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Cloud Computing in Higher Education

|Oct 11|magazine13 min read

Written by:  Bob Burke, President, FolderWave, Inc.

 

There's no question that cloud computing usage has exploded and will continue unabated. 

  1. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that cloud computing is not only becoming increasingly popular in general but that it is growing in the education market, normally a slow adopter of new technology. Two, criticalmotivating factors are catalyzing educational institutions to investigate the cloud concept as an option since cloud computing can:
  • Substantially reduce hardware, software licensing and personnel costs. This also saves on space, repair, and electrical costs.
  • Provide new capabilities as they come to market without the incremental costs for equipment or support. The cloud now makes “keeping current” a much more viable option. This might include collaborative efforts such as allowing multiple admissions personnel to view the same student application simultaneously. 

            To these reasons, one might add the explosion in mobile devices that pressures IT departments - including those in the higher education environment - to provide 24/7 computing that is accessible from anywhere with no downtime. To top it off, there is also the ever- increasing avalanche of data that needs to be stored and analyzed. Given their shrinking budgets and increasing applicants, schools do have a major incentive to investigate cloud computing as a cost containment solution - certainly a simpler, much more affordable and practical option than attempting to undergo major expansion and rehab of technologies they already have in place.

Cloud computing can be used for business continuity planning, or storing archived copies of data off to a cloud storage area - even students' papers and music that can be stored and retrieved whenever they want. 

In the specialized areas of financial aid, enrollment, and admissions, the cloud has proven to be particularly beneficial. In the face of rising applicant pools, these areas need processes completed faster, better and cheaper methods to keep up with the competition, as well as meeting their own budgetary goals.  The cloud helps higher education move up on the cost benefit curve because it's not dumping more work on an already beleaguered IT staff, it’s rather simple to implement, and the benefits can be significant. The cloud can deliver high-end functionality very quickly without significant investments in hardware, integration, administration, and consulting.

Before jumping in with both feet, though, some basic questions must first be answered. One of the primary concerns is how does a cloud vendor deliver an agile business solution to a higher education institution which traditionally has focused on other priorities.

Secondly, there is a litany of questions, mostly related to issues of security, reliability, confidentiality, and regulations at both the state and federal level. Most cloud vendors have addressed the security and intrusion issues at least at the level that most colleges would have addressed for themselves, if not more.  In reality, security is less about the nuts and bolts of how to protect the data than the idea that administrators must determine who actually owns the data and who has access to it.

It’s also advisable to evaluate applications and infrastructure for vulnerabilities and ensure that security controls are in place and operating properly.  Setting up an active monitoring program that uses services such as intrusion prevention, access and identity management, and security event log management to identify any security threats to the cloud implementation is a must.

Once these hurdles are cleared, there are baseline technology questions that must be considered.  This includes the infrastructure vendors they select, the maintenance agreements that they have in place, and technology questions regarding storage, networking, computing capacity, and integration.

From the business side, there is a big impact on the user community; how big depends on the equipment and systems already in place. There are campuses that are still using green screen terminals off of a mainframe to do their work.  In moving to the cloud, these schools are changing from older PC-based platforms to more up-to-date ones capable of running browser sessions and multiple windows.

Regarding the legal process, lawyers are always involved in the procurement of any software or services, so they certainly have a role.  But with cloud computing, it does shift the kinds of protection they might look for in the contract.  There are questions about the viability of the system, how often it is updated, how long the data is stored, is the data deleted when the vendor says they're going to.  In essence, when buying software on a campus, it's all about the license agreement; with a cloud vendor, the focus shifts to the service agreement and the protection of privacy, records, and information.

Switching to a cloud-computing scenario can begin with "baby steps" in order to allow the school to become comfortable with the change. The big payoff is in the more comprehensive enrollment management areas where the value proposition for admissions and financial aid can include a major improvement in operational efficiency enabling a dramatic impact on incoming class demographics and a compelling ROI.  

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bob Burke is president of FolderWave, Inc., a cloud-based company offering products and services designed to significantly improve complex, high-volume time-dependent process and data management operations in many operational areas in higher education.  Bob can be reached at bob@folderwave.com.