At University of Maryland University College in Adelphi, Md., “learning online is our primary business — it’s what we do,” says Pete Young, the college’s senior vice president for analytics, planning and technology.
“More than 85 percent of our enrollments are for online courses,” Young says.
The college’s mission to serve working adults and the military — more than half of its 85,000 students are active-duty service members and their dependents, reservists and veterans — puts the institution in a different category from a typical, four-year liberal arts college. Adult students find that taking courses online fits more neatly into their busy lifestyles, and service members can keep up with their studies while stationed abroad.
That’s why Jason Reed, vice president and chief technology officer, says supporting such a diverse student body requires that UMUC take advantage of the flexibility and costs savings offered by cloud technology. With the cloud, UMUC can spin up servers, applications and other infrastructure as needed — and at a much lower cost.
Elsewhere, the 13,000 students enrolled at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., can perform nearly all or part of their coursework online — even residential, on-campus students. According to Jan Fox, Marshall’s CIO, online courses are the norm there.
“We are moving away from the traditional brick-and-mortar courses,” she says. “Many of the courses run the flipped classroom model, where students may meet with the professor once a week, and the rest of the class runs online. Even in classes that meet mostly in a physical classroom, students do their work online via the learning management system.”
Supporting such a robust set of online offerings required that Marshall upgrade its networking infrastructure. The university upgraded its fiber network about two years ago and installed new Cisco switches in the data center. More wireless access points were rolled out across the sprawling campus.
Marshall also enjoys relationships with three different Internet service providers to ensure faculty, students and staff have all the bandwidth they need to do their work, Fox says.
Glenda Morgan, a research director for higher education at Gartner, says all of the new online learning techniques rolling out across higher ed campuses today require colleges to pay close attention to their infrastructure.
“The networking issue is huge,” Morgan says. “Colleges especially have to upgrade their wireless networks so they can handle the growing number of devices and increased load put on networks since more of the learning is done online.”
Upgrading the wireless network was particularly important at the University of Florida, where more than 50 percent of the university’s 48,000 students now take at least one class online.
From 2011 to 2013, CIO Elias Eldayrie says Florida deployed more than 7,600 new Cisco Systems Aironet wireless access points. The university added Cisco video cameras in classrooms and upgraded the switches and routers in its data center and wiring closets.
Those targeted investments in the university’s networking infrastructure were made to help the institution fully meet its educational, research and community engagement missions, Eldayrie says.
“Our goal is to ensure a good user experience in accessing learning resources anytime, from anywhere, using any device,” he says. “The network was designed to accommodate transport of very large data sets used in contemporary research.
“We also support a wide area network to a statewide system of county extension offices, research centers and health clinics.”
The university runs its main learning management system over a Software as a Service (SaaS) application, tapping Microsoft Azure cloud storage and other cloud-based providers when and where it makes sense, he says.
University of Florida Information Technology also offers students a few cloud-like services, including UFApps, a cloud-based version of the UFIT computer labs that allows students to use applications without having to visit a physical computer lab. GatorVault, a secure storage system for research data, also is available. While the university has made some cloud infrastructure investments, including Disaster Recovery as a Service, Eldayrie says most of the university’s infrastructure will reside on-premises for at least the next five years.
The same holds true at Marshall University, which uses Office 365 for all of its office applications and email.
Few colleges are as prepared and in a strategic position to go full-on cloud as UMUC. But as higher ed budgets continue to be squeezed and institutions look to control additional costs, more colleges may opt out of the infrastructure business.
“When I came here a few years ago, we were more like a typical midsize enterprise with an on-prem data center and an offsite disaster recovery facility,” Reed says. “That’s an antiquated model. We are not in the data center business; we’re in the education business. In today’s climate, we have to make our investment choices wisely.”
Now that UMUC relies on a major cloud provider to host its servers and storage, the institution no longer employs a data center staff or rack and stack servers, and does not manage backup tapes or pay for a disaster recovery site, Reed says. UMUC deployed Salesforce.com as its main platform for student support services, and students, faculty and staff use Google Docs and Gmail for office applications and email.
“The money we save by using cloud-based infrastructure and SaaS applications is redirected to benefit students,” Reed says. “Our remaining IT staff are now more focused on providing world-class technology capabilities for our faculty and students.”
Darren Catalano, UMUC’s vice president of analytics, says data from all of the cloud-based applications offer insights that ultimately could help to improve student outcomes.
“We have the ability to combine and analyze data from disparate systems throughout the university to help us optimize our operations and support our student success initiatives,” Catalano says.