Cloud computing could be a tool in raising college retention rates.

IBM’s latest cloud-based services could give university IT chiefs new ways to analyze student and institutional performance just months after a majority of higher-education respondents admitted confusion about what, exactly, cloud computing is.

The IBM SmartCloud for Education, announced by the company June 2, uses advanced predictive analysis software – known as SPSS – that would let campus IT officials identify at-risk students in real time, serving as a technological tool in battling decreasing retention rates in higher education.

The cloud computing program is also available for K-12 schools.

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IBM’s SmartCloud also comes with a social networking feature that connects colleges and universities scouring the web for grants and funding opportunities that have proven vital as administrators trim operating budgets during the economic downturn.

The predictive software helped one institution predict a student would drop out of his or her classes with 80 percent certainty using the cloud-based system’s “pre-defined, user-friendly, and web-based modeling,” according to an IBM release. The institution was not named in the release.

The University of Rhode Island’s (URI) College of Pharmacy is using IBM’s cloud service to plan and manage academic research requiring millions in government and private grants.

URI, for example, is running a $42 million federal biomedical science research program that required careful tracking and up-to-date analysis.

IBM’s cloud-based social networking function gives URI researchers shared information about funding opportunities that could jumpstart research undertakings that aren’t yet funded.

Much of campus IT is moving to off-campus servers – boosting storage space and saving money – despite security concerns raised by educators skeptical of outsourcing data storage.

However, many in higher education are unclear about why colleges are using the technology, or exactly how their campus employs cloud resources, according to a survey conducted by Norwich University’s School of Graduate and Continuing Studies, which included responses from colleges, universities, and federal, local, and municipal government employees.

Sixty-four percent of respondents said they were confused about the differences between cloud computing and virtualization, according to the survey.

Still, optimism about cloud computing’s potential was high among respondents in education and government agencies, although few on campus supported the idea of a private cloud computing model.

Only 18 percent of higher education respondents said a private model – rather than a publicly available system – “would best meet their organization‘s needs.”

Sixty percent of higher education survey respondents said they would support the creation of a “national higher education cloud” available to all U.S. campuses. The same percentage agreed that such a cloud model would encourage “intra-institutional collaboration.”

IT decision makers have long questioned the security of cloud computing, with some schools – such as Yale – delaying conversions to Google’s eMail system.

About one in three campus respondents “believe that the vulnerability of cloud computing and on-campus hosting are relatively equivalent,” according to the Norwich survey.

Some prominent campus technologists have argued against cloud computing adoption throughout higher education.

At the 2009 EDUCAUSE conference in Denever, Melissa Woo, director of cyber infrastructure at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, argued against unquestioned acceptance of cloud computing in higher education, pointing out glaring weaknesses in the cloud system.

“Where [are] our student data being stored? Where [are] our research data being stored?” Woo said. “These are all risks we need to mitigate.”

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