Education in the Cloud

A panel of the nation’s top technologists discusses new technologies changing higher education.

INTERVIEWS | by Victor Rivero

edtech digest Education in the CloudCIOs from Cornell and Notre Dame, and the Director of Infrastructure Services at the University of Michigan, as well as Internet2’s Senior Vice President, sit down to discuss the current “education in the cloud” trend. Higher education institutions are in transformation, adopting new technologies to modernize and mobilize the way students and faculty distribute, organize and share information such as syllabi, notes, homework and campus materials. Working with the advanced networking consortium Internet2 to rollout the next big thing, campuses nationwide are shifting to cost-efficient, effective and scalable solutions that just make more sense than hanging on to traditional ways. Ronald Kraemer is Vice President and CIO at Notre Dame. Ted Dodds is Chief Information Office and Vice President of Cornell. Bill Wrobleski is Director of Infrastructure Services for Information and Technology Services at the University of Michigan. Senior Vice President of Internet2 and former CIO of University of California Berkeley Shel Waggener joins the three CIOs in discussing the significance of their current rollout as they distinguish between institutional and business needs, delineate the benefits of cloud technologies, touch upon other app deployments and make sense of where it’s all going and why.

1. Victor: What has the overall response been to the cloud?

Ron: I would characterize it as cautious optimism. People like that it is easy to get started, but when they delve into some of the details, they become a bit more cautious. Overall, this will become an important part of our IT service portfolio, so we are conducting due diligence for many products and services.

Shel: At the small workgroup or departmental level, cloud adoption has been enthusiastic. It has been more challenging for enterprise systems or at a campus level where traditional models of procurement don’t readily lend themselves to adoption of cloud services. We are seeing a shift with the Internet2 NET+ approach that makes campus-wide offerings much easier to implement.

Bill: People have responded very positively to the collaborative capabilities of M+Google and the storage available through M+Box. We currently have about 30,000 people using Box and 90,000 collaborators on Drive. Of course, the move to Google also included new email and calendar systems for many people and that can be difficult: changing personal productivity tools for a large community is a real challenge.

2. Victor: What kinds of unique IT needs do higher education institutions have that a business does not?

Student Computing at U-MRon: I think there are more freedoms on a college campus and people are eager to explore and experiment with new things. Teaching, sharing and creating knowledge can be significantly different than a business environment. Also, we have thousands of students that live on a campus, so technology for campus life is an essential part of the IT service portfolio.

Shel: Higher education has long been the home of “bring your own device” and the borderless enterprise such that most tools designed for closed enterprises will often not work well in a university environment. Conversely, many of the consumer-friendly services that are now offering enterprise features and functionality are finding success in higher education where our focus is on ease of use and ease of adoption by our community.

Ted: A few examples: complex policy-based regulations that apply to university data (FERPA, HIPPA, etc.), student education and employment, residential life, the global outreach mission including citizen science, and — in the specific case of Cornell — a genuinely unique mission that blends Ivy League and Land Grant university responsibilities in a single institution.

Bill: Higher Education is affected by a wide range of compliance rules. HIPAA, ITAR and FERPA and other standards must be followed. Cloud vendors do not seem ready to offer support for these compliance guidelines yet. Until they do, higher education institutions will continue to struggle if they choose to adopt these solutions. The content that students create while they are here belongs to them, so we must provide a way for students to take it with them when they go. Gone are the days of simply packing your work into a cardboard box or milk crate when you graduate! By its very nature, academic culture is open and participatory. You can’t make a unilateral decision and expect that everyone will go along with it — and that goes for faculty and staff too, not just students. So setting the framework with the larger university community and engaging them early is very important. Because there are so many cloud consumer productivity tools available (and students find them all!) it can be a challenge to keep up and provide institutionally vetted tools that meet technology needs in a secure fashion.

3. Victor: How is your university using cloud technologies? Specifically, I know all of you have begun using a new solution called Box. How has that helped students and faculty at your university?

Box cloud imageRon: We use Box primarily as a collaboration platform for university business, teach, learning, research and scholarship. Box is becoming a normal and essential part of classwork and research.

Shel: The “unbundling” of the university experience includes supporting access to content and academic experiences independent of geography. That is dramatically facilitated by utilizing cloud services that can scale globally with interest and enrollment. So when designing a course, the ability to allow enrollment from a class to go from 50 to 10,000 in a physical space is impossible, but with cloud computing that constraint is removed. Research activities are also increasingly globalized, as are the business and administrative functions of the university. Box in particular allows collaboration and sharing of content without regard to geography. Researchers can share files seamlessly and work jointly with colleagues from other universities anywhere in the world. Staff, faculty, and students can access their files on mobile devices when they travel.

Ted: Box is routinely used by teams to review documents, proposals, presentations, etc. At first people may see it as just a web-based directory share for files, but once they start using the comment features, revisioning, and integrated applications they start realizing that this tool fosters collaboration. It helps people collaborate effectively and asynchronously in geographically distributed locations; less time is wasted walking across campus for things we can do online. Best of all, it doesn’t require us to choose between Box and other collaboration tools. Our community can continue to use other tools like Google docs for collaborative development, but the Box integration with Google’s apps means that the result of a collaboratively edited Google doc is stored in our Cornell community Box environment.

Bill: In the case of collaborative tools, we determined the cloud was definitely the best option. We ended up selecting Google and Box and we have spent the last year rolling them out to campus as co-branded services we call M+Google and M+Box. We now plan on investing even more time and effort helping our students, staff and faculty adopt these tools in their daily practices in the classroom, lab and office. We recognized that better collaboration tools and flexible, easily accessible data storage were big needs on our campus. Providing enterprise-level, cloud-based offerings eased the challenges for our whole community so we have adopted a “cloud first” approach to sourcing. We are willing to run systems on premise when that’s the best solution, but we always want to look broadly at cloud offerings first to find any possible cost and functionality advantages.

4. Victor: Can you name other software/apps your institution uses that you’ve deployed in the past year or two? How have they helped the information flow?

Ron: We are undertaking a widespread deployment of Google and Microsoft products for collaboration in our academic areas and are focusing on data analytics and digital workflows for university operations.

Shel: We are moving to SIP environment provided by Aastra for each of our offices and to Salesforce for our in-house client and case management system. Both are provided as cloud applications with no in-house servers needed. These are just the first of what I expect to be significant steps will take into the cloud applications environment in the coming year.

NextGen Michigan cloud imageBill: We made most of the Google tools available to the University of Michigan in early 2012. We rolled-out email and calendar over a longer time frame so we could offer a smooth migration of data to our users. We completed that process for the Ann Arbor campus this fall, and will roll them out to our Dearborn campus in the next few months. Our Flint campus decided to stay with their current email and calendar systems at this time, but they have access to the other available Google services. We rolled out M+Box to our campus early last year as well. We started marketing M+Box more aggressively in September 2012 and as a result saw a dramatic jump in our user base. In 2010, the university embarked on NextGen Michigan, a five-year-plan to adopt next-generation technology to advance research, teaching and learning. Three main objectives of NextGen Michigan are collaboration, mobility and globalization. Adopting cloud services like Box and Google help meet those objectives.

5. Victor: In your view, does cloud adoption help your university gain a competitive edge in terms of recruiting students and professors? If so, how?

Ron: For me, the most compelling aspect of cloud services is that they allow us to move quickly into new areas and then scale quickly. If we can deliver new services and achieve savings by adopting cloud strategies, we can reallocate existing budgets to other core needs.

Shel: Universities attract talent not solely with superior facilities or infrastructure but with outstanding existing talent. Being able to recruit students and faculty effectively and globally using cloud services to reach talent not previously accessible has obvious benefits. Adopting cloud services allows universities to represent themselves at the forefront of technological innovation and provide the tools for their community members to study and work in ways unimagined only a few decades ago.

Bill: Our focus was always on finding the best way to improve collaboration — not on moving to the cloud for its own sake. The fact that using cloud-based services was the best way to deliver this particular solution was a byproduct of our decision-making process, not the goal. That said, our campus IT community has been driving our “cloud first” vision for sourcing IT services. The IT community recognizes that cloud services have the potential for delivering the function/cost mix that our campus demands. We are currently managing about 150,000 M+Google accounts. This includes students, staff and faculty on all three campuses, some alumni and retirees, as well as group and resource accounts. For M+Box, we have a little over 20,000 active accounts but our capacity is for 100,000. While everyone has access to these collaboration tools, not everyone is using them regularly. We plan to continue investing in communication and training to gradually increase adoption across all areas of the university.

6. Victor: How are cloud technologies changing the way your campus runs, and how do you envision that looking in the future?

Ron: The primary things I see changing are how we manage services (we are product or service managers more than developers), we must do much more with vendor relations, and we must become much more sophisticated with developing and managing contracts.

Shel: Cloud adoption enables universities to take advantage of economies of scale they could never achieve on their own, leaving more resources available to support the core mission of the university in other ways. Cloud technologies are also forcing universities to become more nimble and efficient in their internal processes. IT departments can no longer spend months or years assessing a service before members of their community begin using it. That will begin to transform the culture of universities from within, even as the proliferation of cloud technologies more broadly creates new expectations for services from end users.

Ted: Cloud is all about nimbleness, resource elasticity, utility grade IT, and the ability to deliver a new service quickly. These characteristics are key to our strategic direction to reduce the proportional spend on IT utilities so that we can allocate more resources to academic technologies and other differentiators. We are well down the road in shifting from on-premises infrastructure to cloud based services. The list of such services is growing and we are encouraging that trend. Longer term, we see a major shift in focus from building/operating IT to brokering/facilitating I, and from delivering technology to delivering business value. There is an increased expectation that IT services will be accessible from any device with a web browser (laptops, smartphones, tablets) so users can reach any service, any time. Box is an example of a service that meets this expectation – it’s easy to use and your files can be accessed wherever you are and with a variety of mobile devices.

7. Victor: What are some of the challenges you’ve found in implementing cloud solutions?

Ron: The two for me are “managing data” and “managing risk”. Understanding where our data are stored and who has control over that data is huge. We always want assurance that no matter what happens with a company we can get access to our data and sustain our operations. We also must continually assess risk in this new environment. With cloud services we do give up some control and there is inherent risk in that process.

Shel: The biggest challenge is the prevalence of legacy systems, processes, and skills, whether technological, organizational or even personnel. Moving to cloud solutions involves change, which can seem threatening within large institutional environments and among individuals with vested personal and professional interests at stake.

8. Victor: What concerns do you still have with cloud technology?

Ron: I have few concerns about the technology itself, but have considerable concerns regarding how companies choose to implement the technologies. Networks are generally mature, data center operations are well-understood and we have showed enormous maturity in the applications development arena. We need to remember that at the core are humans and business models that have an incredible influence how services really operate.

Shel: Cloud technology itself is extremely fast moving and almost by definition speed will create errors that otherwise may not occur. Simultaneously technological improvements in current areas of concern like security, privacy, and data portability will likely address issues nearly as fast as they emerge. The real concern seems less about cloud technology itself and instead about whether universities as research and educational entities are going to help direct innovation in the industry by working with cloud providers. The danger for higher education institutions lies with not engaging seriously with cloud technology.

Ted: External: The industry landscape is dynamic, with mergers/acquisitions/failures that pose a business risk to customers. Contracts are complicated and time consuming. Standards for sharing data between cloud vendors are evolving and still have a long way to go. We need to make sure that with every cloud service we use there is an exit strategy, so that when necessary we can switch service-providers without losing data or productivity. Campus: Many people do not see a difference between their personal consumer use of cloud and enterprise cloud services for business use. In addition to the benefits of cloud services, we need to increase awareness of the risks — to individuals and the institution — of uninformed cloud use. Those “End User License Agreements” people agree to, usually without reading, often lack vendor commitments (confidentiality, data ownership, disaster recovery) that our community needs. Central IT: We’ll need to help staff make the transition from some of the legacy technical work our organizations have been responsible for to a different model where managing relationships and service delivery functions are the norm. The conversation needs to turn from nuts and bolts technology to how IT addresses functional, academic, or administrative needs.

9. Victor: How mature are today’s cloud solutions in terms of meeting the needs of a large university?

Notre DameRon: We currently run about 50 different cloud services — including infrastructure services, software applications, and collaboration services. These range from relatively immature to extremely mature. You almost need to look at each individual service to really respond to that question appropriately. In areas that give us a quick response to a vital need, we often will take a little more risk. However, in core infrastructure services, we look for very mature, stable solutions.

Shel: In some respects commercial cloud services are still fairly immature, especially in terms of interoperability between services when compared against cloud services built within the community for specific disciplines. The commercial side is growing and maturing at a staggering speed. They also benefits of decades of investments and technological innovation in areas like advanced networking and federated identity.

10. Victor: Where do you see all this heading in the future, say, in the next couple of years?

Ron: I think companies will mature and we will find a nice balance between enterprise/consumer demands and service provider strategies. The biggest change needed is for cloud service providers to understand the differing needs between individual consumers and complex organizations. Many of the cloud services that we currently find attractive as consumers are simply not designed for deployment at the enterprise level.

Shel: There are a variety of push and pull factors that are going to lead more institutions toward cloud solutions. It would be far more desirable for the higher education community if universities led that process rather than be swept aside or pulled along by it.

11. Victor: Is there anything — possibly even something that we haven’t yet discussed — to really watch out for? And whatever that might be — why should we watch out for it?

Ron: The greatest risk may be consolidation of services as companies buy and sell new entrants into the market place. As the business models shake-out, the largest companies will continually invest in the most promising technologies and services and that could cause some destabilization in services used by in enterprises like universities. We will all watch those situations very carefully.

Ted: Social, mobile, and cloud are transforming how people work, communicate, and collaborate. Researchers are using cloud technologies to solve problems that were beyond us only a few years ago. Students are taking cloud based social and mobile technologies right into the classrooms and study rooms. Already, our partnerships reaching beyond the borders of campus are more productive because of cloud free based screen sharing and video collaboration tools that 5 years ago cost thousands of dollars.

12. Victor: Anything else you’d like to add or emphasize regarding technology’s role in higher education?

Ron: Information technology services are at the core of almost everything we do in teaching, learning, research, scholarship, university operations and campus life. We rely on technology for so many essential components of our work, education and personal lives and the cloud is just a natural part of what we do every day.

Shel: Technology fundamentally enhances individual productivity and reduces distance between individuals. Only recently has the long standing (and somewhat stagnant) dominant paradigm of classroom education been disrupted by these new technology advances and the financial necessity to embrace them. The good news is they not only enhance productivity but also are emerging as impressive tools to enhance the student experience and create lifelong opportunities for learning not previously possible.

Victor: Alright, thank you all for participating. There’s a lot of wisdom here that I hope others benefit from. Very much appreciated.  

Victor Rivero is the editor in chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:


  1. I’d like to challenge Ron’s notion that “networks are mature” and “data center operations are well-understood.” The relative slowness of the US EDU community in adopting IPv6 (compared even to cloud providers) puts the US EDU community at a disadvantage when it comes to global collaboration and recruitment of students and faculty. How will you collaborate with scientists in Asia when they have good end-to-end IPv6 capabilities and horrible IPv4 capabilities due to address shortages, unless you have robust IPv6? Thinking that the network is mature has led to an atrophy of EDU network support and leadership–and we’re about to pay for that, I fear.

    On the data center front, I see much hand-wringing when it comes to managing large and complex data center networks. Many data centers still use the spanning-tree protocol to provide redundancy in the data center; however, that protocol is becoming increasingly anachronistic and broken in today’s data center environment. There are competing replacements to spanning-tree which have varying levels of support in equipment, which leads to further confusion. There are all sorts of random proposals on the table as to how to solve these problems (including even a combination of BGP and OpenFlow), but nobody seems to have come up with reasonable and widely-adopted standard practices.

    In short, I envision struggles in the future to sustain both the network and data center, even assuming moderate growth. EDUs should be on the forefront of the leadership in this realm and, frankly, I don’t see that happening. Focusing on the cloud is fine, but we seem to be doing that at the expense of the very infrastructure that is needed to make the cloud work.

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