Higher Education Planning for the Cloud, in the Cloud, and of the CloudMichael Hites | Senior Associate Vice President and CIO, University of Illinois System
My son has his head in the cloud. He plays a significant amount of Minecraft, and he loves Google Docs. I often find him simultaneously doing his homework, building Minecraft levels, and collaboratively editing books with his friends. The other day, I was rebuilding a new Mac Mini so that I could retire an older one, and I told my son, “I should use this old Mac Mini as a media server for the house.” So, he asked me what a media server was. I explained that it’s a place for us to put all of the stuff that we share, like music, video and documents. “Oh,” he says, “it’s like the cloud?”
It occurred to me that the difference between inside the house and outside the house was completely irrelevant for my son.
Like my son, business units throughout the university have access to more cloud services than ever. No longer does a department need to wait for IT to set up a virtual machine or upgrade software, and this changes the nature of the relationship between the IT department and the business unit. IT professionals can help the adoption of cloud services by providing pre-negotiated contracts, transitioning their own infrastructure to cloud services, and helping to get departmental units using the services in a consistent manner. On the flipside, someone needs to make sure that the cloud services are not an expressway to create a new set of duplicative services. This role can be filled by higher education IT professionals who can act as facilitators for cloud services and make sure that the right service is used at the right scale.
Higher education consortia are helping institutions gain access to cloud services. For example, Internet2’s Net+ offerings make it easier to procure cloud computing, storage, data mining, two-factor authentication, and many more software-as-a-service offerings. Several vendors make great cloud services for data visualization, drilldown, discovery and analytics. These services let you configure pre-made graphics on top of your own data, which you can link directly to their cloud service. You can imbed what you build into your own web applications, and this lets you spend more time playing with the data rather than deploying new tools. Of course, there are some scaling limitations with some of these solutions; however, these services can supplement typical industrial-strength business intelligence solutions.
In the past, the learning management system (LMS) collected syllabi and documents, displayed grades, had some basic communication capability, and was synchronized to the student information system so that only enrolled students participated in the class. Today, the LMS landscape has more competition, and the LMS is available as cloud service. Functionality now includes better features for mobility, personalization and adaptive learning. Moving forward, the demands on the LMS are to be a truly a self-guided digital learning environment allowing for exploration, real-time assessment and meaningful collaborations. With all of these choices, IT professionals can help by making sure that the academic objectives for a new LMS are clear and the institution isn’t chasing the newest, shiniest tool for the sake of technology.
IBM believes that the first experience that babies and toddlers should have with education is with their parents—and Watson. Watson is not going to replace the parent, but Watson might be better than plunking the child in front of a video, a program or a website. While these may be “interactive,” they certainly don’t learn much from the child. Cloud-based, cognitive computing can learn and does learn. This isn’t in a creepy, artificial intelligence way, but rather, it’s related specifically to early childhood development. What could be better than a parental partner that was trained to recognize the difference between sleep deprivation, obstinacy, and autism? As cognitive computing becomes imbedded in higher education, IT professionals can help departments utilize cognitive computing in innovative research and education.
Expectation management is important with abundant cloud services. When the random vendor talks to the president of the university and exclaims that their company can save 80 percent of the IT budget by going to the cloud, who is there to ask, “Which budget is that?” The cloud does save money, and it takes careful analysis to determine where and when to move services to the cloud. Paralysis by committee and turf protection cannot guide the decision making. There needs to be a rational process that includes academics, budget leaders, IT professionals and the customer to provide input to the decision. Ultimately, the provost, chancellor or president needs to have enough comfort to make the right decision, and IT professionals can help with this decision making process.
While the cloud may help alleviate some infrastructure and software development costs, there is no end in sight for integration. Application administrators are still needed regardless of where the hardware lives, data scientists will work hand-in-hand with developers to provide cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-school integrations, mobile computing still needs to be supported, and customers will still expect everything to “just work.” I’m not sure we’ve seen a time in history where there is more of a need for IT professionals than today.
Cloud-based planning tools are now available to facilitate the strategic planning process. There are workshops, focus groups, town halls and all sorts of collaboration that takes place during the planning process. Then, once you’re done, you need to keep your plan alive and implement your priorities. When we did our last two IT strategic plans, we developed all of the strategic directions and initiatives in the cloud, and we assigned ownership of the initiatives to many people within the organization so that progress could be tracked. Once the plan was online, updating it was a collaborative update process, and you can click “print” at any time if you need to show an old-school planner the current progress report.
The “Internet of Things” or the “industrial internet” is making us part of the internet itself. Eventually, your house will know that your self-driving car is on its way. Your spouse (and the government) will also probably know where you are in the self-driving car, but let’s focus on the positive side of the Internet of Things. Even though you might have to fill out three different paper forms to see a doctor, your phone and watch already can give some of your medical history as you walk in the door to the office. When the refrigerator tells the nurse that you pulled out ice cream five times more often than broccoli, you’re in trouble. Hopefully you’ll never have to call a repair person again, because everything will know when it should be serviced. At the University of Illinois, we developed a mobile app that uses your current location to help students find the right food at the right time within the various dining halls. Like it or not, we are part of the cloud, with little ability to opt out. How we embrace the Internet of Things as IT professionals will determine how comfortable our customers feel with using so much data from machines.
Is the cloud secure? Mostly, yes. Higher education has battled network and data security for decades, and will continue to balance open access with the protection of assets and also privacy with security, regardless of whether the service is inside the university or outside of it. It is more likely that you or one of your colleagues will click on a cleverly designed spear phishing email, get infected by malware from your kids, or put your credit card though a hacked point of sale before the next cloud breach gets announced.
While there’s nothing that is perfectly secure, the cloud services providers have a financial incentive to not play loose with your data or the university’s. So for today, I’m choosing to be for the cloud, with the cloud, and of the cloud. What choice to do I have?
Author Perspective: Administrator