Employing Cloud Technology for Effective Learning

Jeffrey Cepull, CIO and VP for Information Resources, Philadelphia University
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Jeffrey Cepull, CIO and VP for Information Resources, Philadelphia University

Benefits of Cloud Computing in the Education industry

Cloud computing offers a multitude of advantages for the education industry, perhaps the greatest of which is, access to large-scale solutions that would be otherwise unattainable for many medium and small-sized institutions.

A. Some of the earliest cloud-based solutions for education included email services (Gmail, Live@EDU, and more recently Office 365) that have in many cases made on-premise email solutions a commodity service. Once such services reach commodity status, outsourcing to a cloud-based provider often yields cost savings (staffing, software licensing, and operations).

B. Cloud-based storage solutions have experienced rapid adoption as the cost of storage plummets and the feature set available to subscribers’ have increased. Tight integration with mobile devices and mobile application has also driven widespread adoption of cloud-based storage solutions. Colleges and universities can effectively shift capital expenses, staffing, and some operating costs (back-up expenses, for example) to the cloud-based provider, allowing campus information technology teams to focus more on specialized and mission critical activities and support. When a cloud-based storage solution is combined with a consortium buying agreement, the advantages can be compelling. Internet2’s NET+ program offers such a program to both members and non-member institutions in partnership with box.com.

C. A considerable number of instructional tools and applications have evolved to a cloud-computing model, including learning management systems (LMS), e-portfolio solutions, and classroom response systems. Once these applications operate in the cloud, their commodity status becomes a factor. The option for colleges and universities to avoid recurring capital costs, downtime for upgrades, and staff time for on-premise system support becomes compelling. Additionally, many of these applications are integrated in such a way that they provide even greater value when operated from the cloud.

  Philadelphia University's desire is to leverage data, which was driven by the need to produce an executive dashboard, providing overnight updates to several KPIs, and to help foster data-driven decisions 

D. An unusual cloud computing solution that touches our campus involves software application rendering in the cloud. About half the students on our campus are in design disciplines that require local rendering of application files for final review, display or viewing. This process is computationally intense and can require dedicated workstations for many hours or even days. Several vendors and service providers are offering no charge or low cost cloud-based rendering for the most popular design applications (AutoCAD, 3dsMax, Revit, Rhino, and Maya ). This relieves the pressure on both campus computing facilities and students’ own laptops or desktops devices.

E. One very promising area for cloud computing is the next generation ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems. These complex and costly systems could possibly become more manageable, scale much better, offer improved access to compliance, better integration with data analytics tools, and leveraging of mobile access. Once again, the benefits of avoiding recurring capital costs, downtime for upgrades, and staff time for on-premise system support are apparent.

Our involvement with cloud computing involves the implementation of the first four areas (A, B, C, and D), all having been in place for between 2-6 years. As a result we have been able to expand services, provide greater control, and assign staff to more strategic information technology projects. The last area, ERP in the cloud, is one that we are monitoring closely with the expectation that we will aggressively focus our investigation in the next 3-5 years.

Data as the Driving force

Universities and colleges have made data and information gathering a priority on their campuses and see direct value in meaningful analysis of all information related to recruitment, retention persistence, and academic success for their students. There are numerous tools and approaches to the effective use of information and data that colleges and universities can leverage to provide value and insight for improved decision-making. Data warehouses can help provide a repository for institutional data without taxing core ERP systems. Information stored in data warehouses can be mined and exploited using many different tools and solutions. Philadelphia University’s desire is to leverage data, which was driven by the need to produce an executive dashboard, providing overnight updates to several KPIs, and to help foster data-driven decisions. One of the University’s most successful projects that evolved from this is the ‘Smart Growth’ study, which involved the analysis of several years of course section scheduling, identification of low enrollment sections, adjunct faculty hiring patterns, fulltime and adjunct teaching loads, institutional coordination of adjunct hiring, and the frequency of elective offerings. Through a careful process of data mining of the institutional data warehouse, this process enabled the application of a set of strategies that included matching section enrollment to pedagogy, optimization of room capacity, establishing master course sections with subordinate sections, holding additional sections in reserve until seats in the primary section are filled, optimizing the frequency of required courses and electives, and managing demand for adjunct faculty hiring. Ultimately this project has led to more refined scheduling of course sections, assignment of course loads, and the hiring of adjunct faculty. In the first full year of implementation following the study, the projected savings from reduced course section offerings, reduced need for adjunct faculty, and reduced number of low-enrolled course sections was $400,000 in ongoing savings to the academic units.

Retention is an area that can benefit from leveraging data and applying the resulting information through a customer relation management (CRM) application. Philadelphia University is in the third year of a student success-focused CRM that is designed to collect academic alerts and academic praise, instantly distributing those elements to faculty, support staff, academic advisors, and student affairs professionals assigned to react and respond to student deficiencies and/or signs of struggle. This provides a platform for intervening promptly to ensure student academic success, especially for freshmen. In the first two years, we have increased the freshman to sophomore retention rate by more than 7 percent. This success is due to the influence of compelling data, committed faculty/support staff, and timely advising. Although it is much more difficult to measure, there is a good reason to believe that in addition to helping a struggling student recover and succeed, the system encourages many students to achieve at higher levels.

Innovative Ways Employed by the University

Innovation can be fostered through diverse perspective and points of view both in the faculty and student populations. Philadelphia University has a signature academic approach called Nexus Learning, which is active, collaborative, real-world learning infused with the liberal arts. In the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce, students in design, engineering and business have core courses together each year and approach learning and problem-solving in a more holistic and real-world way, which often leads to innovative solutions. This learning environment serves as the foundation for a campus culture that embraces innovation. The information technology team leverages this by building a diverse team of professionals committed to supporting students and faculty, identifying opportunities to construct creative solutions, and setting aside time each month to explore and experiment in areas beyond the typical work-related tasks. The IT team is open to failed experimentation and realizes the valuable learning that results from such activities in a culture of innovation.

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