Roundtable – Heads in the cloud with the University of Edinburgh

How is cloud technology aiding in the digital transformations of schools and universities? Steve Wright heads up into the cloud with Anne-Marie Scott

The second in our series on the cloud, we speak to Anne-Marie Scott, Deputy director of learning teaching and web services at University of Edinburgh

Q. What impact has cloud technology had in the digital transformations of schools and universities?

Access to best-in-class services hosted and managed in the cloud has allowed schools and universities to access expertise beyond their in-house capabilities, opening up new innovation possibilities and allowing us to scale rapidly. Continuous deployment strategies mean that, once we’ve made an investment, services continue to evolve and keep pace with minimal disruption – rather than the disruptive annual upgrade cycles experienced previously.

For example, here at Edinburgh we would not have been able to rapidly modernise and significantly scale-up our use of media across learning, teaching, research and public engagement in the last three years without the benefit of cloud infrastructure and Software as a Service (SaaS) providers. It took us months to achieve what had previously taken years.

Q. What cloud-based impacts and innovations are now on the horizon?

The next phase that I think is exciting is the ability to access and operate physical equipment remotely, and to share such resources between institutions. This extends across a range of areas, such as accessing IoT networks as part of smart campus or city initiatives in order to carry out research, or scaling up the adoption of remote lab technologies to deliver educational experiences that are no longer bounded by the pressures of our physical estates. 

Cloud technologies are allowing faster turnaround and scaling in the adoption of new forms of educational technology.

Q. Is cloud playing a role in the transition from a ‘teacher-centred’ to a ‘learner-centred’ system?

The use of technology in education is still driven, first and foremost, by pedagogical requirements, so I don’t think cloud in and of itself is playing a role here. However, cloud technologies are allowing faster turnaround and scaling in the adoption of new forms of educational technology. So, where an institution chooses to incorporate a new technology as part of a new approach to learning and teaching, they can now move to do that much more quickly.

I also think some of the work that has been done at various institutions in the last five years or so using cloud-hosting solutions to provide students with their own web domains (Domain of One’s Own) have been some of the most exciting initiatives I’ve seen, and really can be described as ‘learner-centred’. Students are learning to construct their own digital presence online, and developing valuable digital skills and understanding in the process.

Q. Is the use of cloud across education in the UK where it should be, or would you like to see faster progress?

Given that the UK education sector is not a homogenous environment, the adoption of cloud services and technologies will necessarily vary across institutions. I think we will start to see more critical use of cloud services moving forward, though, and that might mean that the pace of adoption slows a little. There’s been a lot of focus on achieving some immediate benefits around improved services, cost savings and efficiencies, which is entirely understandable. However, I think we are starting to see concerns raised about the rise of the ‘Platform University’ and the use of institutional data by cloud service providers. 

Given that the UK education sector is not a homogenous environment, the adoption of cloud services and technologies will necessarily vary across institutions.

Q. Which are the key products and services for educational institutions to engage with?

I think there’s a basic level of service provision that is expected these days, and which I believe is best run in the cloud. Something like a virtual learning environment (VLE), for example, is mission-critical in all our institutions now, but is no longer a differentiator. VLEs need to be modern, good-quality services with high availability and at the best price. Using cloud services allows us to achieve this, and in turn to focus our internal efforts on pursuing new and innovative uses of technology to support learning and teaching.

I sense that many educational institutions have already embraced cloud products such as Office365 or G Suite for Education as part of managing their commodity IT. These are really rich offerings and I think we’re already seeing institutions engaging with the new services that they now have access to – particularly APIs for developing conversational interfaces (chatbots) or developing machine learning algorithms to explore data in new ways. 

Q. Should educational institutions be clear on which type of cloud infrastructure – public, private or hybrid – works best for them?

Yes, we should, and I’d anticipate that it will be a mixture of these models, with the appropriate choice driven by considerations around data privacy, security, risk and resilience. For example, chatbots that collect no personally identifying data might be quite happily run on a public cloud infrastructure, but public cloud would be an inappropriate choice for an HR system.

Chatbots that collect no personally identifying data might be quite happily run on a public cloud infrastructure, but public cloud would be an inappropriate choice for an HR system.

Q. What risks and challenges should education institutions be aware of when adopting cloud technology?

I think the main challenge to be managed when adopting more cloud technology is to ensure that a move to outsourcing doesn’t end up depleting your own skill-base. Cloud can help take the strain when it comes to commodity IT, and it can also open up access to computing resources that would otherwise be impossible to run locally (AI, machine learning, chatbots, etc). 

The trick is to look beyond the efficiency and cost savings that come with doing the first, and realise the innovation potential that comes with the second. Not achieving this will mean, in the long term, a reduction in our capacity for innovation, and probably exposing ourselves to significant cost risks through increased external dependencies.

Cloud technologies are being used to drive forward change processes in all our institutions, but the other vital thing to remember is that change is fundamentally a ‘people’ process. Turning to the cloud will allow us to negate technical barriers and problems, and open up new technologies beyond our current capabilities – but ultimately it won’t, in and of itself, deliver change. Continuing to attend to the cultural impact of change, and ensuring that people are well supported through investment in areas like digital skills development; these processes have to go hand-in-hand with the innovation.


Further reading

2016 World Ecomomic Forum Report: The Future of Jobs and Skills

Forbes magazine: Best countries for cloud computing 

Your [FREE] In-depth Guide To Object Storage

Plus: How University of Leicester Saved 25% in Data Storage Costs