Universities and the cloud: a degree of difficulty

Are universities going to continue in their current state for much longer? And how will cloud shape their future direction?

Are university degrees a waste of time?  Are the days of spending three years away from home drinking too much and eating too many dodgy curries over? 

Well, maybe not just yet but we could be heading that way. I’ve just had an interesting chat with Stephen Butcher, the CEO of Eduserv. We had a wide-ranging discussion about various business models but we did get sidetracked by a conversation about university courses and whether they can continue to be viable in their current state.  Eduserv has a bit of a head start talking about universities, having sprung from an academic environment and having a fair number of academic institutions among its customer base. 

Having compared notes with Stephen on our views on university experiences, it was interesting to return to the office to read in the Harvard Business Review that university degrees have had their day. It's clear there's no widespread dissatisfaction with university life just yet but I do wonder whether this will be the case in a few years’ time when graduates start looking at their levels of debt and wonder how they're going to eat into it. Butcher likens the current state of universities to monasteries before their dissolution in the 16th century and I reckon he's on to something. Certainly, I can see far fewer traditional three-year, 30-week courses in 20 years time.

What’s this got to do with cloud? Well, there are two answers to this. The first is that, at some point, universities will have to radically overhaul their IT infrastructures. The current environment is based very heavily on the idea that students spend three years on campus and IT departments are designed accordingly.  Butcher says that university IT departments tend to be conservative in terms of their IT purchasing, with a fair number of tin-huggers. This is probably true of several organisations, but universities are one of the most hide-bound sectors in the UK. As organisations, their basic structure has scarcely changed since mediaeval times and IT departments will reflect that intrinsic conservatism.

It's interesting to note that this is not the case in the US. A recently-published survey from PR agency The CDW Group sets out academia's fondness for cloud computing - although this appears to be focused more on the switch to Office 365.

But there's another aspect of the American experience that's not translated readily to the UK. That's the issue of dissemination of information and the growing number of ways to learn online, the so-called massive open online courses (MOOC), that are being used by more people. The introduction of these will have consequences for the way that websites are being used, both in terms of downloads and uploads as students submit their own material. At the moment, these universities provide little in the way of assessment but this will surely change. My wife is currently studying online and is being peer-marked by her fellow students. 

When offering courses to a wider world and a larger number of students, more universities will turn to cloud as a way forward. It's going to be the easiest way to scale their websites to an audience beyond their campuses and will be able to cope with variable demand.

The other aspect is how will people learn about cloud itself. There are few university courses that offer specialised tuition on this specialist subject. But a series of short courses may provide the background that cloud students could be looking for - particularly when they're being studied outside work hours when students can marry their day-to-day experience with highly focused instruction. 

Cloud has been a disruptive technology in many sectors and will become even more so. If universities are going to change, it won't be a surprise to see cloud computing playing a part in this process. But expect to see a few curry and doner kebab vendors go out of business along the way.

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