Oct 20 2020

Remote Learning and the Rapid Shift in Cloud Adoption

Cloud computing — and culture shifts — pick up speed as colleges rethink remote operations.

Cloud advocates have long touted agility and flexibility as the technology’s standout strengths. Few situations have tested those claims like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, as universities and their stakeholders continue to conduct everything from instruction to operations online, colleges are embracing solutions that allow them to offer — and pivot among — a variety of course delivery and operational modes. As a result, the pandemic has accelerated cloud adoption in a field that wasn’t always quick to embrace it.

Just a few years ago, one headline proclaimed, “Higher Education Won’t Be Able to Resist the Cloud Much Longer.” Since then, of course, many institutions have migrated at least some operations to the cloud, but the overall trajectory wasn’t exactly fast-tracked.

“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, associate vice president for enterprise infrastructure solutions at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In recent months, institutions’ pre-existing statuses with cloud adoption have significantly factored into their adaptability to remote operations. This fall, the majority of institutions are offering hybrid instruction, according to an EDUCAUSE survey. But many leaders are still planning for multiple scenarios, just in case conditions change.

That’s where the cloud’s flexibility can make a difference, says Bob Flynn, manager of cloud technology support for Indiana University. Flynn and Doyle co-chair the EDUCAUSE Cloud Computing Community Group, together with Jody Couch of the University of California, Berkeley.

“One of the fundamental benefits the cloud gives you is that the resources are on demand,” Flynn says. “You don’t have to have a machine that sits there all year round.” Instead of sitting idle, resources can be scaled back or repurposed — a useful quality in cost-conscious environments.

A Fresh Perspective — The Key to Cloud Adoption

In the past, some of the obstacles to cloud adoption were cultural: mindsets or habits that simply took time to shake loose.

For instance, remote collaboration tools (such as Zoom) have been in place for a while. But employees didn’t necessarily use them as readily as they do now, Doyle says. Before, they might have postponed a meeting until a work-at-home colleague could attend in person, behavior that now seems almost outmoded.

Lack of familiarity with the cloud, whether among IT staff or faculty members, also may have slowed adoption. As cloud solutions have matured, offerings have become more complex — a plus for meeting IT needs, but potentially a speed bump, especially for small staffs that lacked the skills to develop a cloud strategy or manage a migration.

The pandemic, however, has forced employees in every department to embrace new ways of doing things. It’s also demonstrated just how much easier the transition has been for colleges that already had workflows in the cloud, says Sue Spies, research director for enterprise information systems at the Tambellini Group.

“Institutions with highly manual processes are really feeling the pain,” she says. “The pandemic has escalated and exposed those weaknesses.”

Among other issues, supply chain delays contrasted with the cloud’s ready availability, says Flynn. In mid-March, when organizations needed more on-premises servers to support remote operations, some faced a weekslong wait to get them.

“With cloud, that’s five minutes,” he 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.”

Cost Analyses: Saving Money For Higher Education

Colleges that already had one foot in the cloud have been compelled, in many cases, to jump in further, says Raechelle Clemmons, the Tambellini Group’s vice president for industry relations.

“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,” Clemmons says. “That shift happened extremely quickly because of COVID.”

To mitigate the pandemic’s expected financial impact, many institutions are reviewing all expenses, particularly Software as a Service, to eliminate duplications. UMBC, for example, elected to move out of a paid storage solution because it had a similar capacity in an existing contract and as part of a free solution, Doyle says.

MORE ON EDTECH: 7 benefits of Software as a Service for colleges.

On the Infrastructure as a Service and Platform as a Service side, colleges are evaluating providers with an eye toward the monetary and nonmonetary costs of various IT strategies. As an example, says Doyle, an IT leader might have stayed with a more expensive cloud provider in the past to avoid migration demands on time, training and other resources. That calculation might look different today, with lower cost taking precedence.

At the same time, Flynn says, leaders will weigh how many changes they want to impose on staff and faculty already coping with so much disruption. If users are dedicated to a particular solution, leaders might choose to keep it.

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

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

Ready to Learn, A Shift in Pedagogy

Whether through virtual desktops or collaboration platforms, the use of cloud solutions for teaching has been one of the most dramatic shifts of the pandemic. In an April survey by the American Council on Education, 60 percent of college presidents “somewhat agreed” that faculty had been ready for remote instruction, with only 14 percent saying they “strongly agreed.”

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

Teaching effectively online is less about the technology and more about a shift in pedagogy, Clemmons says. Accordingly, as colleges have increased their reliance on remote learning, they’re scaling up instructional design support.

UMBC has offered faculty both general and discipline-specific training, says Doyle, with good results. Before the pandemic, a typical training session for online teaching, for example, might have drawn a few dozen participants, he says. This year, almost every training that was held had hundreds of instructors sign up and attend.

“We’re seeing a tremendous uptick in faculty coming back and saying, ‘We recognize there are things we need to do differently, and we are willing to learn and adapt,’” he says.

In the future, an effective combination of technology and culture may be the best way to navigate the uncertainties ahead, EDUCAUSE Senior Director of Analytics and Research Mark McCormack suggests in a recent article: “The institution most prepared for the fall may not be the institution with the most and best solutions in place but, rather, the institution with the cultural processes and supports in place to know when and how to deploy the solutions it has and how best to adjust when those solutions no longer align with needs.

puflic_senior/Getty Images (clouds); jaap-willem/Getty Images (building)