed a complete migration of three data centers from three countries to the cloud, and migrated more than 40 core applications to the cloud, phasing out all of its on-premises computing. The university partnered with best-in-class, global providers with innovative online learning tools, data storage, networks and communications, to accomplish this work, liberating IT resources to focus on UMUC’s core mission: to positively change the lives of adult learners through higher education. This shift delivered the flexibility, scalability and redundancy to deliver a high-quality education for more students while achieving the most practical outcomes at the lowest cost.
Migrating capabilities to cloud services also provided UMUC enormous flexibility to adapt quickly in response to evolving business requirements. It enabled the university to redirect resources that had been invested in machines and software licenses to configuring hosted services and developing innovative technology solutions, such as a new online learning environment for students and faculty.
Jason Reed, our chief technology officer at UMUC, basically explained that this approach allows the IT team to act as consultative, technology-oriented problem solvers. It allows us to invest in student experience, success and outcomes, rather than in commodity IT.
UMUC’s online classroom is a constellation of technologies with a learning management system providing a virtual classroom at the hub, and integrations with other SaaS solutions to provide course content, syllabi, and presentation and evaluation tools. Students, faculty and staff now use Google’s cloud-based services for e-mail and file storage and sharing, which saves the university substantial money while providing cutting-edge technology that requires UMUC to do little to no maintenance.
By allowing best-of-breed vendors to manage and mitigate the risks of commodity technology, students and faculty across the world benefit in various ways, including better uptime, faster services and access to the most current technology. In addition, the university’s infrastructure is far more flexible, scalable and reliable then it could have ever been in its previous home in the basement of a university building. In the event of a natural or manmade disaster at UMUC headquarters in Adelphi, Md., there will be no outages or degradation of technology services. Everything will simply keep working.
Students can complete assignments, collaborate and learn using any Internet connection worldwide, a contemporary web browser, and a variety of devices from laptops and desktops to tablets and mobile phones. Faculty can teach and staff can fulfill their job responsibilities without the need for special software or the most current hardware.
I think Pete Young put it best when he said, “This is the future of IT, and this new model is working exceptionally well for us. Traditional IT has been commoditized. If departments don’t change, they will become irrelevant.”
Author Perspective: Administrator