Jun 23 2020

Higher Education Will See a Jump in Cloud Adoption

Colleges assess cloud computing through the lens of remote instruction and operations.

The big question in higher education these days is “What about the fall semester?” 

Some institutions plan to mitigate COVID-19 risks with shortened calendars and caps on class size, while others, like The California State University, say they’ll deliver most of this fall’s instruction online. Whichever route colleges take, higher education appears poised to quicken the pace of cloud adoption, both to support near-term activity and to increase agility to withstand future challenges.

“I think [the pandemic] has done in a period of weeks and months what would have taken years and decades, in terms of adoption,” says Damian Doyle, assistant vice president for enterprise infrastructure solutions at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. 

Here are four ways that remote operations might influence colleges’ use of cloud technologies.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to improve remote learning with virtual desktop infrastructure.

Remote Instruction and Operations Put Spotlight on Cloud Benefits

Institutions that were further along in their journeys to cloud had a much easier transition to remote learning, but even these colleges have expanded their usage in recent months, says Raechelle Clemmons, vice president for industry relations at the Tambellini Group.

“Even though institutions had things like Google or Office 365, they weren’t necessarily taking advantage of them as these full, online, cloud-based collaboration solutions,” she says. “And that shift happened extremely quickly because of COVID.” 

Bob Flynn, Indiana University’s cloud technology support manager, points out that the supply chain delays during COVID were a sharp contrast to the cloud’s ready availability. In mid-March, when organizations needed more on-premises servers to support remote operations, some faced a weeks-long wait to get them. 

“With cloud, that’s five minutes,” Flynn says. “I need more infrastructure? Push the button. That’s not to say that it was a panacea, but for certain use cases, it’s the obvious answer.”

But colleges that have not yet transitioned to the cloud may be gauging their ability to make it through another remote semester without it. Flynn says they may be asking themselves some questions: “Do we stretch it one more semester because we’ll be back on-prem in January. Or do we bite the bullet, rearchitect and deliver it dynamically through the cloud?”

To Cut Costs, Colleges Evaluate Cloud Deployment

To mitigate the financial hit from the pandemic, institutions are reviewing cloud solutions, particularly Software as a Service, to eliminate duplications. For example, one option is to migrate out of a paid storage solution and into one that’s free or available under an existing contract. 

At the same time, says Flynn, leaders will weigh how many changes they want to impose on staff and faculty who are already coping with a radical digital transformation. If users are dedicated to a particular solution, leaders might choose to retain it. 

That’s especially true for cloud-based tools related to teaching, says Doyle.

“I think what you’re going to see is, if you need it to make that experience better, to retain the students, to not have them be disenfranchised, then we’ll keep that,” he says — with the caveat that institutions may make a shorter-term commitment to any duplicative solution.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how the remote learning pivot could shape higher ed IT.

Fully Remote Instruction Raises New Questions and Concerns

In an American Council on Education survey conducted in April, 60 percent of college presidents “somewhat agreed” that faculty had been ready for remote instruction, with only 14 percent saying they “strongly agreed.”

Teaching effectively online is less about the technology than about a shift in pedagogy, says Clemmons. Accordingly, as colleges increase reliance on cloud-based learning, they may need to scale up instructional design support. 

UMBC has offered faculty both general and discipline-specific training, says Doyle, with good results. “We’re seeing a tremendous uptick in faculty coming back and saying, ‘We recognize there are things we need to do differently. What can we learn?’” he says. 

On the back end, colleges are making sure that cloud providers will be able to meet demand if usage surges — for example, if a large institution starts the semester on campus and then has to pivot online. 

“What happens if everybody uses 20 times the capacity in a week? How do you handle that?” says Doyle. “That wasn’t a question that got asked. Now it is.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how artificial intelligence can solve cybersecurity staffing shortages.

Cloud Computing for Academic Research Gets a Boost

Momentum toward the cloud is also gaining speed in research. Google and Amazon Web Services (AWS) each committed $20 million worth of credits for researchers studying COVID-19, and Microsoft has pledged cloud computing resources to testing and vaccine development efforts.

“I’ve got, right now, three researchers doing COVID work on Google that weren’t there three months ago,” Flynn says. 

Providers are also working more closely with researchers to help them optimize cloud-based tools, says Doyle. “There seems to be a higher level of interaction from the cloud providers about wanting to understand how research gets done in their cloud.”

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