Cloud Computing and the CIO-Recasting the Education Sector

Dr. Dave Robinson, Chief Information Technology Officer, Grinnell College
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Dr. Dave Robinson, Chief Information Technology Officer, Grinnell College

Dr. Dave Robinson, Chief Information Technology Officer, Grinnell College

The education sector is undoubtedly getting progressively “cloudier,” as those of us in higher education IT identify the many ways moving to the cloud might benefit our students, faculty, staff, and our institutions. One area key to our academic mission is the breadth of opportunities that cloud services provide to facilitate collaboration, whether that is among students, faculty, and staff within one institution; among peers across many institutions; or even farther a field.

Cloud-hosted data sets and services can provide ready access from many locations, without some of the complications and risks of opening secure in-house institutional resources to a wider audience. This is certainly not to say that all cloud services are inherently more secure than their on-premise equivalents, but the options available present interesting opportunities, including the ability to integrate data from many different cloud services to produce even richer and more informative data analyses.

Along with this increased availability comes an ability to establish new student and faculty research projects more rapidly, perhaps at a lower cost, or even offer the ability to embark on projects that were previously considered implausible. The cloud allows the rapid provisioning of high-powered computation resources, customizable for many different functions, in a way that can be achieved less expensively than the cost and time associated with establishing equivalent server hardware on site (especially if you only need to use that infrastructure for a few weeks). With Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) offerings, for example, less expertise is often needed in the underlying infrastructure and systems, which can increase the accessibility to resources for students and faculty alike.

  CIOs really have to understand, and help the rest of the institution understand, what is going on, what needs to happen, and ultimately how technology can help that happen 

This shift in approach can be leveraged by educational institutions. Although moving to cloud-based resources will not reduce the number of employees needed by IT groups, it offers the opportunity to re-deploy the workforce and its skill sets to focus more on academic mission while perhaps spending less time on some of the traditional, highly specific, technically-focused hardware-based tasks. As we see more job titles like “Cloud Architect” appearing in higher education, we also see benefits and efficiencies gained in standardizing platforms – something the cloud can do very well.

Along similar lines, cloud computing provides an unparalleled ability to test ideas, create “sandboxes,” and perform highly repetitive or automated tasks, even if every iteration requires the creation of a new server. This results in significantly more agility for educational IT teams without tying up campus-based resources that are already dedicated to other tasks and services. The same benefits are being exploited as more high-performance computing programs move to the cloud from on-premise clusters.

Likewise, disaster recovery and business continuity efforts in education, like other sectors, increasingly include cloud-based storage, databases, and services in an effort to build more cost-effective solutions to house key data and backups, and the ability to recover from multiple locations. Given the general funding streams in education, it is often less feasible to own data centers in different locations. With the cloud, services can be spun up thousands of miles away in an instant.

At Grinnell College, we have cautiously embraced cloud computing while we determine exactly which facets of this technology can help us achieve our mission more effectively. Like many institutions, we see the appeal of moving away from the minutiae of software management to spend more time supporting our constituents and engaging in emerging technology research. We nonetheless need to ensure that we are not forfeiting security and dependability as we become more reliant on robust network connectivity and low-latency connections.

We are very excited about the opportunities that cloud computing brings to our analytics and business intelligence enterprises. Data integration from many different sources and real-time dashboarding of key data, mashups, and trends are already providing new insights to the business side of the institution, and we anticipate further advances as we examine how the cloud can help us excel even more in areas such as student advising and success, and in student and faculty research.

The Changing Role of The CIO 

Grinnell College describes itself as a learning liberal arts college; that is, we learn as an institution in the same ways we prepare our students to learn for the rest of their lives. CIOs also are learning – how to transition from our traditional roles as “super techies” to taking on a more strategic presence. CIOs now are much more involved in institutional conversations about educational outcomes, student success, and business decisions.

Consistent with these trends is more focus on business process analysis and data-driven decision-making. CIOs really have to understand, and help the rest of the institution understand, what is going on, what needs to happen, and ultimately how technology can help that happen. We also need to recognize when technology can’t offer a solution. I often remind my staff that technology cannot drive pedagogy, but that, when done correctly, the appropriate application of the right technologies can help promote new pedagogical advances and exploration. We are no longer just keeping the lights on – that’s still important – but striving to add significant value to new and emerging educational paradigms.

The CIO is also significantly more involved in constituent relations. More than ever, we have to understand our faculty and staff colleagues, the methods of teaching and the research they use, and the business models those outside the technology teams are employing. More, broader, and open conversations lead to “joining the dots” and, ultimately, better processes. Furthermore, since technology underpins so many daily activities of students, faculty, and staff, the CIO has an obligation to ensure that those technologies are appropriate, supported, and enhanced as needed. We also must inform our constituents of the technologies on the horizon, so we can all prepare to implement them with the largest potential positive impacts on our mission.

Although there are many changes in the role of the CIO, there are still some key values and roles that have not changed. People are still the most important part of my technology organization, and as such I am highly intentional in mentoring, leading, and developing those with whom I have the privilege to work in the Grinnell College Information Technology Services team. These are the people who help implement best practices in technology. These are also the people who are helping to open the imagination of our constituents, rather than just providing tools and services for consumption.

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