Friday, February 25, 2011

Is higher education ready for the cloud?

First of all, what am I talking about. Well the cloud, in contemporary IT circles, refers to cloud computing. Now that sounds sort of ethereal. Don't look up a computer could fall on you.

Cloud computing can refer to many things, but for our purposes let's say that it involves operating software and/or storing data off campus in an unknown location. No data center required. Let's also say that the software is important, like your student records, registration, financial management or bursars function. There are many services that can reside in the cloud (email, admissions, word processing, or just general personal storage) but let's think about the "must have" applications.

Today most campuses have web based systems which do all of things noted above. This is all good and provides great 24x7 services that are expected by prospective students and parents. All this web activity is linked to servers on the campus. What would it mean if the REALLY important stuff (also noted above) was run from the cloud? Well, this could be a good thing in that it might save electricity, reduce the need for daily data backups, reduce staff, reduce the number of servers required to do things, and get campuses out from under auditors who worry about disaster recovery. Best of all IT can point to the cloud when things are not working quite right. Well that's not totally true. We still "get the call".

Cloud computing has many pluses, but it is still very new. At my campus we use it for smaller applications that are not on the "must have" list. So far so good. We used to call cloud computing hosted services. They were very expensive. For some reason the cloud often seems cheaper than hosted services were, but both bring us to the big problem. When using the cloud to run services you don't have control of your data in the sense that you can go over to the data center and touch the server. You may not even have a backup copy of your data. The cloud is deeply rooted in faith and service level agreements. These are often the same thing. Faith is great, but scary in the IT world. We don't deal in faith. Our users really don't deal in faith. All this said, the good thing about faith is that it can grow. This is why schools like mine are dipping our toe into the cloud (perhaps up into the cloud). We hope that all will be well and if it proves to be as faith worthy as we hope, we may go further. Remember, there are many pluses.

So, if you are selling cloud services today you may have some success if you are selling services that are not on the "must have" list. I think that we are 5 years away from feeling pretty good about the cloud and more willing to think about moving critical systems to it. In 10 years, however, I think we will all be floating in the cloud, even with the big stuff. In the meantime, baby steps will prevail. You can learn more about the good and the not so good about from a smart person's article from Educause.

BTW, this blog is in the cloud. Cool.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mobile Strategy on Campus

A recent article in the Chonicle of Higher Education caught my eye a week or two ago. The article,entitiled As the Web Goes Mobile, Colleges Fail to Keep Up talked about how most colleges have not developed strategy for the rapid growth in Smart phones on their campuses. I know on my campus we survey students annually and although 99% of students own cell phones only about 5% were Smart phones in 2009. By 2010 this number had jumped to 25%. Our survey for this year starts next month I expect the number to rise yet again. This reminds me of the rapid growth in laptop ownership starting in 2005.

Most campuses do not have a mobile strategy. We all have web sites and have added tens of thousands of web pages about programs and activities on our campuses. All of this is based on the idea that students will read it on a laptop or desktop computer. If you have not done so, try and bring up your campus web site on any Smart phone (iPhone, Android, or Blackberry). You cannot even read it. These sites are not formatted for the web and as a result they are largely inneffective. Here is an example of the iPhone app for Duke University:

This Duke application can be downloaded for free from the iTunes store.

You can see that this does not look like a typical web page, but allows easy access to selected important information. Clicking on any topic yields additonal information. A campuses logo and other branding can be added. I contend that if a campus does not have a mobile strategy up and running within the next 18-24 months they will be missing a connection with prospective students, current students, and alumni.

Many targeted products like Blackboard's Learn 9.0 learning management system already allow students to view course materials on their phones in a simplified format. In short order students will expect to easily see class materials, campus news and sports scores, selected video clips, check their grades, get the bus schedule, and find out everything from the library hours to what's for dinner.

Colleges may think this is just the latest fad, but they have to realize that every year the student body changes and every year the bar for technology and information rises. Imagine if a campus didn't have a web site today. In two years students will be saying "is there an app for that"? If your campus is not mobile you won't exist.