This article originally appeared in The Cloud Goes to School (sponsored).

In the spring quarter of 2013, the learning management system at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB) suffered a major outage at perhaps the worst possible time — finals week.

“This is something that we will never stop hearing about,” says Gerard Au, CSUSB associate vice president for information technology services. “Students graduating four years from now will still remember that experience. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The incident drove CSUSB to accelerate the transition of its major systems to the cloud. The campus went from having almost no critical systems in the cloud in 2013 to 60 percent today, Au says. Hosted services at the university now include many parts of its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, campus portal, learning management system (LMS) and email systems.

As a result, CSUSB can provide 24/7 availability for major systems, refocus IT resources and provide other benefits such as business continuity in case of disasters like earthquakes caused by the nearby San Andreas Fault.

“It keeps us operational regardless of what is happening on our campus,” Au says.

While CSUSB is far from the only campus to experience a high-profile outage, the aggressive timeline of its transition drives home the point that many colleges are looking to the cloud to solve their problems and even gain a competitive edge.

According to a 2016 Center for Digital Education (CDE) survey of 129 higher education leaders conducted in January 2016, 69 percent of higher education institutions use a cloud-based solution and 39 percent have used cloud solutions for more than 3 years.

The top reasons higher education leaders pursue cloud solutions include anytime, anywhere access, ease of maintenance, reduced hardware and maintenance costs, built-in disaster recovery and simplified IT administration. Leaders also noted cost was their primary reason for not moving to the cloud, while only 4 percent of respondents cited lack of interest or perceived need. Although higher education institutions have had legitimate reasons — such as privacy and security — to hesitate before adopting cloud solutions in the past, those concerns are fading.

To get an idea of how fast cloud solutions have gained momentum, consider the contrast between two large Midwest institutions: Indiana University Bloomington and the University of Notre Dame. When Indiana replaced its aging data center in 2008, it opted to build another on-site facility. Notre Dame, facing the same need just a few years later, transitioned the bulk of its IT infrastructure to the cloud.

Cloud's Rapid Rise

Indiana University Bloomington opted to build another on-site facility when it replaced its aging data center in 2008.

Just a few years later,  the University of Notre Dame found itself in the same position, but the obvious choice was to move 80 percent of its infrastructure to the cloud.

“We are a study in contrasts,” says Bob Flynn, manager of cloud technology support at Indiana University Bloomington. “The obvious choice for us was to build a state-of-the-art data center, and three or four years later the obvious choice for Notre Dame was to move 80 percent of its infrastructure to the cloud.”

Being able to devote more resources to academic and student success is one of the most exciting and satisfying gains of moving to the cloud.

Adopting hosted services can translate to fewer mundane and time-consuming IT job duties, including performing routine upgrades. As a result, higher education IT staff can focus on industry-specific projects, including analyzing the mounting academic data that each system collects.

“If I had to make the trade again, I’d make it every day,” says George Claffey, CIO of Charter Oak State College and the interim CIO of Western Connecticut State University. “Windows patches are necessary and needed things and they’re absorbing days and weeks of system administrator time. When we can put those admins on other projects like homework tracking or early intervention, that’s where we’ve really done right by the students.”

Campuses also are using the cloud to cut overhead costs and react to changing technology and teaching needs. For example, Western Connecticut State University recently launched an innovation and entrepreneurship center. Technology is part of the center’s infrastructure, but instead of owning equipment with a five-year life cycle, IT can blend physical technology with cloud-based technology. With the ability to scale as needed, cloud-based technologies save the university money and ensure students have a relevant tool set, Claffey says.

Meeting Digital Expectations

Today’s colleges and universities need to satisfy a different kind of student. Raised on technology and social networks, these students expect highly personalized digital services in all aspects of their lives, including their college experience. What’s more, they’ve been fed a diet of rich digital content in K-12, and they’re looking for similar curriculum in college. The Center for Digital Education’s annual Digital Community Colleges Survey examined how community colleges are responding.

96% of community colleges allow students to view, add, drop and change courses online; 57% let them do so using a mobile interface.

94% of community colleges give students secure online access to financial aid status; 56% offer secure mobile access.

76% of community colleges provide online access to official transcripts.

55% of community colleges provide real-time online access to academic tutoring; 97% offer students access to faculty via email, text or chat.

39% of community colleges offer laptops or tablets to students at a discounted price.

36% of community colleges use open education resources as part of their digital curriculum strategy.

Source: 2015-16 Digital Community Colleges Survey, sponsored by SHI

The cloud is helping Florida’s Lynn University get creative, too, enabling the Boca Raton-based campus to replace its traditional on-premises LMS with a more innovative option. For the past three years, Lynn has provided iPads to all students and delivered content through iTunes U. Recently, the university worked with a local company to add a cloud-based grading and attendance application, which feeds into its cloud-based customer relationship management system, or CRM.

“We’re using mobility and cloud to help us move data out of legacy systems, which is great,” says Christian Boniforti, Lynn University’s CIO. “And I think the flexibility of mobile and cloud allows us to bring in new feature functionalities in a more rapid and affordable way.”

The ability to launch useful new features quickly helps increase faculty participation rates, which ultimately leads to better results. 

“Once you get better participation, you can start really using the data to personalize learning, make interventions, reach out to students and hopefully help guide them a little bit better throughout the college experience,” Boniforti says.

Just as important, the shift to cloud and mobile provides students with tools that match their experience in the real world. For the current generation, that means helping students bridge the gap between using these tools in their personal lives and using them in the workplace, Boniforti says. For future generations, it means matching the technology experience they received in lower grades where mobile and cloud solutions will be as entrenched in the learning environment as textbooks were 10 years ago.

“The students of tomorrow are going to expect that those things are in place,” says Boniforti. “They’re going to be using them in high school and middle school and know what to do with them. The expectation is that their transition needs to be seamless and the tech needs to get out of the way.”

Campus IT professionals already are struggling with the sea change in student expectations. Students bring consumer devices to campus the day they are released, and they expect to see those same innovations used throughout the college experience — in and out of the classroom.

“They are definitely coming with high expectations due to what they’re used to at home or school. That’s their vision of what every college should be providing right out of the box,” says Kevin Brassard, CIO at Nichols College in Massachusetts.

Cloud-based solutions help colleges keep up with rising expectations without scrapping core systems they are not ready to replace. They can be seen throughout the universities, from recruitment applications that replace direct mail with social media to apps that focus on alumni engagement. These apps can even track the availability of campus laundry machines or count calories in campus dining halls.

Until last year, Nichols College used manual spreadsheets to assign student housing. “It didn’t sit well with students and was inefficient for resident life staff,” Brassard says.

Nichols College leaders decided it was worthwhile to adopt a cloud-based app with features more in line with student expectations, including automated roommate matching. “As students get wiser with what each college has to offer, it doesn’t reflect well on a school if they’re still doing things manually without using integrated systems,” he says.

With so many options, CIOs and tech leaders must be selective about which projects they pursue, how cloud solutions integrate with existing systems and how they further campus priorities. At Lynn University, Boniforti said one goal is to become more sophisticated in how the administration communicates with students.

“They definitely don’t read email as much anymore. We’re texting versus emailing,” he says.

An upcoming cloud-based project will allow students to select their preferred method of communication. For example, students could receive an email for bills, but be texted information about their attendance.

Steven Zink, vice chancellor of information technology at the Nevada System of Higher Education, sees a future in which real-time integration of data will help higher education make dynamic decisions. Photo by Jessica Mulholland.

In addition to faculty and staff email systems — a starter cloud service for many institutions — many crucial business operations and processes are being moved to the cloud.

A large-scale example of this is the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE), where leaders are implementing a cloud-based finance and HR system throughout the system’s eight campuses.

The project will help streamline and standardize many of the campuses’ different business processes. “[The cloud] takes out some of the flexibility, which is actually a good thing in the business process side,” says Steven Zink, vice chancellor of information technology at NSHE.

“Campuses almost always want to do [a business process] a certain way, because that is the way they have always done it. But to achieve efficiencies you really can’t do that. True cloud computing environments excel at common business processes and it’s really too expensive for them to maintain that many instances of people running different software,” Zink says.

As more institutions move services to the cloud, campus IT professionals are learning how to manage and mitigate many of the common risks and issues associated with it, such as cyber liability, security, privacy, vendor management and data ownership. Moving to cloud-based solutions also is revolutionizing job responsibilities in many IT departments — requiring CIOs and other leaders to become more business savvy and comfortable vetting and managing vendors. Reading and negotiating contracts, which is often left to business offices for traditional hardware and software purchases, is usually performed at some level in the IT department for cloud purchases. Therefore, IT professionals are finding themselves serving as internal consultants for other university departments and user groups interested in selecting hosted services. While not everything makes sense in the cloud now, CIOs and technology leaders say systems not in the cloud will likely be considered for cloud migration on the next pass.

For Zink at NSHE, outsourcing maintenance and hardware is just one part of the cloud’s potential. He sees a future in which real-time integration of data will help higher education make dynamic decisions. With the power of real-time analytics, for example, colleges could assign classroom space based on registration and the distance a faculty member or student may need to travel between classes or even nearby campuses — much like driving apps calculate alternate routes based on traffic flow. Academic advisers could provide interventions based on how late a student regularly orders pizza.

Whether higher education uses such social data is not a technology question — it is an ethics issue, just as is the use of social data in society at large, he says. But regarding the technology, Zink says: “That’s definitely in the art of the possible.”