Roundtable – Heads in the cloud with Nottingham Trent University

How is cloud technology aiding in the digital transformations of schools and universities? Steve Wright heads up into the cloud with John Murphy

The third in our series on the cloud, we speak to John Murphy, Director of digital technology, information systems at Nottingham Trent University 

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

With the cloud, students are no longer restricted in where they can learn. Live chats, video conferencing, online assessments and virtual labs have truly made the world a classroom, and have all but negated geographical distance and time. The cloud helps education institutions like ours by allowing personalisation of student learning experiences, access to materials from any place at any time, and by use of analytics in improving learning outcomes. 

Cloud services (if deployed correctly) can also help with green initiatives, by reducing the number of data centres, reducing power consumption and only running services when required. The cloud can also generate cost savings by allowing scaleable services, ramped up only when required. This ‘pay as you go’ model can generate real savings, but needs to be carefully monitored to ensure that these savings are realised. 

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

The impact going forward will largely be on the human side. It will drive the need to improve digital fluency and will increase the demand for the digital learning experience and addressing the gap in instructional design expertise. It has the capability to make institutions rethink their teaching practice.

Some of the technologies that will be important to teaching, learning and creative enquiry in the future, and which will be further enabled by cloud technologies (some are already in progress) are mobile learning, analytics, mixed realities, artificial intelligence, blockchain and virtual assistants. Some of these, such as mobile learning, will have an impact in the short term, while others such as blockchain may take longer.

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

Yes. Many students now expect lectures to be captured digitally and available online indefinitely. There is also a greater demand for personalisation and analytics. The drive for greater use of mobile technologies in the classroom for instant feedback has also gathered pace.  

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

Again, there are many players in the marketplace and institutions need to decide which products best align with their overall mission and strategy. They will also need to consider the platforms and infrastructure that is currently in place at their institutions, plus the skill sets that their staff have currently and will need in the future. Managing services in the cloud is somewhat different from managing services that are delivered from onsite datacentres. At NTU, much of our infrastructure and services are based on Microsoft technologies. 

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

Yes. In the first instance, before cloud migration, a cloud-readiness exercise should be conducted to establish what stage the institution is at with its digital capability and maturity. This should then be used to develop a cloud strategy. Most institutions will use a combination of public and private solutions, and some have already gone the hybrid route. Not every system currently ‘on premises’ would be suitable for migration to the cloud.

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

The adoption of cloud has been one of the key technologies in disrupting the delivery of HE programmes, and it will continue to be so for years to come. The key challenge is how we manage this disruption. 

We need to recognise that, as sectors such as HE undergo digital transformation, the real key to success will be not technology, but people. It is important that our students and staff have the required digital skills and digital fluency and can adapt in the digital world. We need to look beyond simply training people, and focus instead on creating opportunities to learn.

It is also important that our relationships with vendors are managed effectively. There needs to be more thought given to building trust relationships with a small number of strategic partners. This is probably the key risk, and may have an impact on areas such as IT security and data privacy. 

Further reading

2016 World Ecomomic Forum Report: The Future of Jobs and Skills
Forbes magazine: Best countries for cloud computing