The Higher Educational Cloud Comes to American University

By Dave Swartz, VP and CIO And Kamalika Sandell, Associate CIO, American University

Dave Swartz, VP and CIO

Cloud-based services for Higher Education institutions provide the promise of addressing many of the challenges facing educational institutions. There are opportunities to reduce costs and risks and improve the speed of the development life cycle and experience of users. Yet, relative to other industries, Higher Education is lagging in the implementation of cloud-based services. This article provides a perspective of one higher education institution, American University, and its pathway to the cloud.

American University, located in Washington DC, is a mid-sized university with about 14,000 students and several thousand faculty and staff. It has been ranked in the top 70 universities with a growing focus on research and online education. It is notable that American is known as one of the greenest universities with carbon neutrality that was achieved in 2018. It is best known for its policy, law and international work, but recently has achieved strong growth in STEM areas such as neurosciences, environmental sciences and cyber. Being in Washington DC, it benefits from strong collaboration among area universities through consortium such as Internet2 and EDUCAUSE. This collaboration is at the heart of much of the success of higher education and when one institution experiences success from adoption of new technology, it quickly migrates to others. So, looking in detail at one university such as American can give you much insight into what is happening or likely to happen at others.

"As AU technology migrates to the cloud with data residing in different cloud-based services as well as on-premise, AU’s cybersecurity programs need to be matured to address the growing footprint and risks"

Most higher education institutions have moved to adopt some cloud-services, especially for consumer applications such as email, calendar and file sharing due to robust functionality and relatively low-cost of adoption from vendors such as Google and Microsoft. This is the case for American University which has been in the cloud for email and related services for a decade due to the very attractive services and economics. However, after this early adoption, not much happened in the cloud area for several years largely due to the economics. The first enterprise-class application to move to the cloud was the university’s critical learning management system (LMS) supporting classes and educational programs. AU’s adoption of cloud LMS had to do with reducing the complexity of ongoing operations, such as upgrades, and improving business continuity. AU has experienced good support for these enterprise services, and it has created a cloud 1st strategy where the preference is to host services in the cloud and only adopt services on-premises if deemed logically or fiscally not viable. Since these early entries into cloud, AU has now adopted cloud services for most newer applications such as online orientation systems, health management systems, scheduling systems, customer service management systems, and various analytics systems. Some large on-premise enterprise-class applications have also been migrated to the cloud, including customer relational management (CRM) for the entire student lifecycle of recruitment, student success, development and alumni services, housing application, and virtual computing to support student labs and access to libraries of software. More recently AU has adopted back-up services through a vendor that provides faster hassle-free backups that have the benefit of freedom from ransomware attacks against backup and recovery data.AU now has about 40% of university systems in the cloud.

Kamalika Sandell, Associate CIO, American University

Now to the future and the opportunities to consider in the next few years. The area with much potential is to move our ERP to the cloud. There is work that needs to proceed prior to this migration, including reduction of customizations and planning for modernizing business processes and preparing the campus to take on a project of this scope and magnitude. But the campus seems ready and willing to make this leap into the future to help improve efficiency and effectiveness that modern cloud-base ERPs can provide. Another big area under consideration is Business Intelligence. With many enterprise systems moving to the cloud AU -needs to consider a data architecture that can leverage access to distributed data and provide secure and reliable interfaces.

As AU technology migrates to the cloud with data residing in different cloud-based services as well as on-premise, AU’s cybersecurity programs need to be matured to address the growing footprint and risks. There are opportunities to enlist cyber support from cloud-based managed services such as identity management services. One of the risks institutions like AU face is not being able to recruit and retain the cyber expertise needed. Managed services can provide more depth to augment on campus resources as well as provide an integrated “one-pane” of glass to monitor the distributed systems and data 24x7. The importance of this to universities should not be underestimated as these cyber providers can leverage economies of scale and bring a wealth of capabilities to a university to help address the growing cyber risks. Another opportunity is for universities to build consortium and share resources.

Some additional considerations underway is to look at the staff expertise and training needed to leverage the cloud, as well as the changing roles of current staff. For example, AU saw the need for a cloud architect to combine activities and planning under a clearly defined cloud architecture. Operating costs tend to be higher for cloud, but the improved reliability and services, reduced capital costs for equipment and staff need to be considered as well, especially the reduced risks of recruiting and retaining the staff needed. Often there will be transitional costs of maintaining on-premise systems while moving to the cloud, so it may take some time to see the full ROI expected, but so far AU is very pleased and committed to embracing the cloud.

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