Cloud formation

Last year saw seismic changes in education, enhancing personalised content and showcasing flexible working and learning structures. Now, though, universities are juggling financial pressures with a lack of student enrolments, among other things. Could cloud computing be the answer to their struggles? Steve Wright asks the experts


Dr Jagdev Bhogal
senior lecturer, Birmingham City University Oracle

Martin Taylor
deputy CEO, Content Guru cloud communications

Professor Paolo Taticchi
OMRI deputy director, University College London

Paul Flack
head of sales, Stone Group IT services

Professor Peter Nikoletatos
director of education, TechnologyOne

Tom Cutting
senior systems engineer, Citrix software

Q. Many studies point to edtech as a catalyst for change in educational processes. Can you give examples of how edtech is achieving this – and will continue to do so post-COVID?

Jagdev Bhogal: Prior to the COVID pandemic, many discussions took place around encouraging the use of technology for blended learning. The technology was readily available; however, the take-up by academics was fairly low because they preferred traditional, face-to-face teaching.

During this pandemic, technology has revolutionised our educational practices. The speed at which staff and students have adjusted to this new way of teaching and learning has surprised everyone. Online live or pre-recorded lectures; virtual student support; remote working for staff and students: these are just some of the benefits of edtech. It’s a catalyst for change, and these new ways of working are here to stay.

Tom Cutting: The global pandemic has forced educational establishments to re-examine every aspect of their operations. The rapid shift to online learning helped to demonstrate how effective and productive virtual working technologies can be, removing preconceived ideas about how work gets done and eliminating barriers to user adoption.

Furthermore, 2020’s shift online helped to provide the necessary economic value justification for this new approach to work. Consequently, some HE institutions have seen their digital transformation plans rapidly accelerated, with change taking place across months rather than years. As educators begin to rethink the learning experience, digital presence, collaborative tools and remote access are just a few key areas of technology driving education to adapt in the face of uncertainty.

More and more universities are offering programmes delivered entirely online

Peter Nikoletatos: Higher education institutions (HEIs) have always been at the forefront of technological change, with computer science departments and wider postgraduate research and development programmes spawning many of the major communications tools, technologies and cloud-based systems that we all rely on today.

However, it’s been the desire of universities to commercialise learning and appeal to broader audiences that has really driven the change. By moving teaching content and syllabuses online, universities have been able to build their international reputations and appeal to a wider, often more profitable customer base. These include international students studying remotely, part-time students juggling study with vocational careers, and businesses who enrol staff on shorter-term executive management courses as part of learning and development commitments.

Most people have become more technologically literate in recent years by using intuitive mobile apps and e-commerce sites in their personal lives. As a result, they’ve come to expect the same levels of high-quality user experience in their work and academic lives.

Whereas student enrolment used to be very cumbersome, it’s become easier for academic institutions to target potential new students through social media and digital marketing – to answer their questions and enrol them onto a course within minutes.

By automating the back-end through cloud computing, universities are also significantly reducing their acquisition and admin costs – something that’s even more important right now due to the ongoing financial pressures of the pandemic.

Paolo Taticchi: The emergence of online education has been perhaps the most impactful trend in the global education market, and its potential for the democratisation of learning is huge. We’ve seen the success of MOOCs increase in recent years, and I’m sure we’ll see more and more universities offering purely online programmes.

These offer access to international markets that universities previously couldn’t reach, removing any geographical barrier to education – and removing the need for universities to build campuses abroad. Increased access to education will never be a bad thing and, as we move into a post-COVID world, universities will build on this year’s experimentation with online learning and build some truly great, accessible programmes.

Paul Flack: The pandemic has changed the delivery model for good within the higher education sector. In 2020, we saw more and more content being delivered online, with communications platforms such as Webex and Teams being used to drive change.

Outside of learning, tech is also really helping colleges and universities to rethink how their campuses operate during and post-pandemic. From student safety to room utilisation, how to avoid busy spaces, high-risk areas – these are all things data and technology can support.

Q. How is cloud technology displacing traditional classroom structures and strategies?

TC: Classes, lessons and lectures are rapidly transitioning to online mediums. Fundamentally, this means that these digitally led strategies rely ever more upon robust connectivity, performance and security, for students and lecturers alike.

Cloud technology allows institutions to provide a near-identical experience for everyone, whether they are using an on-campus PC or accessing a virtual desktop on a device elsewhere. This means that teaching can happen from anywhere – even for those courses requiring resource-heavy software applications, which previously would have been impossible.

For universities, the creation of a virtual workspace integrated with cloud also allows flexible teaching spaces to be created for more intimate, collaborative and smaller-group-based activities, in contrast to traditional, passive teaching methods.

“The emergence of online education has been perhaps the most impactful trend in the global education market, and its potential for the democratisation of learning is huge” – Professor Paolo Taticchi

PN: While not always desirable, the pandemic has shown that, in most cases, it’s possible to do online learning at scale. But it has obliged universities to restructure how they teach.

Many universities had already started moving from the traditional one-to-many, lecture-style forum, knowing that group working can improve knowledge retention. This has led to an increase in the use of cloud-based learning management collaboration and communication tools, such as Microsoft Teams, Google Meets and Blackboard. But it’s also meaning more asynchronous learning, where students can structure their day more productively.

Easy-to-use cloud systems have also led to a rise in hybrid teaching, where some students are physically together, while others tune in virtually. Not only is this helping with social distancing, it also ensures that those students who can’t attend in person can still participate and feel part of the group dynamic. Even when restrictions lift, it’s likely that this hybrid model will remain as it creates an attractive income stream to draw in remote students, who still like class participation and interaction.

Martin Taylor: The education sector went through a rushed, widespread trial of hybrid working last year. Beyond teaching delivery, universities have needed to fundamentally rethink how they communicate with students. Many leading universities have looked to Contact Centre as-a-Service (CCaaS) platforms to support the clearing and application process, and there’s no reason why this can’t be replicated widely in student support services. As a cloud-based solution, CCaaS platforms are browser-based, and feature all the management systems and processes needed to support a remote or hybrid workforce effectively and securely.

Importantly, CCaaS platforms enable supervisors to provide the same high level of support to advisers as they would in the same physical location. Screen recording capabilities enable supervisors to keep their eye on agents, while giving them the confidence that their actions are being monitored and that they can access training or support on request. This goes a long way towards ensuring agents do not feel isolated while working remotely.

PF: There is a pressure on teachers and lecturers to be digitally efficient and effective. More than that, they need to become advocates for the technology they’re using in order to bring students on board.

For many, this requires some continuing professional development and training to really understand the benefits and uses of cloud technology. Students will have to accept that the days of on-campus learning in lectures and tutorials is limited – or over.

It’s likely that higher education facilities will move to a hybrid model of learning (a bit like the cloud itself), where remote and on-site access to resources are mixed for the best outcome. Courses that require extensive ‘hands-on’ learning experiences, for example, will be afforded the most time on-site. It makes sense to utilise campus and resources in this way.

Collaborative technology in action

Q. AI and other technologies are set to create access to a wealth of data tailored to the needs, aspirations and learning styles of individual students. How will this impact the sector?

TC: Embracing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) capabilities, and operating from a hyper-scale cloud platform, unlocks unparalleled potential. This can provide HE institutions with access to AI on a level of magnitude that would be impractical to achieve in-house. Powerful data analysis, processing and automation could lead to some substantial changes in the education sector.

Many universities are investigating the use of ML to build a profile of how each student interacts with systems and content, using AI to tailor the experience for each individual, and maximising productivity.

PN: AI will bring plentiful benefits to the education sector, helping to further personalise individual learning, while creating new ways of studying.
However, like the electric self-driving car, AI and the solutions being developed will need time to develop and mature. While everyone can see the benefits of a driverless car, there are still issues around trust and societal change that need to be overcome.

There are a number of recent examples where AI is having an impact, including campus safety, early identification of at-risk students, smart campus design and personalised smart navigation.

While we are at the very beginning of the AI curve, these solutions will continue to mature rapidly. Coupled with smart cognitive tools (such as IBM Watson), AI will be a game-changer for education.

JB: Progression and retention are two very important metrics for overall student success on a course. At present, attendance monitoring is the main indicator of student engagement. In addition to the use of barcode scanners for scanning student ID cards, this has been extended to include other data such as gate data, student logins to the virtual learning environment, and library access.

However, attendance monitoring is not always an accurate measure. Every student is different. Students who attend class might not actually be engaging with the learning in the classroom, while others who don’t attend all classes might prefer to work independently and demonstrate a higher level of engagement. The use of AI and other technologies is a great tool to assist with data-driven decision-making.

It’s important for students to feel that they are being treated as individuals with their own learning styles and needs. Cloud technology makes personalised learning more scalable across a large population of students; however, for increased confidence in the predictions made by AI on individual student performance, it’s imperative to ensure high quality of data. I would expect such AI solutions to highlight topics that a given student finds difficult, and to recommend suggested actions based on individual student learning styles. Such systems could also generate a frequent report listing all the students who need further support with their studies.

PT: Greater access to a greater amount of data would allow universities to learn more about how their students react to online programmes, consequently allowing them to tailor them more closely to fit with individual learning needs.

For example, monitoring how international students taking online programmes respond to learning from videos in a second or third language can guide universities towards better ways of producing educational content. If it becomes clear that students are having to pause videos multiple times or are having to play them at a reduced speed, educators should think about how they structure video content.

Q. How can the cloud help institutions tackle the growing enrolment crisis?

PN: The ‘always-on’, accessible nature of cloud computing, coupled with AI/ML, chatbots and student self-serve, means that higher education institutions can shift their models from nine-to-five to 24/7 support. This is vital when it comes to attracting international students in different time zones, busy executives wanting to enrol on business courses – and even younger generations who feel much more comfortable seeking information online when they need it, rather than waiting to speak to overloaded enrolment staff. It also recognises that today’s learner balances study with work to support themselves – and that flexibility is key.

Cloud computing, online and hybrid learning can also make courses vastly more consumable – especially for people wanting to upskill and gain micro-credentials while still working, rather than forfeiting an income to spend three to four years studying full-time.

PT: Cloud-based technologies can help to facilitate greater recruitment in two ways; one way would be to increase the number of online programmes available for international students, targeting them in their own regional market so that the costs of entry that would typically act as a barrier to study are reduced. Another way is by targeting the professional market, many of whom want to study but are limited in their availability. Universities can use cloud-based solutions to offer them asynchronous programmes that offer greater flexibility.

MT: Moving forwards, universities must ensure their student engagement strategies are watertight.

Students expect universities to communicate with consistency, across multiple channels, to provide a seamless student experience. This is easily achieved
using cloud-based CCaaS technology, which provides a one-window view of all communications channels, making it far easier for the university team to engage with students at every point in their journey – from a prospective student, to a current student, to an alumnus – via anything from voice calls, to web chat, to SMS.

Particularly when dealing with high volumes, such as during the clearing period or application stage, handling spikes in demand has proven extremely difficult using traditional legacy infrastructure. Those universities with cloud-based CCaaS have ensured that their student support services are ideally placed to deal with high levels of enquiries.

Cloud security solutions can be managed and scaled to meet changing needs

Q. Can cloud technology help to reduce university operating costs?

JB: Cost reduction is one of the biggest advantages of cloud technology. Cost savings come in different forms: universities don’t have to purchase multiple servers which may not even be used to full capacity; fewer servers mean more office space; fewer staff are required to maintain the range of software on all of the different servers; the pay-as-you-go pricing model provides flexibility and cost savings. In other words, cloud technology is more strongly associated with Operational Expenditure (OPEX), compared to reduced Capital Expenditure (CAPEX).

TC: Through simplification and economies of scale, cloud services can bring economic advantages to universities. Software as a Service (SaaS) and other cloud-delivered services unlock greater choice in all aspects of IT operational costs – for example, through device choice and agility, with resource consumption across different public cloud providers. Migrating systems to a cloud model reduces on-premise footprints too, making environments low-maintenance, with fewer upgrades and more time saved.

For example, an ageing and complex student computing room estate features a large campus footprint, extensive management overheads, a negative impact on sustainability targets, and only seasonal usage (high demand during coursework deadlines). In contrast, a cloud-hosted desktop approach can scale to meet demand; features simplified, centralised management; a reduced physical IT footprint and increased learning reach; and increased device and application delivery flexibility.

As universities move to a fully cloud-based learning and working experience, working through OS compatibilities and application versions will become a thing of the past. The key will be securing a multi-cloud, multi-SaaS and multi-app-based learning approach.

“Coupled with smart cognitive tools (such as IBM Watson), AI will be a game-changer for education” – Professor Peter Nikoletatos

PF: Yes, cloud can help to reduce university operating costs in a number of ways. However, the benefits are far greater than that. Moving data and applications to the cloud means less kit is required onsite, reducing maintenance costs and charges for power and cooling. Depending on the cloud service used, there are other benefits also available.

Efficiency gains are also key. Then there is the flexibility that cloud brings. For researchers and academics, the ability to draw on data and application resources when required removes the limits that come with onsite archiving.

Q. How could the widespread adoption of cloud tech influence storage and security issues?

JB: With respect to data storage and security, the widespread adoption of cloud tech definitely has legal implications. Universities will need to have roles and processes in place to ensure that the GDPR legislation requirements are met. With respect to security, universities must tighten their data security protocols. For example, instead of a login ID and password to access data systems, the use of multi-factor authentication would minimise or eliminate the chances of security breaches.

PT: The implications for storage are substantial. Over the course of the pandemic, universities have relied heavily on video content for teaching purposes, most of which was recorded and stored in some way for the benefit of students. This has meant that most universities have had to increase the scale of their storage multiple times over the course of the various national lockdowns.

That’s a relatively easy matter to address: however, security is a little more complicated. The reliance on various different software packages created by the pandemic meant that universities had to create or clarify internal policies on the platforms appropriate for conducting teaching. Primarily, I think we’ll see universities evaluating the terms of their agreements with software providers in order to find ways of integrating software better into their teaching practices.

PN: Despite fears that always come with early adoption, the widespread rollout of cloud computing and SaaS has, in fact, led to far more secure education technology environments, which can be managed and scaled to meet ever-changing security and compliance standards.

University technology systems and infrastructure are already connected to the internet, so the risk is already there.

However, cloud systems are far easier to keep secure, and quicker to upgrade and patch online. In a world where reputation is everything, it makes sense that identity access, trust and security are of paramount importance to cloud providers.

That’s why large research and development budgets are invested in constantly improving cloud services.

The business model dictates that far more expertise and support can go into cloud providers protecting an entire sector, than can be achieved by on-premise university IT teams facing budgetary pressures.

Q. Can the cloud help to foster a sense of community across the HE sector?

JB: Definitely. For example, many ‘hackathons’ have taken place, with students across different universities using COVID data sets and AI techniques to explore this virus in further detail and draw valuable insights. The research community can also make use of cloud technology to work on collaborative projects where information has to be shared across different stakeholders.

PT: Where the cloud can perhaps be most impactful is in enabling collaboration. Universities can use it as a means of knowledge-sharing across the sector, especially as part of efforts to define best practice.

Using the cloud to forge networks devoted to improving experiences of education across the sector seems like a good way to augment a sense of community. Since the pandemic has forced all communications online, students are also reporting valuable friendships and support groups coming together online.

TC: The cultural developments engendered by the pandemic have refocused the traditional meaning of ‘community’. Social media and online platforms created a virtual community that proved essential for connecting, collaborating and being present in 2020. Community is no longer location-centric: rather, it’s formed around what you’re working on, your team, your class, your common goals.

HEIs must consider how they can help their students and teachers thrive in a world where a virtual classroom or workspace is the central hub. Cloud-based services address a number of fundamental issues that come with remote working, such as poor connectivity and secure access to files and applications, helping to ease technology pressures and ensure a positive student experience.

“If you do it well and take the best parts of social media, cloud computing can ensure a sense of community is achieved” – Professor Peter Nikoletatos

PN: If you do it well and take the best parts of social media, cloud computing can ensure a sense of community is achieved. That’s not to say that face-to-face learning loses its appeal; it’s still very much a part of our societal needs. However, it can be optimised more effectively through the cloud, and can even identify those who might feel peripheral in an on-campus environment.

However, that’s not to ignore the fact that online learning is creating challenges around wellbeing, mental fatigue, cyberbullying and the changing roles and responsibilities of the educator.

Until now, most universities’ pastoral care has been predominantly on-campus. They’ve been able to monitor student wellbeing through tutorials, attendance, access to university wifi and libraries, as well as involvement in extracurricular clubs and societies. These connections provide an insight into how engaged a student is likely to be. COVID has meant that students are missing out on the bustle of campus life, in many cases being confined to their rooms, isolated and lonely.

When rolling out cloud-based and online systems, HEIs and technology systems must ensure that any potential downsides are understood and rectified. Social media companies use algorithms to serve up commercially profitable content, but those very same digital analytics tools should also be used for the greater good.


Birmingham City University Oracle Academy
Content Guru
UCL School of Management
Stone Group

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