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Cloud Computing

Has the time come for classrooms in the cloud?

This is a contributed piece by Regina Murray, EMEA education director at Microsoft

A few years back Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), typically enabled via cloud computing, were held up as the ultimate disruptor of the education old guard, set to displace traditional universities and open up higher education for all.

As can often happen with exciting new innovations, MOOCs were regarded as a catch-all solution to many of the long-standing problems in the sector – but without proper consideration of potential stumbling blocks, such as the technological limitations of the time or the need to change mind-sets within the wider education community.

As such, the initial excitement cooled down.   

But today, we are seeing a measured embrace of MOOC due in part to technology innovation and forward-looking educators looking to drive change in the classroom. The improved sophistication of cloud services has played a major role in convincing doubters of the value MOOCs can offer. For example, advances in voice, video and audio tools mean that virtual communications are richer and more impactful. 

Further, the inherent flexibility of cloud-based solutions is also increasingly attractive to educational institutions: they can pay for only the services they need, and it’s easy to scale up or down based on demand. And whereas MOOCs might have been touted as being completely disruptive to traditional classroom learning, it is now recognised as a valued supplement. 

The other key factor driving adoption of MOOCs is the increased demand for higher education places: the EU2020, the EU's growth strategy for the coming decade, features a target of at least 40% attainment in tertiary education amongst 30-34 years olds (up from 36.9% in 2013). Remaining completely married to traditional classroom models and eschewing new virtual solutions would make satisfying these needs very challenging indeed.

As a result of these developments, the MOOC has successfully carved out a niche for itself in education, and the number of students benefitting from these courses is on the rise. According to European Commission’s (EC’s) MOOCs scoreboard, there were 770 Massive Open Online Courses across Europe with 68 new ones started in September 2014. Worldwide, there were 3,246 MOOCs in September 2014, with Europe being the home to 23% of MOOCs globally.    

This is welcome news when you consider Europe is also facing a skills deficit that will require an increasing number of workers with foundations in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. Illustrating the knock-on effect this can have on businesses, current EU predictions forecast as many as 900,000 unfilled ICT roles this year. Fortunately the European Commission reports that a large proportion of MOOCs (30%) available in Europe concentrate on these subjects.

The National University of Distance Education (UNED) is a prime example of a European institution successfully competing in the education space with a wide range of online learning courses. The largest public university and provider of virtual courses in Spain with over 242,000 students, UNED recently announced the migration of 1.2 million students and alumni accounts to the cloud with Microsoft Office 365.

The move means students are provided the best technological support for remote studying and collaboration, with virtually unlimited storage in the cloud, and instant messaging capabilities, enabling it to enhance the quality of training across its entire educational community. What’s more, students can also access some of the most advanced collaboration tools in the cloud, essential for many STEM subject courses, as well as guaranteed availability and flexibility, anywhere and via any device.

As with any deal for third party services, users of cloud services, regardless of sector, need to take the time to consider the ramifications for privacy and security. It is important to choose a service partner that will work with the customer to ensure the security of its infrastructure, as well as providing assurances that data will not be exploited for marketing or advertising purposes.

As technological advances continue to improve the viability of online learning, more institutions within the educational establishment will find themselves taking MOOCs seriously as an approach that can add real value to educational opportunities they can provide to students. Indeed, with Europe facing a variety of education and employment related challenges in the future, including an evolving labour market and rising matriculation rates, expect to see more of these traditional institutions turning to classrooms in the cloud.

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