5 characteristics of next-gen cloud technology

Leaders in cloud ed tech discuss what makes the best platform for institutions and their users.


“Innovation,” “scalability,” and “streamlining” are all great catch phrases when it comes to cloud technology in education, but what does it mean, and what is the technology behind the companies and universities developing best practices in cloud effectiveness?

According to two leaders in cloud-based higher ed-tech software, nothing beats  Amazon Web Services (AWS) functionality—and you may be surprised at just how many higher-ed institutions and platforms use AWS.

“Adoption across education is fairly high,” said Sri Elaprolu, manager of Solutions Architecture for AWS during the AWS Public Sector Symposium in D.C. “We have roughly 4,500 education institutions using AWS, which includes K-12 and higher education institutions, but also ed-tech companies. Just a handful of examples include Berkeley, Coursera, edX, 2U, San Francisco State University, Carnegie Mellon University, Harvard University and Notre Dame.)

One popular ed-tech company in higher ed, Instructure, whose offerings include Canvas LMS, Bridge and Canvas Network, attributes their success to AWS’ tech.

“Our mission when we started the company was to transform legacy LMS’ that didn’t talk to other systems,” explained Wade Billings, senior director of global IT shared services at Instructure. “We basically placed our entire infrastructure into AWS’ hands for testing and what we got was a platform that uses software to essentially make people smarter.”

According to Billings and Niranjan Nagar, CTO for Civitas Learning, there are five characteristics of Amazon Web Services’ functionality that create best-of-breed cloud solutions for higher-ed institutions and the companies that serve them:

(Next page: 5 characteristics of effective cloud tech)

(Listed in no particular order)

1. Allows for a culture of innovation: According to Elaprolu, one of the main reasons why the education sector is one of AWS’ largest adopters is because of AWS’ allowance for experimentation. “With AWS cloud computing, you can build IT solutions quickly and without a big up-front investment,” he explained. “Our free tier allows you to prototype virtually any application for free. With on-demand and reserved payment options and volume discounts, ed institutions and companies also have the flexibility to maximize savings for every type of application and usage pattern, allowing for lower entry costs, long term costs and move forward with more innovative projects.” In short, noted Elaprolu, “you can experiment often and fail without risk for any use case, such as for MOOCs, BYOD strategies, high-powered computing needs, data archival, data retrieval, LMS trials, et cetera.”

2. Security is an obsession: “Security is AWS’ number one priority, which is also our main priority,” said Billings. AWS is built in accordance with enterprise security best practices and any user, such as Instructure, can architect and audit configurations that deliver availability, resiliency, data and access protection, and a wide range of regulatory certifications and list of security-minded customers like NASDAQ and the US Department of the Treasury testify to AWS’ security protection. “With AWS, Instructure can conduct annual public security audits, monthly scans, as well as close critical issues in less than 24 hours and heartbleeds in less than 12 hours. We’re also SOC2 Type I and SOC2 Type II certified,” said Billings. For more on AWS’ security features, click here. For AWS’ newly released whitepaper on FERPA compliance, click here.

3. Works well with others: Instructure and Civitas Learning recently announced a partnership to offer better data sharing integration for institutions—a partnership Nagar says was influenced by AWS. “When two companies have AWS cloud capabilities, it’s a seamless transition to provide partner services,” he noted. “For example, say a vendor can offer cloud services for data integration and analytics, like Civitas Learning. If an institution doesn’t have an AWS-based platform, we can encrypt, secure and authenticate their data, but it takes time. But if they’re AWS-based, their data is ready to go. And if they require more services in the cloud, choosing vendors who have partnered with the same AWS platform further streamlines the transition.” In other words, working with AWS-based partner vendors “drives speed to value for institutions,” he concluded.

4. Has Millennials in mind: “Our customer base is essentially Millennials” said Billings, “so we have to have tech that can be personalized, mobile, and allow for 24/7 access. But what that also means is tending to the needs of the Millennial-driven institution, which makes sure its students get the most out of their postsecondary experience; so it’s also critical that data can speak across departments and services.” For example, Nagar discussed how Civitas Learning takes data from LMS’, CRMs, SIS’, Assessments and Admin to provide institutional mission-specific recommendations via predictive analytics. “Outcomes are becoming increasingly important, and therefore, so is the ability to best leverage data,” he said. “And AWS allows us to do this.”

5. Provides tools for every campus member: Furthering diving into AWS’ ability to collect, secure, and analyze data through high-powered computing via the cloud, Civitas Learning is able to provide data analytics platforms for all sectors of campus through specific products. For example, Illume is for admin and measures student retention via multiple factors, like financial aid. Inspire is for advisors and identifies students who may be at-risk. Inspire Faculty provides analysis on student engagement, and Degree Map offers students a data-backed map to help them reach their postsecondary goals.

“Using AWS’ cloud tech allows us to not only offer these features that are key to cloud tech success in higher-ed institutions,” concluded Billings, “but allows us to offer these features quickly and efficiently. In terms of numbers, our average page download is 400 ms, our SLA (uptime and availability) is 99.9 percent, and our MTTR (Mean Time To Repair) is 15 minutes. We wouldn’t be able to provide this type of service without AWS.”

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