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What cloud computing can do for higher education

Bernard Golden | Dec. 16, 2009
There's something of a paradox, though, as higher education is being transformed by digital capability and generating more IT demand than ever before.

Horn even touched on the disruption being experienced by Harvard Business School, where he received his MBA. He noted that HBS has gotten so expensive that students can only pursue highly-paid positions in investment banking and its compeers, or top-end management consulting firms. Other potential students, focused more on operating companies, end up in less prestigious schools that align with lower starting salaries for graduates. In other words, HBS has outpriced its target market for the most part.

The net effect of this flight to less expensive alternatives by students of all types, combined with the ill-effects of the ongoing financial crisis, has meant that many higher education institutions are suffering mightily -- with the result that budgets are being cut dramatically. I heard many attendees at the symposium note that their organizations -- IT groups -- are being especially hard-hit, with headcount cuts or inability to backfill vacancies. There's a logic in this -- since most colleges and universities are loathe to cut services directly involved with faculty and students, groups like IT suffer disproportionately.

There's something of a paradox, though, as higher education is being transformed by digital capability and generating more IT demand than ever before. Just one example of this: one university encourages its faculty and students to capture desktop demonstrations in screencasting software -- and has wound up with 20 TB of desktop screencasts in the past year. So one can recognize the enormous challenge these IT organizations face; it can be summed up as "do more with less."

I was asked to speak about cloud computing and the opportunities for higher education to leverage cloud computing. While it might be expected that I would present an "all cloud, all the time" talk, I took as my jumping off point the ongoing challenge of higher education IT: there are certain core capabilities that require IT involvement -- think research, IT-enabled areas like medicine, IT-based areas like engineering and sciences. It's obvious that those areas can leverage cloud computing, but require heavy IT involvement. Other areas are necessary, but not critical to the institution. One might recognize in this the formulation Geoffrey Moore (author of the very influential "Crossing the Chasm") characterizes as "core versus context," wherein core represents the critical IT applications a company depends upon to differentiate itself and succeed; context are those IT applications a company needs, but don't do anything to make it distinct in the marketplace.

My theme was that in difficult times IT organizations can no longer try and be all things to all people: the supporter of cutting-edge imaging research, the hoster of mundane line-of-business apps, and the provider of common student and faculty apps (e.g., email and scheduling). Higher education IT organizations need to perform application triage, focusing on those most worth investing in and finding lower-cost places to move low-value software. Not surprisingly, I identified cloud computing as an excellent place to consider moving low-value software applications. These IT organizations no longer have the luxury (if, indeed, they ever really did) to provide universal coverage; instead of delivering a thin spread of inadequate applications to everyone, the reduced resources must be moved to the most needed areas of computing.


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