7 reasons to put heads in 'cloud' e-learning
The future has just got kinda cloudy with iCloud and Kindle Fire. Forget the devices, that's just gadgetry.
iCloud not iPhone
Reaction to the launch of the new iPhone4 was muted, as the gadget geeks expected more, but it was the other release at the launch that was far more important, the new version of IOS. Look under the bonnet at Apple with iCloud and you see the future, your content in device-independent cloud services.It is expected (Forrester) that the number using personal cloud services will leap from 65m to 196m by 2016. That's a $12 billion market.
Just a few days ago Jeff Bezos launched the Kindle Fire. This is the big threat to the iPad because it's cheap, faster and has its head in the cloud with its EC2, cloud-focused 'Silk' browser that caches for speed. Amazon Cloud storage will come free. Again, it's all about device-independent content through cloud services.
One view of the cloud is that it’s no big deal, that we’ve been using online services for yonks, without any fuss. Another is that it represents the most important shift in IT in the last decade. There’s even mention of that dreaded phrase ‘paradigm shift’. I’m in the latter camp. This is big news in IT and for e-learning there are seven 'cloud nine' promises, seven major wins;
1. Big migration
According to Gartner, this is the biggest shift in the IT world in the last decade, as IT turns itself upside down and flips applications, storage and processing power to the cloud. We’re now seeing a massive migration of e-learning to the cloud. When servers began to be clustered and virtualised, the real clouds began to form and this has fanned out to; infrastructure (IaaS), platforms (PaaS) and software (SaaS). The game changer was Amazon, with their EC2 and S3 services.
2. Full scalability
Cloud services offer contracts that allow you to scale according to actual demand, not forecast guesses on usage. This is important in e-learning, as uptake and usage is notoriously difficult to predict. You can pilot at low cost then scale up over time, in proportion to need.
3. Only pay for what you use
This shift from a fixed to variable cost model, paying only for what you use, can result in huge cost savings. Learning services tend to be used erratically. It’s the equivalent of switching from using electricity generated by your own generator to using the national grid.
4. Buy less hardware
Dick Moore ran Learndirect’s IT for years and knows more than a thing or two about delivering complex learning services to huge numbers of people, 24/7, at the same time gathering huge amounts of data. He is an evangelist for shifting data to the cloud, virtualising servers, then using that acquired storage and bandwidth to deliver your main services - you don;t need to own all your own metal.
5. Buy less software
Like many in the business world, I first saw the real power of the cloud when I shifted all CRM activity to salesforce.com. The benefits, in terms of access and savings, were immediate. It was clear that such a move was necessary to remain competitive and that these SaaS services would mark out the e-learning innovators. But over the last few years more and more e-learning services and content has been delivered from the cloud.
6. Lower energy bills
Hugely efficient data centres, based in cold climates, such as Iceland (the ‘cold rush’), deliver much greener, lower-cost services. If you can wean your IT guys off their old ‘server hugging’ habits, you can benefit through considerable savings on all that electricity used to run and cool your servers. Then there’s the opportunity to run these services on thinner, less energy-hungry, client devices.
7. Device independence
As an added bonus, as we move to an increasingly mobile and tablet driven world, you can support more and more devices. Learning needs to be free, and this means letting it loose on as many devices as possible. The Amazon Fire points the way to a fast, cloud cached, thin-client device and, in general, cloud-based e-learning accelerates mobile learning.
Many VLEs, from open source Moodle to Blackboard, now offer cloud-based services. Google apps, in the form of free email, calendar and collaborative tools, is being used by hundreds of educational institutions worldwide, more than 14 million students and teachers, they claim. Monash University (Australia) has invited over 50,000 students to use the integrated services Gmail, Calendar for University and personal planning (shared) and Google docs. It’s accessible and efficient. The big advantage is the wholescale outsourcing of services. Google also have an open source, cloud-based LMS called CloudCourse. You can create content, track that content, schedule classes and it’s integrated with Google Calendar.
Kineo, Learningpool and many others offer hosted cloud-based LMS services such as Moodle and Totara, with full scalability through Rackspace. Companies, like Edvantage, just sold to Lumesse (formerly Stepstone) have been offering a complete range of SaaS services for some time, showing that cloud delivery adds value. Cogbooks offer a sophisticated, next-generation adaptive learning solution, that you just switch on from the cloud. Organisations large and small see learning services, as something that can be easily migrated, unlike hardcore commercial, transactional services. And although there’s new distinctions, such as public and private clouds, the bottom line is that cloud computing is the next big thing.
Under a cloud of suspicion?
So the cloud on the learning horizon promises a scalable service with massive savings in cost, a greener service and device independence – what’s the downside? Well, there will be worries about security. This is not to be ignored, as once you’ve shifted your data up and out, it may be subjected to scrutiny by authorities such as Governments and legal plaintiffs. And when you have a breach, you may find yourself unable to have the same level of forensic testing available as you had in-house. Remember that the cloud is not actually a cloud, but a huge data centre(s) somewhere on terra firma, so check what arrangements they have if it gets hit by a tsunami or hurricane. One other point, as Dick keeps reminding me, remember to encrypt your data before sending it to the cloud, doing it there would be self-defeating. In short, you also need to know what you’re letting yourself into contractually.
Of course, we’ve had our heads in the clouds for some time, as email, blogging, Youtube, Wikipedia, shared documents and social networking are just some of the cloud services we use without thinking. But as we've seen, there’s several new imperatives that push us towards use of the cloud, and surely the saved money can be better spent elsewhere. This is not cloud cuckoo land, it’s the future.