After a rocky start, this is why institutions are finally leading the digital revolution

When it comes to higher education, digital and the cloud, institutions weren’t slow to adopt; the technology industry was slow to adapt.

Fifteen years ago, a myth began to circulate the education technology conversation. It contended that after decades spent leveraging software to enhance incredibly complex operations and experiences, higher education had become slow to adopt.

With the advent of the cloud, vendors began to see colleges and universities as too focused on maintaining arcane processes and too skeptical of the need to modernize – and the industry couldn’t understand why. Higher education’s student information systems were among the most advanced enterprise applications on the market. Its finance and HR systems were on par with their business world counterparts. And it had been an early adopter on everything from email to Internet access to social media.

So What Changed?

Not as much as one might think. Higher education has always, quite rightly, clung to its time-tested practices and procedures. And it has always, quite rightly, been unwilling to compromise those methods in favor of every shiny new solution that comes around. What changed is that vendors simply stopped paying attention to what colleges and universities really need. As such, it was never higher education that had become slow to adopt; it was the technology providers themselves who had become slow to adapt.

When cloud environments first became an option for higher education, the two seemed a perfect match. Students were becoming increasingly accustomed to a mobile, social, on-demand world. So why wouldn’t they want to register for classes, connect with faculty, buy books, or track their progress toward completion in the same ways they were purchasing music or keeping up with friends and family?

Moreover, the same was beginning to hold true for non-traditional students, professors, staff, and administrators. The cloud offered the next generation experience that all higher education constituents were coming to expect – and it enabled valuable physical resources to once again be devoted to scholarship, not servers.

So Why Was It a Non-Starter?

The problem was that providers were trying to force higher education’s round peg into a square hole. The cloud built for business simply didn’t account for the unique nature and highly-specialized needs of higher education – and it was easier to try to convince colleges and universities to change than it was to go back to the white board.

To higher education, the cloud was a monolith that respected neither the requirements nor the diversity of the community it was trying to serve. That means institutions were not only justified in shunning it; they were absolutely correct in their assertions that to jump right into a “rip and replace” for any one of their myriad systems would be irresponsible at best and downright reckless at worst. Institutions weren’t against the cloud in concept, they were opposed to its execution – so much so that some of them decided to build their own, such as the SUNY system in New York State.

“Cloud adoption for SUNY was a natural process, as we had a cloud deployment before cloud was even cool,” says Dave Powalyk, the CIO of SUNY System Administration. “The SUNY private cloud runs more than two-thirds of our ERP and LMS environments, while also providing remote technical administration to many of our 64 campuses. So it was never that higher education wasn’t eager to adopt cloud and leverage its many benefits; it was that providers weren’t offering a robust set of hybrid cloud services that made sense for higher education and enabled institutions to integrate their valuable campus-based services in a predictable, stable, and cost-effective manner.”

(Next page: A breakthrough for higher ed’s digital revolution)

The Digital Revolution

For years, this was the steady state. Then, a breakthrough: Those working to devise a cloud solution for higher education started listening to their prospective customers.

We stopped debating the merits of single or multi-tenant approaches; public or private hosting models; or the many other technical questions standing in their way. Instead, we shifted our attention to a simple question: How can we provide the real-world benefits of the cloud to diverse institutions with unique systems, regardless of whether the solution fits neatly into the tech industry’s preconceived notions of what the cloud is supposed to be?

Here in 2017, the result is a cloud that is tailor-made for the mission – and a wave of higher education migrations that are putting the “slow to adopt” myth to rest.

Institutions responsible for massive amounts of highly sensitive personal information now have the levels of security they need. Those who have become reliant on customizations or private databases – either because users love them or because they are necessary under particular regulatory regimes – can now keep those databases and still upgrade on a mass or cohort scale. They can scale up during periods of peak activity and scale down to conserve resources at other times on the academic calendar. And, all the while, users can enjoy consistent access to the latest features and functionality available today.

At the same time, SaaS software purpose-built the cloud is now available in the areas of HR, finance, student information, CRM, and analytics. Hybrid, on-premises, hosted and SaaS options are all on the table and have introduced flexibility into the equation. Pathways to the cloud have become more pliable for institutions that want to move at their own pace. And key infrastructure providers have partnered with vendors to ensure that institutions can migrate with the confidence that such a significant undertaking requires.

All of this is why we’re seeing more and more institutions move to the cloud in some shape or form – and why analysts such as Ovum predict that global higher education spending on cloud will be greater than $2.6 billion in 2021.

Because technology providers finally began to understand the fundamental differences that exist between business and higher education, a match made in heaven is finally coming to fruition. The cloud’s sliver lining is shining bright at last – and it’s inspiring colleges and universities to retake their rightful place as leaders of the digital revolution.

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