Universities leading the way in public sector cloud adoption is only the beginning

Josh Fry, director of cloud at Jisc, talks about HE’s widespread adoption of the cloud, and why it’s likely to gain even more traction in the public sector

I am not surprised to see that universities are leading the way in public sector cloud adoption in a recent report produced by Eduserv – with 36% having already adopted the cloud (compared to public bodies 29%, local government 21% and emergency services 13%).

As a sector, we live in an increasingly dynamic world, in which our strategic priorities fit well with what the cloud can provide. The report highlighted that universities prioritise scalability, agility and modernisation as drivers to the cloud (over cost-savings or security), and it’s easy to see why we don’t want to continue to carry the weight of legacy applications.

Not only do we need to think about efficiencies and creating a modern working environment – perhaps in common with other public sector organisations – but we also need to ensure that our students enter the workplace having experienced the best of technology and are ready to be leaders in an increasingly digital world.

With 59% of higher education (HE) institutions looking to procure hyperscale public cloud in the next 12 months, there is a clear indication that the sector plans to retain its place at the top of the technology innovation curve. The question is then about how we best implement technology to support objectives.

It is important that any cloud adoption strategy is outcomes-based – essentially not an ‘adoption strategy’ at all, but a technology strategy that supports the strategic priorities of the university.

We have seen a trend among some early adopters to ‘lift and shift’ existing applications and data without sufficiently repurposing for cloud, which means forgoing many of the benefits. Whereas, what we are seeing from a second phase of adopters is a more refined approach centred on outcomes.

It’s important that any cloud adoption strategy is outcomes-based – essentially not an ‘adoption strategy’ at all, but a technology strategy that supports the strategic priorities of the university. Whether that’s about securing a more global presence, improving student outcomes, reducing capital expenditure or enabling research, for example, cloud is one of the tools that can support these objectives, but should not be considered an end in itself.

As we look to the future, cloud should be about providing a platform for innovation, utilising technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), automation, machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT) to link and share data for intelligent outcomes that provide efficiencies and allow for better decision-making.

Take the example of Leeds Beckett University, which uses AI in clearing. It started in 2017 with a chatbot called Becky and expanded in 2018 to use Alexa. Not only did this help lighten the administrative load during clearing, the university also discovered that offers made through the chatbot increased the propensity for students to accept to almost double that of the people who applied through the traditional phone method.

Other areas likely to be feeding the growth in cloud adoption include developments in online learning and globalisation. I think one of the biggest concerns with these trends is being able to deliver learning to students wherever they are without losing that personal touch, which is important for both the student experience and maintaining the reputation of the university and credibility of the qualifications obtained. I believe the cloud and associated technologies have a big part to play in evolving these offers to avoid digitally advanced teaching options being seen as ‘lower’ standards of learning.

It’s important that any cloud adoption strategy is outcomes-based

Take the example that Jisc showcased at Digifest earlier this month, ‘Natalie 4.0’. This virtual reality experience simulates future learning environments, but makes clear that ‘Natalie’ still interacts with real people and that her welfare is a high priority, with systems in place to flag potential issues.

The use of technology to improve student welfare is a trend that is also emerging outside the ‘virtual’ world. For example, Lancaster University launched Ask LU, a “digital friend and companion for students” in the last few weeks, hot on the heels of a similar project at Staffordshire University. Both innovations aim to improve the student experience, although using slightly different technologies.

As we see innovations like these more often being used as a differentiator, a key question is how can universities resource this? There will always be in-demand skills, but the worry is that such expertise commands salaries that are potentially outside university budgets. However, I do not think that HE leaders need to lose heart because we inhabit a world that is a hub of innovation and both our current staff and students can provide a great source of skills if given the right encouragement and training.

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I’ve seen from personal experience members of staff who were previously responsible for systems running on traditional hardware and, when moved to a cloud environment, really enjoy the new challenges. They are able to concentrate on, say, integrations, how to rearchitect, make services globally available, scale or link to other systems… whatever suits the strategic priorities of the institution.

It’s important that we involve existing team members in implementing new technologies; empower them to lead cloud projects and give them the opportunity to shadow consultants coming into the business to ensure knowledge is transferred.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t overlook the natural pool of talent from graduates. We need to build relationships and encourage apprenticeships and placements that have reciprocal benefit to the university and student.

It’s great to see universities leading the way and important that these journeys continue. The benefits are many, and together we can provide better places to work and learn. 

You can read Eduserv’s Public Sector Cloud Adoption Report here