Cloud Formation – Professor Gunter Saunders

In the first of this five-part series, we ask Professor Gunter Saunders, University of Westminster, how cloud computing is set to change education

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How do you foresee cloud computing changing the education landscape, in terms of data storage and security…

Cloud computing is likely to make it much easier for universities to provide users (students and staff) with file storage, as well as spaces for collaboration on the creation of artefacts. There are, of course, understandable concerns around security. However, as long as the provider of the cloud service can show how they adhere to standards in this respect, the risk can ordinarily be managed.

…and teaching approaches?

I think the biggest impact in relation to teaching approaches could be around the reliability of cloud systems. Many academic staff are reluctant to try technology-enhanced learning approaches for fear that the technology will fail them. The general experience of technology systems at universities is not always that great, especially when the cloud service needs to integrate with in-house user information systems (such as student records). If, however, those connections can be made reliably, then cloud computing provides better scope for scaling in relation to demand and generally the kind of ‘up time’ demanded by users.Whilst using cloud services may well mean a reduction in the cost of in-house hardware, it is not currently clear that moving to cloud services realises significant savings. There is still often the overhead of driving the cloud service using in-house data systems. Also, most safe, reliable cloud services are not free.

I think the biggest impact in relation to teaching approaches could be around the reliability of cloud systems

Is cloud computing opening up education for a whole raft of users who – either because they are not suited to the classroom environment, or can’t afford the materials – were previously excluded from it?

I am not sure cloud computing is doing this as such. Rather, the availability of cheaper broadband, coupled with free internet-based materials and free courses (MOOCs), is allowing far greater numbers of people to study in ways that do not include the traditional physical university campus.

We are transitioning from a ‘teacher-centred’ to a ‘learner-centred’ system: how can cloud computing help with this?

The use of technology and its proper integration into the physical space is absolutely key in this transition. Generally, academic staff are reluctant to use technology to drive a transformation in their teaching. One of the key reasons for this is perceived issues with reliability and ease of use of the technology – and cloud services can certainly help here, especially with the reliability issue.

Should educational institutions be clear on which type of cloud infrastructure – Public, Private or Hybrid – works best for them?

It is unlikely that one size will fit all. For some services the greater flexibility, security and scalability of private cloud service may be warranted whilst for others a hybrid or even public cloud will suffice. An institution’s choice will be linked to how critical the service is for them, how secure it needs to be in relation to an assessment of risks and, ultimately, cost.

The use of technology and its proper integration into the physical space is absolutely key 

What risks and challenges (e.g. data protection, cybersecurity) should institutions be aware of?

One does need to be aware of security and privacy/data protection issues. However, as long as a provider can show how they take account of such issues in relation to best practice and legislation, there are normally few issues.

What do we mean when we talk about a ‘smart campus’?

Sensors that monitor C02 levels in classrooms and study areas, and adjust ventilation to realise a more comfortable atmosphere; users of facilities (libraries, cafes, free classrooms) able to identify less busy spaces in the building before they get there; estates monitoring of energy usage resulting in greater efficiency and greener solutions; students able to give feedback instantly on issues that concern them, as they move around campus.

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