Beyond Business Collaboration: How Educational Institutions Use the Cloud

obrBy sarahgreen — Last Updated: 20 Feb'15 2015-02-18T22:49:53+00:00

The cloud has already demonstrated its impact on different industries and is now set to take over the education sector. Over the last few years, educational institutions worldwide have started turning to cloud technologies. A trend that only became more striking in 2013 and 2014. In 2012, surveys revealed that only 6% of the institutions were using the cloud in the past two years. Today, we see a great number of schools and colleges using servers or applications provided by Microsoft, Google or Amazon.

Considering the competitive offer these tech giants have designed for the sector, it’s not surprising the decision-makers increasingly contemplate new opportunities. Namely, in 2014 we saw both Google and Microsoft offering free storage and apps for educational institutions with the aim of supporting a technological revolution in the field.

Obviously, some large-scale transformations are happening in the ecosystem. Primarily due to the fact the cloud provides efficient resources at low prices (or for free), which is certainly an appealing option for institutions that are rely increasingly on technology to improve teaching and learning methods.

Perceptions of The Cloud in Educational Institutions

Once the cloud passed its infancy phase, it evolved into a truly complex notion that includes a large set of applications, resources, and providers. However, some things remained the same. This primarily refers to their perceived benefits and associated security risks. As an all-encompassing report on the issue, RightScale’s 2014 State of the Cloud Report reveals how businesses see benefits of the cloud:

  • Higher availability (48%)
  • Geographic reach (37%)
  • Cost savings (34%)
  • Business continuity (34%)

Similarly, educational institutions are using cloud applications to re-invent their IT infrastructure and provide more resources for their always-online teachers and students. According to Crucial, a web hosting company that assembled several reports on the topic, communication and collaboration platforms seem to be the most popular cloud resources in higher education. This is certainly justified considering the amount of research and collaborative work required by both students and educators.

Which Services do Educational Institutions Use?

Studies show that 29% of educational institutions use messaging, conferencing and collaboration solutions, while 31% use cloud storage capabilities. These digits clearly point to the need of advanced computing systems to facilitate critical processes and create an ecosystem where remote students and educators can be connected in real time.

Among students, however, cloud storage is particularly popular thanks to the collaborative potential of these apps. With the ability to access shared documents and edit them in real time, most collaborative processes can be sped up to a great extent. Research-wise, availability of useful resources across multiple devices is yet another benefit of cloud-based apps. Here, file syncing and sharing apps such as Box and Dropbox are probably the most efficient choices for both students and educators.

Dropbox

Carnegie Mellon University, for example, gives a more detailed explanation on how Dropbox could be used by university students to help them manage files and collaborate more efficiently. The University note that using Dropbox reduces the time needed for a file transfer by 20 seconds, which is the average amount of time needed to do the same using email or flash drive. In addition to this, the service offers reasonable price for server licenses and scalability, which is another great benefit for the institution.

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Furthermore, an extensive study that was carried out to determine the possible benefits of implementing Dropbox was carried out at the University of Alcala, Spain, where students confirmed that Dropbox has allowed a greater degree of cooperation and learning, as well as better work with the teachers.

Box

As a tool that is perhaps even more conspicuously focused on collaboration, Box is also used in a number of different educational institutions. Emory University, for example, reports that over a 100 people from different departments are using Box to collaborate remotely. As pointed out by Jamie Smith, some of the greatest benefits this digital tool has brought are:

  • Ease of implementation
  • Admin tools that help users easily track who is doing what and when
  • File versioning that enables staff to always work with the freshest content

In addition to Emory University, Box is also used at San Domenico School, Strive Preparatory Schools, as well as by a non-profit educational organization, A Better Chance. Box helps them manage connecting to 2000 geographically dispersed applicants and more than 300 schools.

Google Apps and Microsoft Office in the Cloud

As mentioned in the introduction, Google and Microsoft keep fighting to increase their user base in the educational sector. Google has recently announced their apps arrived in Bangladesh, where they equipped 500 campuses in 35 locations with the company’s most popular tools. The earlier data points to the fact 72 of top 100 US universities were using Google Apps for Education, which is certainly a significant digit.

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Similarly, Microsoft’s cloud suit is quite popular among schools and colleges worldwide. In March 2014, the company reported that 110 million students and faculty staff were using Office 365 in the cloud to support critical learning and teaching processes.

Infrastructure Transformation

Another important benefit of introducing cloud systems to complex IT infrastructure is the possibility of using more powerful computing resources that can seamlessly run extensive applications. Such an innovation makes administrative and admission processes smoother, which can certainly make a difference for educational institutions.

By renting an infrastructure platform from the established providers, schools and universities can substantially increase staff productivity and learners’ engagement.

This is why such services nowadays are seen as critical resources for efficient learning. As pointed in a national survey carried out earlier this year, 98% of educators believe that websites perform the most important educational functions and account for increased student and parental engagement.

Similar to websites, cloud servers create a new space for innovation since they represent a cost-efficient way to create a functional IT infrastructure that everybody can access remotely. More importantly, cloud hosting doesn’t require large in-house IT teams, since a part of responsibility for resource management is up to the chosen provider.

Implementation Challenges

Although the cloud’s benefits are widely recognized across industries, a set of challenges is preventing a greater number of institutions adopting it. This is again discussed by various decision-makers in education, who mention a set of limitations in relation to the cloud’s migration.

Quite expectantly, security and privacy issues are listed among the top inhibitors to a wider adoption. Although fear of the cloud in this respect is generally decreasing, there are still some issues where educational institutions can come across problems.

Van Zomeren and De Haan have discussed it in their research on cloud adoption in higher education, pointing out that institutions need to be more careful about choosing the right providers for placing databases and workloads to remote servers.

Furthermore, they make an excellent point about the possible incompetence of internal IT teams that may be working according to outdated methods. Therefore, additional education of existing staff may be needed in order to successfully implement cloud solutions on all necessary levels.

eLearning as The Next Frontier

The emergence of various e-learning services and open education platforms is yet another trend that has shaped the way people approach modern education. The role of cloud computing systems here may be somewhat less conspicuous, but majority of these resources are using the technology to run and moderate online courses.

Perhaps the most evident role of the cloud in providing on-demand learning resources is the development of m-learning, which involves using mobile devices either in classroom or for independent learning. Based on the cloud and accessible from multiple platforms, mobile apps help in active and continuous learning, which makes them an essential resource in contemporary classroom. Considering the fact that most students, especially those in higher education institutions, rely on mobile devices for their everyday activities, using these devices in class only further motivates.

Conclusions

The changes the cloud has brought to the tech world have obviously triggered new trends that are likely to define how we see education in the future. Regardless of the actual way such systems are implemented, they are undoubtedly important for most educational institutions today. Constant information access and data availability are certainly some of the greatest benefits the cloud and associated apps have brought to our daily lives, and this is also what makes them essential for modern education.

 

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