OVER THE LAST two to three years, there has been a noticable increase in the number of institutions of higher education investigating and implementing cloud-based solutions for their IT infrastructure. E-mail, calendaring, collaboration, videoconferencing, and even ERP (enterprise resource planning) and learning management systems are now candidates for cloud-sourcing.
Offerings are available to migrate telephone systems, intrusion protection, file storage, and just about every other aspect of IT. None of these options or discussions are unique to higher education. And while cloud-sourcing IT infrastructure can liberate institution resources to focus on educational activities, there have been, to date, very few cloud solutions that speak directly to the core business of higher education, teaching and learning.
For sometime there have been solutions like lynda.com to provide training for software applications, and institutional IT help desks are using these tools to help students, faculty, and staff develop new skills that can assist them, indirectly, in the learning experience. Khan Academy took that one step further, providing instruction in basic math and science concepts in small modules designed, at the college level at least, to assist in remediation. As the free offerings at Khan Academy have expanded, there is more content relevant to the higher education experience.
Even these tools, though, have dealt with only the most basic — albeit important — aspects of advanced education. Newer entrants into the market have had a deeper focus on higher education. MIT faculty have been offering a subset of their course material via the MIT Open Courseware site. This content is free for anyone but comes with no support or interaction with MIT faculty. Udacity, started by two former Stanford faculty, is offering a limited set of computer science-focused material. The company is relatively new, so it remains to be seen how much instructor interaction hundreds of thousands of students will receive in their model. Both these options, while potentially short on faculty-student interaction, do provide a wealth of valuable educational content for the motivated student or even the industrious faculty member.
The same way cloud-based infrastructure offerings allow IT to focus more resources on institutional needs, so to can cloud-based educational content enable faculty to focus on what differentiates their institution from others — the kinds and quality of interaction with the students. Cloud-based educational content can, and certainly will, be effective for knowledge transfer, but understanding that information in context, using it to solve problems (i.e. critical thinking), and building on it to create new knowledge are skills that will most often come through interactions students have with educators at an institution.
These interactions may be face-to-face or online, but the guidance of experts in a given field will continue to be a valuable part of the higher education learning experience. Cloud-based educational content should be seen as an opportunity to ease the faculty burden of knowledge transfer (i.e. the traditional classroom lecture). That time with students can, instead, be focused towards helping students understand, use, and build on that information.